UND’s ‘Mr. Commencement’ takes his final bow
Friday’s commencement was the last of Fred Wittmann’s 44-year University career
Having orchestrated more than 130 commencement ceremonies over the past 22 years at the University of North Dakota, Fred Wittmann thought his grand finale – the University’s winter commencement on Friday – might be a piece of cake.
Wittmann, UND’s director of ceremonies and university events, plans to retire next month after a 50-year association with the University that began in 1973 as a freshman student. Unfortunately, Mother Nature intruded to make his last commencement ceremony a real doozy.
The winter storm forecast a week earlier arrived just in time to shut down UND for two days. This not only disrupted finals week exams, but also threw a monkey wrench into the planning and preparation for UND’s commencement activities.
“Many people don’t realize that when one thing changes, it can create a chain reaction that causes four or five other things to change,” Wittmann explained. “It’s the difference between turning a Jet Ski around and turning a battleship around.”
There were speakers, technicians, musicians and parents and relatives of graduating students whose travel plans were suddenly disrupted by the weather. Something as simple as getting a cap and gown to a graduating student suddenly became a big problem.
Even though it meant holding the graduate and undergraduate commencement ceremonies at the Chester Fritz Auditorium on one day rather than the customary two days, Wittmann and his team improvised to make it happen.
As Wittmann noted, “The most important thing is making commencement a positive experience for the students. It’s what they’re here for and it’s UND’s opportunity to celebrate them.”
Wittmann grew up on a farm near Wheatland in southeastern North Dakota and graduated from high school in Casselton, N.D. Shortly after coming to UND, he took a part-time job on campus, doing office work and leading tours for incoming students and their parents.
One of those tours included his future wife, MaryLou. They’ve been married 45 years and have two daughters, Chelsea and Karina.
After earning his bachelor’s degree in psychology and beginning his master’s degree in counseling, Wittmann in 1978 took a full-time job in UND’s Division of Continuing Education as a conference coordinator. He teamed up with Dawn Botsford, UND’s events coordinator who retired in 2018, to travel around the state conducting conferences for various professional organizations engaged in lifelong learning.
“We filled up a big van with equipment and materials and headed out to Minot or Bismarck – sometimes on bad roads,” Wittmann remembered.
Occasionally they put on conferences in neighboring states, but Wittmann said one event that stands out was their one and only international conference in Prague of the Czech Republic for UND’s Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC). It was in 1992, shortly after the Iron Curtain fell and eastern European countries were seeking technical solutions for their environmental problems.
“We had several taxis in front of our hotel loaded with equipment going over to the convention center,” Wittmann said. “I got into one of the cabs and the driver immediately took off. I couldn’t speak Czech and he couldn’t speak English. I had no idea if we were going where we were supposed to go.”
Fortunately, rather than being kidnapped, Wittmann and the equipment ended up in the correct location.
It took some time for Wittmann’s group to evolve into what it’s become today in the Division of Marketing & Communications. He credits Bob Boyd, who became dean of continuing education before retiring as vice president emeritus for student and outreach services, with recognizing the need for an office and team to coordinate the University’s multitude of special events.
When the question was raised about the name and function of the office, Wittman said, “I went to Bob and asked how we should answer this.
“He said, ‘Put something together.’ I wrote up a two-page proposal on creating a designated office, where it would fit into the organization and what its responsibilities would be,” he recalled. “It was easy to do because it wasn’t much different from what we were already doing.”
Boyd and then UND President Charles Kupchella approved the proposal.
“It was in 2004 that the office of ceremonies and university events was officially hatched,” Wittmann said.
The office plans and runs a wide variety of UND events, including Founders Day, Feast of Nations, bus tours for new faculty and administrators, the University’s 125th anniversary in 2008, presidential inaugurations, UND day with the Minnesota Twins, groundbreakings and building dedications and Wake Up to UND – practically anything that involves UND traditions and protocols.
“Fred just has that fount of institutional knowledge that is absolutely irreplaceable,” said Jan Orvik, an editor in the Marketing & Communications Division who retired this year after 30 years at UND.
“When I had a question about commencement or other events for a news release, he always had time to talk to me, plus find out how my family was doing and how I was doing,” she recalled. “You walked away with a wonderful quote and the information you needed.”
Wittmann became best known as UND’s go-to person for planning, organizing and coordinating commencement events, which cover undergraduates, graduates, the School of Law and the School of Medicine & Health Sciences. A 2018 Grand Forks Herald article called him “UND’s own ‘Mr. Commencement,’ saying that he “put the pomp and circumstance into graduation ceremonies.”
One of Wittmann’s most memorable commencements occurred in 2005 when former NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe gave a keynote address that included comments from a U.S. astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut, who were orbiting the earth in the International Space Station.
“After speaking for a few minutes, the astronaut told the audience to look up at 10:30 that night and they’d see a little blip of a light in the northeastern sky. ‘Wave to us,’” he asked.
“People just sat there like: ‘Did that really happen?’” Wittmann related.
On Dec. 8, a reception was held for Wittmann at the Gorecki Alumni Center, attended by his friends, colleagues, family and relatives. It included video comments from former UND presidents Kendall Baker and Robert Kelley.
President Andrew Armacost recalled how Wittmann was the first person from UND he and his wife Kathy met when they arrived at the Grand Forks airport as part of the University’s presidential search process in 2019. It was a task Wittmann fulfilled for many first-time visits from presidential, dean and vice presidential candidates.
“Fred was there with a smile and a kind word,” Armacost noted. “He asked us how our flight was and then proceeded to take extraordinary care of us for the next couple of days.
“Over the two and a half years I’ve served as president, I’ve seen that in action in so many ways,” Armacost continued. “Fred is a steady source of advice and mentorship, a steady source of wisdom and has a commitment to pure excellence about how we honor the people of this campus.”
Reflecting on his 44-year career at UND, Wittmann said he’s identified a common thread connecting his experiences.
“Whether it’s been as a student tour guide, as someone in continuing education doing conference planning or it’s been in running ceremonies and events, the common thread is developing and creating a positive experience for people.
“You want that environment to be nice and that experience to be positive,” said. “It’s creating the positive experience that we work very hard to accomplish.”