When the Commencement Speaker is the Photographer


UPAA Blog 2022-23 #20 - 5/25/23 (text by Rooney Coffman, photos by Pam Halverson)

UPAA member Rooney Coffman is a 1968 graduate of St. Andrews University in Laurinburg, North Carolina. With a fresh B.A. in Chemistry and a teaching license, he began his career journey at his Alma Mater as Director of Logistics, a job he still holds today. Since 1985, he has also served as the St. Andrews University Photographer. Earlier this month Rooney found himself in the unusual position of not being the graduation photographer, but instead being the graduation speaker. -Ed.


I wear several hats at St. Andrews University, a small college (750 students) in North Carolina. The reality is that resources of a small college cannot justify a full-time photographer. In 1985, I was named Director of Photography in addition to Director of Logistics and have handled the school’s photographic needs to this day. This year I found myself in a position where I could not do the photography for graduation. Why? Believe it or not, the photographer was named to be the keynote speaker for graduation. A very unusual position for a person who is normally in the background. My guess is this is a first for a UPAA member.  

The theme for the speech was excellence. Always do your best. Excellence is rewarded.  

I had roughly 3 weeks between learning I would be the graduation speaker and the ceremony. I spent roughly a week simply jotting down thoughts on note cards before I focused on excellence. I included examples of faculty and students who achieved success because they always did their best.  They are also people I worked with or worked for me as a students. Actual names were not used, but there is a real person behind every example.


St. Andrews graduates

I wrote the speech myself but had a friend who once worked as an editor help refine the final product and she did a great job refining it.  The speech ran about 10 minutes which just fit the maximum length suggested. It seem to take forever when I was practicing it, but time passed very quickly when I delivered it. I even look back at it afterwards to see if I missed a page.

This was the largest group I have ever presented to. As a person who stays behind the scenes and handles the details to make things work it was a frightening idea to be on the stage. The fact that I was able to have speech ready a week ahead help build my confidence plus the two people who looked over it felt it was good. My big worry was not to lose my place and leave something out. I had some of the faculty give me a standing ovation.


President Dr. Tarun Malik shakes Rooney's hand as he approaches the podium. "For me, success has not been about the money," Rooney said in his speech, "Nor do I measure success by titles and promotions. I started as Director of Logistics; I am still Director of Logistics. Rather, success has been doing the job to the best of my ability and striving to let the quality of work and the authenticity of my actions speak for themselves."

I did not make a photo from the podium. The thought had crossed my mind, but I did not want to be carrying a DSLR in the procession. I had a small digital camera with me when the procession started. I passed it to a friend when they told me they were having trouble with their camera. I did take several photos with my phone from where I was seated on the platform.

It turns out that the school has very few photos of graduation since I was tied up. Most of the photos we have were taken by a friend of mine who rarely uses a camera. I picked the spot for the camera and the lens. 

I don’t normally wave my flag to brag, but this was a once in a lifetime event. I would never have pictured myself as a graduation speaker at any level let alone a college graduation. I don’t speak to groups of 50 people let alone go on stage in front of 1500 people.


"Why did the scarecrow get an honorary degree? Because he was out standing in his field!" Thanks for reading the UPAA blog. We love suggestions and submissions. (This one was submitted, thanks!) Send 'em to editor Matt Cashore, mcashore@nd.edu. And of course, follow UPAA on Instagram!