Preston McKever-Floyd: the 'Voice of Commencement' speaks
It’s a good thing that Preston McKever-Floyd has had formal voice training – in fact, he’s a classically-trained singer – because it helps him get through the reading of hundreds and hundreds of names at Coastal Carolina University’s graduation exercises without a quiver or a hoarse note.
Known as the “voice of commencement” since 2001, McKever-Floyd, assistant professor of religion and philosophy, is charged with the reading of each CCU graduate candidate’s name as he or she comes forward to receive a diploma (actually a congratulatory letter from the CCU president; the diploma is mailed out).
He does read over the long list of names before commencement day, but only once, and he appreciates students spelling their difficult names phonetically for him. “It’s the easy ones that trip you up, not the Icelandic ones like you would think,” he says. In addition to proper pronunciation, he must be mindful of pacing and “keeping the line moving.”
Before 2001, the senior class used to nominate a different faculty member to read their names each year, and McKever-Floyd was asked to fill the role that year.
“I know the importance of the names to parents sitting in the bleachers who have traveled afar,” says McKever-Floyd. ” I know the importance of each name being pronounced correctly and with dignity. It’s for the students, but mostly it’s for the parents. It’s their moment.”
Thereafter, he was asked to be the faculty announcer for every commencement, a job he still holds. “I guess I did my job a little too well,” he laughs. McKever-Floyd, who takes both his mother’s family’s name (McKever) and his father’s, is also university chaplain. He teaches four classes, co-founded the women’s and gender studies program, and speaks at various community events.
McKever-Floyd still lives in Conway where he was born and raised, one of nine children of Samuel P. Floyd Sr. and Ruby McKever Floyd. He taught his own mother two classes when she returned to college after 28 years as a beautician. She earned an A in one class and a B+ in the other. “She was a good student,” he says.
His father was the first African-American hired to be a police officer in South Carolina in 1947. And, in 1968, Preston was in the first graduating class from Conway High School with African-American students. (CCU English professor Veronica Gerald was in that same class.)
He earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Virginia State University in 1977, a Master of Divinity from Duke University in 1979 and a doctorate in philosophy from the University of South Carolina in 2009. He has also completed advance study in religion and literature at Emory University and philosophy and theology at Northwestern University.
McKever-Floyd is the only faculty member at Coastal who is a professor of both religious studies and philosophy. He was one of a group awarded the first Fulbright scholarship through CCU in 1988 along with 14 other professors in South Carolina for a six-week immersion into the culture and religion of India. “That trip made me understand the importance of globalizing the curriculum,” he says.
He is nonsectarian in his religious beliefs, and honors and respects all beliefs. As a young child, he would wander off into a small patch of woods near his house, lie in the pine straw and look up at the big sky. “It seemed so huge to me! The woods were a primeval forest, and the sky was so big. In those moments, I felt totally connected to everything in the universe and felt that everything was connected to me.” It was the beginning of his life’s journey to answer the “big questions” of how he related to the universe and to other people.
As a student at Virginia State University, McKever-Floyd started out in the sciences, studying biology. But then he realized he was only learning about “smaller and smaller parts” of the universe when what interested him were “the larger connections and questions.” He began reading books on philosophy on his own. He signed up for a course in philosophy, loved it and immediately changed his major. A couple of years later, McKever-Floyd embraced religious studies and earned a divinity degree at Duke.
Every morning he gets up at 6:30 a.m. to read Rumi, Bhagavad Gita, the Bible lesson from the Christian Science Quarterly, the Bible and the Tao Te Ching. He is still trying to understand the big picture as he is “open to all possibilities.”
McKever-Floyd, who spends a good bit of time talking to students who are seeking guidance, is most proud of being one of three nominees for Professor of the Year, an honor voted on by students.
Though raised Baptist and ordained as Baptist, McKever-Floyd is ecumenical and embraces all faiths. One of his proudest moments was when students asked him to give a talk in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. “I was so touched,” said McKever-Floyd who spoke from the heart to a standing room-only crowd of students, faculty and staff in Wheelwright Auditorium. “At that moment, I really felt like the chaplain of CCU.”