Marcus Jackson/About Town: UI's events chief can relax — soon

Marcus Jackson/About Town: UI's events chief can relax — soon

Hear from commencement speaker Nick Offerman Thursday at 4:20 on WDWS.

CHAMPAIGN — As the person in charge of Saturday's University of Illinois commencement, Laura Wilhelm-Barr began preparations last June to make sure the event goes off without a hitch.

So it would be understandable if the UI's director of special events went home Saturday evening to indulge in an adult beverage to unwind from the 11-month whirlwind. That's not her style, though, and she's got something more important to do.

"I might just go to bed early and relax," Wilhelm-Barr said.

Planning all the details for a commencement featuring 5,000 students and an expected 20,000 attendees is a year-round job, but it's especially taxing during this week, the one leading up to the big day. Wilhelm-Barr, along with staffers Anna Simon, Lori Frost and Jodi Ferris, have arrived at Memorial Stadium as early as 5:30 a.m. some days this week and haven't hit the road until as late as 7:30 p.m.

"I don't sleep well leading up to it," Wilhelm-Barr said, "but that's to be expected of an event this size."

Folks entering Memorial Stadium on Saturday will notice the massive stage in front of the stands on the east side, the white Terraplass flooring covering the football field, the white chairs lined up perfectly on top of it, the tents all around offering shade and the many other small details that go into making a commencement exercise look effortless.

Still, no matter how cool and carefree Wilhelm-Barr might have seemed on Wednesday afternoon, it's taken plenty of effort. And as far as the things they can control — seating, programs, lining up graduates and faculty in the right places — there are no worries from Wilhelm-Barr's end that everything will be fine.

But May weather in the Midwest can be unpredictable, and part of Wilhelm-Barr's job is to have contingency plans in place in the event that the forecast turns gloomy.

"We have over 5,000 ponchos ready for the graduates and the faculty in case it rains," she said.

A script that shortens the graduation from two and a half hours to 90 minutes is enacted if it rains. And should severe weather — high winds, lightning — hit the area within 8 miles of Memorial Stadium "we cancel," Wilhelm-Barr said.

A native of Villa Grove, Wilhelm-Barr graduated from the UI in 1993 (the same year as Saturday commencement speaker Nick Offerman) with a degree in English. She remembers her commencement exercise at State Farm Center — "Marian Wright Edelman was our speaker" — as well as the English department's convocation at Huff Hall.

Oh yeah, she's responsible now for helping coordinate as many as 40 different departmental convocations over the course of this weekend, too.

Wilhelm-Barr initially worked for a publishing company with designs on being an editor. But she "fell in" to conference and event planning and has been doing that type of work for the last two decades. She's been at the UI for 21 years, initially working in the chancellor's office for special events as a system director. She's been in her current role for four years, and Saturday will be the eighth commencement ceremony that she's had a part in coordinating.

Wilhelm-Barr will begin Saturday in the recruiting lounge behind the north end zone at Memorial Stadium, where the deans, chancellor and other UI faculty will congregate to get dressed in their regalia.

Then she'll head outside in her headset, where she has a direct line to the band director and someone on stage to give cues.

"I'm strict about starting on time and getting everybody lined up," she said. "There's kind of a lot of stuff to communicate."

And when it's all over, the graduates will head off to celebrate with their families, and the faculty and staff will return their gowns and get back to their research or other duties. Few will seek out the woman walking around wearing the headset, making sure everything has gone off without a hitch.

But that doesn't bother Wilhelm-Barr.

"I'm behind the scenes, I'd rather it be that way," she said. "I would not want to be the person at the podium. I'm much better behind the stage and working on the details."

And she will be back at it Monday evaluating the event while looking ahead to 2018's ceremony. The fun never ends.

Marcus Jackson is The News-Gazette's community reporter. Follow him on Twitter (@MarcusJ_NG) or contact him by email (mjackson@news-gazette.com) or phone (217-351-5604).

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