Ceremony takes strange turns over the years

by Siobhan Gorman | 6/12/94 5:00am

The College's 224th Commencement ceremony is part of a long tradition of graduation festivities that includes famous speakers, drunkards, jugglers and crazy alumni antics.

The ceremony has evolved since the first one in 1771, in which there were four graduates, including Eleazar Wheelock's son, said Director of Public Programs Barbara Whipple.

Those students spent only a year at the College after attending Yale University for three years.

The August 28th ceremony, located where Reed Hall is now, included orations in Latin and English and began and concluded with a prayer, according to a Commencement history written by College Professor Lane Childs '06.

In celebration of the event, John Wentworth, then-governor of New Hampshire, provided rum to be served on the Green with roasted ox, Whipple said. But the cooks indulged in their share of the rum a little early and never got around to preparing the meal.

In the early 1800s, Commencement was considered a community holiday. Horse races, booths and tents with medicines, food and beverages as well as jugglers and sideshows were sponsored by the College, Whipple said.

According to Childs, "the inhabitants for twenty miles around celebrated Commencement in much the same manner as fall muster or the agricultural fair."

Latin was the official language for the ceremony until 1927. Anything spoken in English was announced as "in lingua vernacula," or in the vernacular language, according to Childs.

However, the use of Latin was not always effective. Once, President John Wheelock announced, "Musica expectatur!" but nothing happened. He shouted it twice more increasingly emphatically, but then gave in, shouting "Play it up!" The band responded.

During Nathan Lord's time as President in the 1830s, he decided every student should speak for 10 minutes on an assigned subject to diminish the competition between students for honors designations.

This decision was "the first trial of the experiment of abolishing all College distinctions -- of giving to every member of the graduating class, whether he had or had not distinguished himself in the recitation room, an opportunity of doing honor to his own talents and industry," the Manufacturers and Farmers Journal reported on July 6, 1835.

In 1835, Commencement took all day as each of the 48 students spoke. One reporter noted that the orations did no credit to either the students or the College, Whipple said. The tradition was discontinued four years later. Lord instead had half the students speak.

In 1839, Ralph Waldo Emerson, a transcendentalist writer, spoke at Commencement. His speech was titled "Literary Ethics."

Childs said the ceremony was still "too long, wearisome and fruitless."

Walt Whitman, an American poet, gave an unusual address. Instead of wearing the traditional cap and gown, he chose, as one spectator remarked, "a flannel shirt with a square cut neck, disclosing a hirsute covering that would have done credit to a grizzly bear."

By 1898, the number of speakers was limited to six and then by the 1920s, to three.

In 1939, the Commencement committee chose one speaker to give the speech titled, "Valedictory to the College." Today, the student speaker is the person with the highest grade point average.

In this century, the College has given honorary degrees to many distinguished Americans including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Robert Frost, Leonard Bernstein and Walter Cronkite.

But one of the most memorable visitors the College had was Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953 with his famous address to an audience of 10,000.

The press had been told in advance that the President was not going to say anything of importance, but he ended up giving an extremely newsworthy speech in which he denounced McCarthyism.

"Don't join the book burners. Don't think you are going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don't be afraid to go in your library and read every book as long as any document does not offend our own ideas of decency. That should be the only censorship," Eisenhower said.

"We have got to fight [communism] with something better, not try to conceal the thinking of our own people. They are part of America, and even if they think ideas that are contrary to ours, their right to say them and their right to have them in places where they are accessible to others is unquestioned or it's not America," he concluded.

There were secret servicemen in the windows of Baker Library, bodyguards hiding under caps and gowns and men with machine guns on the roof of Baker, Donald Goss '53 told The Dartmouth.

From 1970 to 1982, Commencement did not include an official Commencement speaker.

Last year, Journalist Bill Moyers focused his address on the problems graduates would face as they left college and entered "uncharted territory."

Dartmouth class reunions also have their share of interesting anecdotes.

When the class of 1955 had its 30th reunion, one member brought a hot air balloon which he was allowed to set up on the Green, said David Orr '57, senior associate director of alumni affairs.

He tied the balloon to the ground and took his classmates up in the air, but Orr said the man must have gotten bored because at some point, he "threw the rope overboard and took off over Baker Library." He said the man landed in a trash dump in Thetford, VT.

Pete Barker '54, class treasurer, got locked out of his room at the Hanover Inn at his 25th reunion when he went to the bank to deposit some registration funds around 3:00 a.m.

"I got back and my key wouldn't open the door, and my wife isn't the kind of person you should wake up," he said.

After failing to acquire another key, he returned to his car parked behind Topliff Hall for an uncomfortable night.

He said when he woke up and walked back toward the Hanover Inn he ran into a student security person who immediately called into his walkie-talkie "I found him. I found him. He's a bit shaggy, but he's okay."

He said his wife had called the police immediately after discovering he was not in the room.

Barker said one of the interesting things about holding reunions as his classmates get older is that he receives multiple calls from people asking if he has sent his money in or if he has registered for reunion.

Another difficulty he said he has is remembering not only some of his classmates' names but also which wife they have with them.

Reunions also have their own tales of alcohol-induced lunacy.

John Gillespie '54, reunion chair for his class, said that as he was returning to his room in Russell Sage Hall at his 35th reunion, he encountered an intoxicated man from the class of '53 whose "key wouldn't work."

After trying the key in 205 Russell Sage, Gillespie too concluded that the key did not work. But he soon discovered the key was for 205 Gile Hall. Gillespie said he had to carry the man to his room.