Management and the Occasional Magic: Graham Park, director of the Office of Special Events, delivers a personal interface between Pitt and the public

Issue Date: 
March 15, 2010
Graham Park pauses while walking her rescue dogs in Frick Park, Point Breeze.Graham Park pauses while walking her rescue dogs in Frick Park, Point Breeze.

Graham Park, director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Office of Special Events, has an eye for detail and a mind for the big picture.

In her position at the forefront—and behind the scenes—of providing a warm, personal interface between Pitt and the public, Park and her team plan and implement some 200 receptions, dinners, and other other public gatherings across campus every year. Their charge: to ensure that the events portray and reflect the University’s high standing as an academic institution and as a key economic engine within this region while at the same time displaying its creative and human side.

Park works closely with Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg’s office in planning a number of the University’s larger events. The University’s three annual signature events—Commencement, Honors Convocation, and Freshman Convocation—are Park’s biggest.Other high-profile occasions that she oversees include the annual Legacy Laureate awards dinner, which honors Pitt’s  outstanding alumni, and the Cathedral of Learning Society dinner, held to honor alumni or friends who have donated $1 million or more to Pitt.

Yes, Park and her team consider the usual decorative elements that help make an occasion memorable, but the scope of Park’s event planning is far broader. “Before we get to those creative details, we assess the programming, the complexity of the event, and the accomplishments that we want to achieve with the event. We do projections and benchmarking, and we look into resources and examples of similar events,” she explained.

In a capsule, Park says, “my team and I are researchers, project managers, accountants, and, at times, magicians.”

If all goes as planned, the creative and goal-oriented planning processes combine seamlessly to create an accurate, lasting impression about the University of Pittsburgh.

“We can turn a visitor’s abstract interest into tangible appreciation,” said Park, a Point Breeze resident who maneuvers effortlessly among and around the guests at the events she manages. Always in the back of her mind is the belief that Pitt events, handled the right way, can help convert a neutral observer into a strong advocate for the University.
“Events make vague concepts come to life,” she said. “While there are lots of ways to tell people about Pitt’s strengths and aspirations, events may be the best way to show them.”

Park, who has been with the Office of Special Events for 30 years, including 14 as its director, got her start in events planning when she was a grant administrator in Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health. She and her supervisor organized a successful conference, and several years later, she responded to a Pitt posting for a job in events management. The rest, as they say, is history—comprising appointment books jammed with notes on thousands of planned events over the years.

Park’s professionalism and vision—combined with her talented six-person staff—have garnered several awards, all connected to Pitt’s K. Leroy Irvis Black History Month Programs developed by the Offices of the Chancellor and Public Affairs. For instance, the compelling 2006 exhibition and reception to mark the 125th anniversary of Three Rivers Youth, the East Liberty social service agency, won the Council for Advancement and Support of Education Circle of Excellence Gold Medal for Individual Special Events as well as the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) Award of Merit. And the 2005 reception and screening of the Pitt-produced documentary K. Leroy Irvis: The Lion of Pennsylvania won the PRSA Award of Merit.

Prior to each major event, Park and her team submit proposals to the Office of the Chancellor, which then approves or modifies them. While there are usually three months of lead time for large events, sometimes things simply pop up. Take last fall’s G-20 Pittsburgh Summit, for example.

Park’s office knew in advance that European Commission President José Manuel Barroso was coming to campus, but there was only a hint that someone else might visit as well. With just six days’ notice, Pitt learned that Russian Federation President Dmitry Medvedev would take a break from his G-20 Summit duties to visit with faculty and students in the Cathedral of Learning’s Commons Room on Sept. 24.

“We went right into action on that one,” said Park, who worked with all the Pitt departments that would be involved. Two days before the visit, Medvedev’s advance team was checking the podium in the Cathedral of Learning Commons Room where Medvedev would speak. They turned to Park and asked for a large blue drape—exactly 16 feet wide and 23 feet high—to serve as a backdrop.

“Of course,” she nodded.

After checking Pitt’s theater venues, Park turned to her other resources, catalogs, and contacts. She quickly found a New Jersey theater company with a blue drape that was the exact size and had it shipped overnight, hung in the Commons Room, and in place for Medvedev and his delegation. Park made it all seem effortless.

Also on very short notice, Park transformed Pitt’s Petersen Events Center into a compelling space for the Pittsburgh police officers.

From Nelson Mandela to former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, from Britain’s Prince Andrew to the controversial novelist Salman Rushdie, many world dignitaries have attended Pitt lectures, events, and receptions planned by Park and her staff.

Receptions for local dignitaries also have benefited from Park’s special touch. A case in point: Pitt alumnus and trustee William Strickland’s launch of his book Making the Impossible Possible (Doubleday Business, 2007) in Alumni Hall’s Connolly Ballroom in Spring 2008.

Seeking to convert the large room into a warm and inviting space, Park recalled seeing in one of her many events industry journals a huge backdrop that replicated a wall of library bookshelves. Again, Park sought help from her library of resource guides. The next day, a 50-pound package arrived from Chicago containing the enormous panel, 40 feet wide and 20 feet high.

“It completely transformed the space,” recalled Park, adding that two years later, people still ask her about it.
William Bailey, assistant manager of special events and projects for Pitt’s Office of Facilities Management, worked closely with Park on that event and many others.

“Graham is very talented,” he said. “The event venues are always beautiful.”

Bailey said while there are only a handful of event spaces on campus, Park continues to find ways to change their look, be it by stretching white parachutes to fill in spaces or using soft, colorful lighting.

A Pitt alumnus (CGS ’82) with a bachelor’s degree in English writing, Park won the Nonfiction Writing Award from the Pittsburgh Communication Guild while a student at Pitt. The piece was about a man who lost his legs as a child and who used to sit Downtown on Liberty Avenue. “I sat with him on many nights,” she said, “and saw the street from his perspective.”

After each day spent juggling and completing countless events management tasks, Park looks forward to returning home, where four faces greet her at the door—those of Erin, Gretchen, Stella, and Choco. They are her beloved rescue dogs—a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, a Cocker Spaniel Mix, a Silk Wire Dachshund, and a Chow Chow, respectively.
In addition to spending time with her pets, Park finds relaxation by curling up with some good nonfiction, attending live theatre, or dining out.

But her job, from which she draws much satisfaction, is usually in her thoughts.

“I might be walking my dogs in the park,” she said with a smile,  “but my mind is on the events schedule. Each event is a new story, and I follow each through [in my mind] to a successful conclusion. Many times, on readying my guys for their walk, I’ll tell them, ‘This is going to be a long one.’”