Twenty-four years later, it was with mixed emotions
that I took a cab from downtown Pittsburgh to
the CMU campus—a place I hadn’t set
foot in since completing my MFA (Music). I couldn’t
attend graduation as I had concerts to conduct
in my native Canada.
But during the interim, there was one piece left
in my post-graduate puzzle: the diploma!
Through work-study and tuition remission, I was
able to make the economics of an out-of-country
education work. Technically speaking, I was a
mature student, although anyone who witnessed
my pledging activities to Phi Mu Alpha would certainly
dispute that assertion (and I thought the paddle
was only used as a signature board!).
A few months after returning home and getting
used to beer that actually contained alcohol,
I received an invoice from CMU administration
advising me that my account was overdue: pay up
or no diploma. I hauled out my abacus, checked
my sums twice and concluded that some transactions
had yet to be entered&emdash;the next batch posting
would settle my affairs.
The threatening letter from the collection agency
was light on detail. “Remit in full at once,
or legal proceedings will begin,” it demanded
now over a year after my departure. Unravelling
the symphonies of Beethoven seemed a more appropriate
use of my time.
“We’ll be sending this to small claims
court,” barked the pit-bull customer service
rep, having successfully interrupted my dinner.
“Make sure my trial won’t be on a Tuesday,
I’ve a regular out-of-town engagement,”
I replied as I hung up. Unable to provide any
description of the US$150 in dispute, I was determined
to make my point in court that this situation
was now more harassment than debt.
No summons arrived and nothing further from the
collectors or my Alma Mater—on to Shostakovitch.
A decade or so later, I received an alumni appeal
in the mail. This was a good sign—surely
I wouldn’t have been solicited if I hadn’t
graduated. Perhaps an exchange could be brokered:
donation for diploma. By now a member of the Canadian
Association of Gift Planners and an advisor to
charities (music-making took the form of writing
and producing television specials), I realized
that such a transaction would be delicate for
“a charitable gift cannot be made if there
is any tangible benefit to the donor.”
“Hmmm … what is a diploma’s nominal
value?” I wondered as I e-mailed the CMU
Alumni Department. Initially my spirits were buoyed:
“No problem, Mr. Wegg, we’ll look into
your case immediately,” came the electronic
I hoped it would be sooner than later, as around
this time, some of our politicians were found
to have bogus résumés, causing much
embarrassment (but never a resignation—that
was left to the voters). My C.V. included the
MFA: What if an over-zealous administrator actually
checked it out, or demanded proof of my higher
learning? I quivered at the thought!
Unfortunately, my anxiety wasn’t relieved
anytime soon. I’d inquire once in a while.
“We’re working on it.” More time
passed. “Amy’s no longer working here.”
Just in case, I held on to the donation pitches
and the alumni magazine, hoping those would be
accepted into evidence if the validity of my education
was ever questioned. And by now my artistic muse
had morphed from sounds to words, so it wasn’t
likely that potential editors or clients would
demand to know if I’d actually completed
the twentieth century music seminar on Olivier Messiaen’s
Quatuor pour la fin du Temps.
It fell to my membership in the Music Critics
Association of North America to finally settle
this mystery once and for all: its 2004 Annual
Conference was slated for Pittsburgh—La Forza
Having stood one more time in Kresge Recital
Hall, awash in the memory of Robert Page’s
electric leadership as he conducted a run of West
Side Story where I played saxophone in the—literally—behind the scenes pit band, I sauntered across The Cut
to Warner Hall, eager to legitimize my degree.
But with Kafkaesque coincidence, the building
was a wreck—decades-old asbestos driving
the renovation plan. Nonetheless, the top floor
was accessible. What better time to meet the President,
I thought, holding my breath ‘til the elevator
finished its climb.
“All alumni staff have moved to the lower
level of the University Center,” replied
the cheery gatekeeper of the executive suite.
“I’m sure they can help!”
I bounced over to what I remembered as Skibo
Hall and descended its depths via the bookstore,
knowing victory was at hand.
Twice explaining my plight to the pleasant receptionist
and ever-helpful manager of student affairs, I
learned that my diploma existed, but by moving
the alumni office for the cleanup, its whereabouts
wouldn’t be easily traced. “Try Alumni
House, I’m sure they can help!”
Now emotionally drained, I staggered over to
5017 Forbes Avenue more expecting to be hit up
by a development officer than getting intellectual
closure to my days at the College of Fine Arts.
I soon learned that some of the staff and all
of the records had been shipped off to rented
quarters downtown. For the fifth time that afternoon
I repeated my story (now to Linda Wright who listened
attentively on the phone from her temporary office,
located just a few blocks from my hotel).
“Because of our relocation, there are boxes
we haven’t touched in years not far from
my desk. May I put you on hold?, she offered.
Like modern air travel, I had already reduced
my expectations, content in the knowledge that
my graduation was no longer in doubt and that
a modern-day super-sized diploma could be ordered.
“S. James Wegg?” I don’t usually
cheer at the mention of my name, but hearing it
from Linda produced a shriek of joy in the Alumni
House foyer that hadn’t been heard since
the last bequest arrived.
Nearly a quarter of a century had passed, but
the wee parchment of accomplishment would be in
my possession within the hour. By the time I had
returned to the hotel, there was an envelope waiting
for me at the desk: Ms. Wright had taken the unnecessary,
but hugely appreciated step of delivering it in
person—Merci mille fois!
Now an official alumnus, I fully
expect to respond appropriately to the next request
What else can I say, except that
my professional instincts as a critic have kicked
in; the current student affairs and alumni staff
have performed exceptionally well.