MORAGA -- Saint Mary's College anticipates its largest graduating class ever -- about 755 undergraduate students -- at its 2014 graduation ceremonies this weekend.

The undergraduate commencement begins at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, May 24, and the graduate student/professional studies ceremony starts at 2 p.m. Sunday, May 25. Both graduations will take place at the SMC stadium on the college campus off Moraga Road.

There's more to it than the ceremonies themselves -- the college refers to it as "Commencement Weekend," with celebrations both pre- and post-graduation, highlighted by the traditional "plot parties" on the Saint Mary's chapel lawn immediately after the undergrad commencement ceremony.

These parties have been formally organized events on campus since the 1970s, said college spokesman Michael McAlpin, after the more informal celebrations prior to that time had become increasingly unwieldy.

Reserving space for these "plots" of lawn is now done through a lottery, McAlpin said.

Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta will give the keynote address at the undergraduate commencement May 24, while James R. Quandt -- a nationally recognized business leader whose business acumen was formed at Saint Mary's -- will return to his alma mater to address graduate students at the Sunday ceremony.

Panetta, a 1960 graduate of Santa Clara University, served as an Army officer, congressman and CIA director, among other roles, before he became Defense Secretary in 2011. He retired in 2013.

"Leon Panetta is an extraordinary public servant and a true American statesman," Saint Mary's President James Donahue said in a prepared statement. "His high regard for public service is inspiring and we are honored he will address this year's graduating class at Saint Mary's."

Though an April 29 editorial the Saint Mary's paper "The Collegian" criticized Panetta for a "signature doctrine of draconian and authoritarian drone policies that prioritize killing targeted individuals and the innocent civilians around them over due justice" and suggested that doctrine doesn't mesh with the college's mission of promoting social justice, McAlpin said he doesn't expect any significant protest to Panetta's appearance on commencement day.

Though the commencement ceremonies don't require tickets to get in, and acknowledging some outside the college community may want to see Panetta speak, they aren't a public event, per se, McAlpin said, and can get crowded just with grads' family members and friends.

But the event certainly has impacts beyond the bucolic Moraga campus. The arrival of all the graduates' friends and families makes for a mini-boom for local restaurants, stores and watering holes throughout Lamorinda, and beyond into Oakland and Walnut Creek.

Jay Lifson, executive director of the Lafayette Chamber of Commerce, once managed Lamorinda's only hotel, the Lafayette Park Hotel and Spa, and said undergrad commencement morning was an all-hands-on-deck affair.

"Everybody woke up at the same time, ordered room service at the same time, took showers at the same time," Lifson said. "(Commencement Weekend) has always had a real positive impact on the Lamorinda scene; it brings a lot of people to the community who've never been here before.

"Having a major university in your backyard is a big deal," he said.

That's the case in Moraga, too, of course. Kathe Nelson, executive director of the Moraga Chamber of Commerce, said the local merchants are seasoned in the ways of catering to commencement-related visitors.

Signs are put up around town for graduation weekend helping direct visitors to various businesses, parks and other amenities. The college, with the town's help, also provides an electronic list of Moraga amenities to grads' families.

"It's really huge impact, and the retailers really know what kind of specialty items the people who come are looking for," Nelson said.

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