Master of ceremonies: CU's bedel Josef Šebek

Friday, 21 October 2022 10:16

During ceremonies of Charles University, you can’t miss him: he stands out even among esteemed guests, always the first to walk into the Great Hall in dignified historical dress, sceptre in hand. He is the university’s bedel or beadle. At the Carolinum that role is performed by Josef Šebek.

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The bedel, or ceremonial officer, has been a part of Charles University since its foundation. The very first mention of such an office dates all the way back to 1245, when a bedel accompanied the dean of the University of Paris as the Chief Master of Ceremonies. While the bedel used to be a caretaker or a university servant and oversaw the maintenance of university buildings, today the function is mainly ceremonial – and symbolic

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However, even the present bedel at CU is not just a symbol. While he certainly dons ceremonial clothes on special occasions in the a cut evoking a burgher during the Italian Renaissance and proudly goes ahead of the procession with the university sceptre. Josef Šebek is a part-time employee of the Organisational Department of Charles University and has been working in the university’s historic Carolinum for 17 years.

“I first started as an employee of a security agency, sitting at the concierge desk. It wasn't until years later that the then head of the Organisational Department convinced me to take a post part-time with the university. Together with a fellow colleague, I am also responsible for organising graduation ceremonies," says Šebek in a modest office just a few metres from the Great Hall.

Legendary predecessor

Before him, the ceremonial role was held by Alois Souček, who held the post for many years. Souček acted as a pedagogue for an impressive 40 years and worked until he was almost 80. After Souček went for an operation his successor was chosen to train as bedel. “My first task was to go up to the balcony housing the organ and watch the whole ceremony from above, so I knew what to do and how to do it," Šebek recalls.

Parents and grandparents of current students still ask about the earlier ceremonial officer who passed away four years ago. “He was was very highly regarded and a prominent figure, and everyone was used to Mr. Souček and already knew exactly what to expect from him. However, I remember very well the case of nerves I had the first time to step and fill his shoes, that I wouldn't mess something up,” his successor admits.

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Since then, Josef Šebek has had a number of unforgettable experiences in the role.

“My first big event was back in Mr. Souček's time as a substitute at the Vladislav Hall at Prague Castle in the presence of the Pope himself. On the anniversary of Charles IV, I attended a ceremony at the crypt at St. Vitus Cathedral, where we were taken by police escort. Thanks to my role as beadle, I've also been able to go to places I wouldn't normally go, and I've met many interesting people.”

No more ladybirds

There is no shortage of interesting situations even during graduations and matriculations. “Students tend to get so nervous that they don't eat or drink, which is not always the best thing in the summer heat. Even though we urge them to sit down, they all stand anyway, then get dizzy and pass out. Or comical situations arise, for example, when a student once came dressed as a ladybug,” Šebek says.

That doesn't happen anymore because a dress code has since been enforced. “We recommend that everyone should dress decently, not only students and their escorts, but also professors. It used to happen that someone would come in sneakers or white shoes, for example. And then it looks undignified,” the bedel explains. He himself wears a white dress shirt, black trousers, a tie with the university logo, and over it all is draped an unmistakable black gown with an ermine collar.

The dressing room in the Carolinum.

“When I inherited the gown from Mr. Soucek, it had already been through a lot - the gilding was a bit tarnished, the buttons and collar worn.... That's why four or five years ago we agreed with then Vice-Rector Royt to make new, lighter gowns. It doesn't seem like it, but back when there wasn't air conditioning in the big auditorium, after two graduations, the garment was worthy of wringing. Today it's much better,” he says. Twice a year, the gowns are also taken to the dry cleaners.

If you see other “strange gowns” at university ceremonies, know that most of the 17 faculties of Charles University have beadles. And Šebek himself often acts as a bedel for the Faculty of Arts. “At first I helped as a substitute, but even in the following years a replacement was not found. Nobody wants to do it much nowadays. That's why the role is mostly done by older people, the exception being the Faculty of Law bedel,” says Šebek, noting that there is a woman among the seasoned beadles at CU.

Josef Šebek (right) with colleagues at the Great Hall. 

He also wears the gown outside of ceremonies, for example during the Open Doors Day or Museum Night. People like to take pictures with him. “Sometimes I get people peering at me in plain clothes on the subway and wondering where they know me from,” Šebek laughs.

Josef Šebek
Bedel at Charles University and the Faculty of Arts of Charles University. He is employed part-time at the university as a member of the Organisational Department, and works part-time at the Prague Public Transport Company. He says he has little time for his own hobbies and in his spare time he is mainly devoted to his two teenage children. 
Author: Jiří Novák
Photo: Michal Novotný, CU archive

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