One Man’s Dilemma: Get to Graduation or Die Trying
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because ain’t no mountain high enough.
A man is supposed to go to his daughter’s college graduation ceremony. The cap-and-gown walk, the presentation of the diploma, the little family huddles afterward with cameras flashing — together they constitute a major milestone in any young American’s life. And Dad should be there.
But sometimes the distance, the requisite travel connections and the timing seem to congeal into an insurmountable barrier. In such cases, the sad message is often: “Sorry, my love, but I just can’t make it.”
Orchestra conductor James Judd seemed to be caught in just that sort of a dilemma. A veteran have-baton-will-travel man, Judd had just landed a prestigious post as principal conductor of the Slovak Philharmonic. His first concert with the orchestra since the announcement of his appointment was taking place on Friday evening, May 19, in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia.
His daughter Carissa, a marketing major at Quinnipiac University, was scheduled to receive her BS diploma on Saturday afternoon, May 20, in New Haven, Connecticut. As the crow flies, the distance between the two cities is about 4,200 miles. There are no direct flights. Not even close.
When Carissa was 6, [she] looked at me and asked, in all innocence, nothing accusatory: ‘What’s more important, Daddy? Me or work?’ That stabbed me.
James Judd, conductor
Judd considered the “unavoidable commitments” defense, with an orchestral powerhouse of 120 musicians demanding his continuous leadership. There could certainly be no question of skipping a scheduled performance in the majestic Reduta Bratislava, an elegantly baroque, 244-year-old landmark. The show must go on — it’s the iron rule.
But Carissa deserved more than the obligatory bouquet, ordered online, along with a heartfelt message from her father on a printed card. There already had been too many “Sorry, my love” episodes, Judd says.
Because of his career, including lengthy stints in New Zealand, Israel, England, Australia and elsewhere, as well as 14 years with the Florida Philharmonic, Judd has traveled millions of miles from his home in Southern Florida. British Airways recently tallied the number of round trips he had made on their planes between Miami and London in the past 30 years; it came to more than 250.
For Carissa, Judd’s career has meant an absent father for big chunks of her life, the British-born conductor says. “Because of all my traveling, I figure I’ve been at home for her maybe 15 or 16 of her 23 years.”
Way too many sad departures. “I remember once when Carissa was 6, I was about to go off on a hugely long trip, maybe seven or eight weeks,” Judd says. “Carissa looked at me and asked, in all innocence, nothing accusatory: ‘What’s more important, Daddy? Me or work?’ That stabbed me.”
But was the required headlong rush across six time zones and one very large ocean to a modest graduation event even doable?
Enter Judd’s wife, Valerie, a musician herself, still working as a professional violist, and James’ own travel-planning conjurer. With James and Valerie both working their phones, they came up with a plan, painstakingly constructed like a Rube Goldberg mousetrap. It involved a through-the-night limo ride, a nine-hour swoop across the Atlantic on a jetliner, another split-second car trip and a helicopter ride, with prearranged landing privileges smack in the middle of the Quinnipiac campus. A lot could go wrong.
In truth, this was far from a madcap Around the World in Eighty Days scenario. If anything, Judd’s trip, despite the need for split-second timing, was a testament to the comforts of modern travel — for those who can afford it. (The Judds aren’t talking about the total expense of James’ wild ride. “Just say we’re glad Carissa graduated,” Valerie says.)
Take the centerpiece of the trip — nine hours on a Singapore Airlines Airbus 380. With his first-class ticket, Judd got to a passenger lounge with a shower and a spot of breakfast, then “a little suite” in the first-class section, complete with a bed to stretch out on. “Far too cushy, really,” Judd says sheepishly.
But the trip went something like this:
9:30 p.m. Bratislava time. The orchestra wraps up Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, Judd bows to exuberantly appreciative applause, steps off the platform and heads to the exit. He races to his nearby hotel, in full formal tails, changes to traveling duds and dives into the back of a waiting BMW.
Eight hours later, the driver is hopelessly lost in predawn darkness in a Frankfurt Airport parking lot. Judd spies an arrivals entrance nearby, gets out of the car and races to the Singapore Airline gate. Conveniently, no luggage. He flashes his Global Entry card and checks in. He has his rest stop in the passenger lounge and boards the plane, which is on time.
Eight-plus hours in his Airbus “suite.” Does he want the Dom Pérignon or the Krug Grande Cuvée? “These are the hardships you put up with,” Judd says, laughing. The plane arrives at JFK, amazingly almost an hour early. Judd calls the helicopter service. There’s a mix-up. Once straightened out, he takes a car service to the heliport, where the chopper’s blades are already turning.
Forty-five minutes later, the helicopter lands on a playing field in New Haven. A campus security officer takes him in his radio car to the graduation site.
“There are throngs of people in front of the place,” Judd says. “I call Carissa on my cell and she says, ‘I can see you.’ I look across the driveway, and there she is.”
All the would-be foul-ups — weather delays, scheduling snafus, security issues — were at last wiped away. “By now, I’m a blubbering mess,” Judd says. He embraces his daughter, beautiful in flowing robes. Shortly afterward, Carissa and her parents, with other relatives, congregate outside to admire a brand-new diploma.
“I couldn’t believe it all worked out so perfectly,” Judd says.
The perfection finally ran out a few days later, though, when, on his way home from Miami, Judd arrived at Heathrow in London. Because of a computer failure, all British Airways flights had been canceled, and Judd had to endure a 24-hour layover before getting back safely to Bratislava — a bump that will probably soon be forgotten in a journey that otherwise will long be remembered.