When President Obama accepted an invitation to speak at Rutgers just one month ahead of time, the university’s operational staff, led by Tony Calcado, mobilized to prepare for an event like no other.
At 10 p.m. on May 14—14 hours before President Barack Obama was due to address the 250th Anniversary Commencement at Rutgers University–New Brunswick—a strange silence settled over High Point Solutions Stadium: although it seemed empty, the area would soon be swarming with members of a team of security elite who were making a final sweep. From a perimeter of 300 feet outside the stadium down to the flowers onstage, everything was on lockdown. Gates were secured. Doors were inspected. Rutgers staffers accompanied members of the Secret Service to secure a vast venue that would soon host tens of thousands of guests and one President of the United States.
Overseeing all of this was Tony Calcado, the senior vice president for institutional planning and operations at Rutgers. Three and a half weeks earlier, he had gotten a call to take charge of President Obama’s visit. Calcado’s first thought was excitement. His second was, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.” But by that first afternoon, Calcado’s teams, “layered” into a commencement program already set in motion by interim secretary of the university Kimberlee Pastva, were mobilized for action. Now, as teams prepared to sweep the stadium, Calcado wouldn’t rest easy until midafternoon the following day—after President Obama had given his memorable address and after Marine One was safely in the air.
“We’ve always done events, and we’ve had good experiences,” says Calcado during an interview at his Piscataway office. “There were none that included the most powerful person in the world, however. Nothing prepares you for an event of this magnitude.”
What order of magnitude, exactly? For starters, 10 university teams for communications, administration, security, labor, stadium logistics, traffic, and emergency management; at least 12 meetings with the White House advance team; numerous consultations with the Secret Service; a reconnaissance of six possible helicopter landing sites for the president’s pilots; more than 50,000 students and guests; 270 police officers plus Secret Service members; 20,000 cars; 120 buses making hundreds of trips; dedicated New Jersey Transit trains ferrying students from Rutgers University–Camden and Rutgers University–Newark; 7,000 extra seats for off-site viewing at campus student centers; three MV-22 Osprey military helicopters doing a fly-by of the stadium at Calcado’s request; two Marine One helicopters; a presidential motorcade; the presidential limousine, which was flown to Newark on a cargo plane and then driven to Piscataway in time for “wheels down”—and a president who needed lunch before he ascended the stage to make Rutgers history with a perfectly delivered “Hello, Rutgers! RU, rah-rah!”
Commencements have been held in the stadium for five years—a reflection of the program’s seamless organization, says Pastva. Procedures for handling traffic and crowds have been improved. Accounting for more buses was a given. Glitches were minimized.
Providing tickets for guests, however, was another matter. “We had never required tickets,” Pastva says. “We just always said, bring as many guests as you want. We always had great crowds of 40,000-plus. But as soon as this announcement came through, we realized that we needed a ticketing system.”
The Secret Service did not arrive on campus until May 9th—a mere six days before commencement. Awaiting the first boots-on-the-ground appraisal by the White House, Calcado, Pastva, and their teams went forward with their best-laid plans.
There was a science behind all of this, and they made fine use of it. Calcado’s teams calculated how quickly cars and people move, and how efficiently security could whisk people through entrance gates. The day’s start-schedule was adjusted backward based on these formulas. By 10 a.m., Route 18 was a mass of snarled traffic, as anticipated; by 11 a.m., the route was clear. “No one,” Calcado declared, “was left behind because of what we had planned.” His only remaining concern by the time the president took the stage was the weather.
And that, along with everything else on the day of the 250th Anniversary Commencement, held up beautifully.