UM guardians of diplomas have made last checks

May 24, 1991|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,Sun Staff Correspondent

COLLEGE PARK -- Short names. Long names. Maryland names. Names that make serious people giggle in the privacy of their offices.

Names are important to Cornelia Goodwin and Dorothy McIntire, who have spent the past 20 years at the University of Maryland in College Park checking the names on each student's diploma and making sure they actually earned it.

Most of the students they have never met. But they utter their names in a special language: Brian with an I. Anne with an E. Gayle with a Y. They watch them become famous and infamous.

"It gets to the point where all names are familiar," says Mrs. Goodwin, who with her co-worker has hand-checked 150,000 diplomas since she began in 1968.

Diplomas for most of the 3,555 graduates whose names were called at commencement yesterday won't be mailed until summer, when Mrs. Goodwin and Mrs. McIntire -- who were recognized along with the graduates -- will have joined their husbands in retirement. They checked the transcript of their last graduate and matched their last black-and-gold chevron doctoral hood with the right diploma this week.

To Mrs. Goodwin and Mrs. McIntire, diplomas are not just pieces of paper.

As the custodians of standards and tradition at College Park for nearly a quarter-century, they take pride in accomplishments of students. Getting word of last-minute undergraduate honors to the dean in time to announce them at graduation is a joyous part of their job -- students "have shown initiative," Mrs. Goodwin said. And they are just as happy about the prodigal son who calls to say he has finished the last three credits after 10 years. "They're usually calling from California," Mrs. McIntire said.

During their careers, they have guarded the College Park diploma against quacks in search of legitimacy and trends bound for obscurity. They have remade it for victims of fires and floods and sworn by it for foreign governments who want official stamps.

The diploma office is a security blanket for the deans, who have responsibility for academic clearance of students. When a double-check of credentials raises questions, Mrs. Goodwin and Mrs. McIntire swiftly but tactfully notify the deans. Inevitably, there are students who don't make it to graduation. "This is a temporary thing," they tell students. "It's not the end of the world. You can come back."

To them, the diploma is a symbol of integrity. "This is what it means to us: Nobody has manipulated anything," Mrs. McIntire said. Alter the record? "That would be unthinkable," Mrs. Goodwin said. "Unthinkable." Their own children's names were checked by someone else.

Guarding the authenticity of a college degree extends to the piece of paper itself.

In the 1960s, Mrs. Goodwin and Mrs. McIntire fended off a movement by students who, when they acceded to a graduation rite at all, insisted their names be listed on diplomas in lower-case letters in the style of poet e.e. cummings.

In the height of the flower power movement, one student asked to decorate her diploma with roses. "Everybody wants to do their thing," said Mrs. McIntire. The women told the student to draw her own roses.

Usually, their office has a happy air. But for a time, students denounced the graduation ceremony along with the Establishment and came in to say they wouldn't be attending. "That attitude was very hurtful to us," Mrs. Goodwin said. "But you don't take the bait. You don't rise to it."

Today, tradition is back in vogue. The 360-degree change is reflected not only in the number of people who go to the graduation ceremony but in students' concerns about getting tickets for two sets of parents in extended families. "We are very pleased," Mrs. Goodwin said.

Their records are a snapshot of society. A student with a long break in attendance in the 1960s who "dug right in" when he returned was often a Vietnam veteran. In the 1980s, the long break represented a woman with grown children. "They usually do very well academically," Mrs. McIntire said.

In between, fields of study followed the job market -- computer science is out, education and English are back, and would-be doctors who once almost always studied microbiology now are found in the liberal arts.

Among the names they have seen become famous are the late Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets, Connie Chung, the television newscaster, and Judith Resnick, the Challenger astronaut.

To Mrs. Goodwin and Mrs. McIntire, the death of Dr. Resnick in the Challenger explosion, who earned her doctorate in engineering at College Park, was a personal loss. They remembered her immediately as a cheerful woman with bouncing black curls. "She was a sweetie, so vivacious. . . ," Mrs. McIntire said.

As for the infamous, names are not disclosed, but the women say, yes, a few have ended up in jail.

There was a time when Mrs. Goodwin and Mrs. McIntire hand-rolled diplomas and tied them with string, putting names in pencil on the outside. Now they roll them in double-lined tubes of heavy cardboard for mailing.

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