"It's chaos. It's nice chaos, though. I like it."

As the man who outfits Penn for Commencement, Bill Petrick gets to meet dignitaries and celebrities. But he takes the greatest pride in helping people through a hectic experience.

Photo by Candace diCarlo


Graduation Coordinator, University of Pennsylvania Book Store
Length of service:
52 years
Other stuff:
When he's not orchestrating cap and gown orders, he acts as the "landlord" for the four tenants in the University Book Store's present space.

Ordering and distributing thousands of academic costumes for Penn's Commencement is akin to plotting a military invasion, so it ought to come as no surprise that Penn continues to rely on a seasoned veteran to plot the logistics. When Bill Petrick started working at the University Book Store in 1946, it had a staff of 12 and salesclerks served customers from counters. The staff is much larger now, and customers serve themselves, but the way Petrick prepares for the annual cap and gown onslaught hasn't changed much in 52 years, save for getting bigger.

Petrick officially retired from his post as assistant director for operations at the Book Store when Barnes & Noble took over operations, but Penn asked him to stay on especially to handle Commencement, a task which he still performs with relish.

Q. How many caps and gowns do you handle a year now?
Now, I guess we have about 5,000 students graduating. But we have many graduations -- that's 5,000 now [May], but come August, there might be another 120 or so for graduate school in nursing, and September is the opening of school again, and we have faculty members wearing caps and gowns [for freshman convocation], and at Christmastime we have candlelight services. And that 5,000 figure doesn't even count the Trustees and faculty. Plus, I custom-make -- I guess this year I did about 60.

Q. Who gets custom-made gowns?
The only ones who should get them are the ones in the academic field. The faculty are invited to participate in many convocations here -- some years it's been as many as five. So when you're asked to participate, it's not likely that they're going to pay for your rental -- you have to pay for it.
You weigh the situation. If you're paying $30 to rent a Ph.D. gown, and it's going to cost you anywhere from $550 to $800 to buy one, long-term, it would pay to have your own made. And that's what most of them do.

Q. How long does it take to place the orders, get the gowns and distribute them for the big graduation exercise?
I start in January, because I do this alone -- the part of it that's coordinating, meeting with the suppliers to decide on a rental fee. We put a cutoff date kind of early for the students, like March 6, because then I need to concentrate on the faculty, the dignitaries, the honorary recipients like Carter and Greenspan -- the University gives them an honorary hood, and I have engraved on leather inside each hood their name and which graduation, and those you don't make mistakes with. They have to be right.

Q. What would you consider the most interesting dignitary you had to deal with?
[Bill] Cosby. Loved the guy. I sent him a sweatshirt from Penn, and he wore it on his show.
   Candace Bergen -- I remember when she was here as a student, and she was here maybe a couple of years ago, and they gave her an honorary degree because, you know, she dropped out.
   But one of the nicest ones was Hillary Clinton. They wanted to lock her up down at [Franklin Field] because of security reasons; she wanted no part of that. She came right over [to the robing room in the Annenberg Center] to get dressed and she marched from here all the way down to the field. And she was as gracious as could be. Absolutely lovely. But Cosby -- he's cool. He's a nice guy.

Q. Were you involved in getting Cosby the letter jacket they gave him when he spoke here the second time?
I had the jacket made for him and I had, oh, two or three hats made for him. And they must have told him, because he gave me a wink. He probably knew. Now, when I say I had it made for him, I didn't make it for him personally; the Office of the Secretary requested it, so I made a few calls and that way got it done. He loved it. He really did. Did you ever meet him?

Q. Actually, I think the only Commencement speaker I've spoken to at all was Tom Brokaw.
I don't think he was too friendly; I thought he was kind of standoffish. But that's my opinion. When these kinds of people come, I like to meet them, but I get so busy with other things -- a lot of faculty members coming in that didn't order, or they got the wrong color, or the wrong hat...

Q. How do you deal with a situation like that, where they pop up at the last minute and need a gown?
I've spoiled them. They know that I will have extras there. And at that time, they're going to be whatever I have. The gowns are the same, okay? I used to carry a large number of bachelor of science [hoods], bachelor of arts, bachelor of this, bachelor of that, and then master's, the same thing, which is ridiculous. So I go heavily on Ph.D's. I mean, if you have a Ph.D., and the only thing I have left is a bachelor of science, then you'll be insulted. But if I give you a Ph.D., you're not going to be insulted.

Originally published on May 28, 1998