~By Jefferson Beavers, communication specialist, Department of English
English Department faculty Chris Henson served as grand marshal and mace-bearer for Fresno State’s 108th Commencement on May 18.
The ceremonial honor — and with it, the role of leading the University’s faculty delegation onto the Save Mart Center floor, to celebrate a record 6,200 graduating students — recognizes Dr. Henson as being among the longest-tenured faculty on campus.
Henson, a specialist in 20th Century American literature and modern world literatures, began teaching at Fresno State in 1984. She taught for many years alongside her husband, Dr. Eugene Zumwalt, a professor emeritus of English who taught at the University from 1959-1999.
“I’m ambivalent about the honor of being the grand marshal,” Henson said. “It’s hard to believe that I’ve been on the campus for 35 years. I don’t really want to be one of the ‘old fogies.’ Eugene would say ‘old farts.’ ”
Henson said she hoped there was at least one other senior faculty in front of her who may have declined the honor.
“At the same time, I feel deeply connected to the students and faculty at Fresno State,” Henson said. “It is a real honor to lead the faculty procession at Commencement. And I love seeing the joy and pride on the faces of the graduates and their families. I know how hard they have worked and all the difficulties they have faced in balancing their classes with work and family obligations.”
Henson fondly remembers her own graduation from Topeka West High School in Kansas, where her father worked as the principal. When she walked across the stage, her dad stepped forward to present her diploma — with a big hug.
“That was a wonderful moment,” Henson said. “Later, when I received my Ph.D. from the University of Kansas, my parents bought me my academic regalia. So whenever I attend the Fresno State Commencement and the College of Arts and Humanities Convocation, I think of them when I don the regalia.”
As grand marshal, bearing the mace — the ornamented wood staff carried by the Commencement ceremony’s senior faculty member — carried added significance for Henson. Her husband served as the ceremony’s grand marshal and mace-bearer at least three times before his retirement. Zumwalt was back in attendance this year to watch Henson march in.
“Eugene has a long and complicated past on this campus, and when he was asked to be the grand marshal it was a kind of vindication,” said Henson, referring to Zumwalt’s role in the campus’ post-Civil Rights Movement struggles that were documented in the 1979 Kenneth A. Seib book, “The Slow Death of Fresno State,” published by the Fresno Free College Foundation.
Henson said Zumwalt’s bearing of the ceremonial mace meant that “he had outlasted all the administrators who, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, had reacted so strongly against those who worked to diversify the student body and the faculty, who spoke out against the Vietnam War, who insisted that no one should be fired without due process. He outlasted those who seized the English Department office and who deposed him as department chair. He completed a 40-year career as a dedicated teacher and scholar and also as someone who truly believed in faculty governance.”
The unexpected honor of bearing the ceremonial mace gave Henson a chance for something unexpected.
“I have a terrific photo of Eugene standing on the stage, holding the mace,” she said. “So I’m hoping someone will get a photo of me in the same place, and we’ll put the two pictures side by side.”
In addition to the personal significance of the 108th Commencement, Henson hopes that Fresno State’s largest collection of graduates find meaningful work they are passionate about, and find ways to keep that passion alive throughout their travels.
“Love and appreciate friends and family and take care of them in all the ways you can,” she said.