Commencement: 225 years of graduation ceremonies steeped in tradition and color

by Mary Ellen Moore | 6/11/95 5:00am

The relocation of this spring's Commencement ceremony from its previous location on the lawn in front of Baker Library bothered many seniors who considered it to be a break from Dartmouth tradition.

But the history of the 225-year-old ceremony shows that Baker was not its original location, nor was it the second or even the third.

In fact, the location of Commencement has been changed numerous times over the years in order to facilitate an increased number of graduates and spectators as the College grew in size and prestige.

Other Commencement traditions have also evolved over the years but the ceremony never fails to include famous guests and interesting occurrences.

The first commencement ceremony took place in 1771 in the location where Reed Hall now stands, according to a Commencement history written by the late College Professor Francis Lane Childs '06. It included four graduates, one of which was Eleazar Wheelock's son. The students had been at the College only one year, having spent their other three undergraduate years at Yale University.

The ceremony on Wednesday, August 28, was considered a community event and included horse races, booths and tents with medicines, food and beverages as well as jugglers and side shows that were sponsored by the college.

"The inhabitants for 20 miles around celebrated Commencement in much the same manner as fall muster or the agricultural fair," according to Child's history.

John Wentworth, then-governor of New Hampshire, came all the way from Portsmouth to attend the ceremony with 60 guests. He provided rum to be served on the Green, along with a banquet of roasted ox. But the cooks partook in a little too much of the rum and never got around to the ox.

As the number of graduates in each class continued to grow, the ceremony was moved to different locations.

In 1795 Commencement was moved to the newly-erected College Church on the north side of the Green.

The 1907 Commencement was held in Webster Hall, a newer building with a greater capacity.

The graduating class finally became so large that the ceremony was forced outside and an amphitheater was constructed in the Bema for the event.

But in 1953, even the Bema was too small to contain the crowds expected to attend President Dwight Eisenhower's Commencement address.

"There were half as many people then to see Eisenhower than there are now where they stick people back on the Green," History Professor Jere Daniell '55 said.

"Probably then the seating didn't go any further back than Webster," he added.

The ceremony was moved once again, this time to the lawn in front of Baker Library where it has taken place up until this year, as Commencement is relocated to Memorial Field to contain the crowds expected to hear President Bill Clinton.

But location is not the only evolving characteristic of the Commencement ceremony. The language used during the ceremony has also changed.

Latin was the official language of the ceremony until 1827. Whenever words were spoken in English they were introduced as "in lingua vernacula," or in the vernacular language, according to Childs.

The use of Latin, however, did not always prove effective.

There was no response from the band one year when President John Wheelock announced, "Musica expectatur!" three times, each with increasing emphasis. But when he finally shouted, "Play it up!" the band kicked in immediately.

In 1795 and 1799, the ceremony even included sections in Hebrew.

The date of Commencement has also evolved with the College and its academic calendar.

The 1835 Commencement was held on the last Wednesday in July, one month earlier than the date on which the first ceremony took place.

The ceremony was moved to the last Thursday in June in 1872 and finally reached its current date, the second Sunday in June, in 1939.

The philosophy of College President Nathan Lord had a great impact on the tone of Commencement during his administration in the 1830s.

He believed that "ambition and emulation are selfish principles" and subsequently abolished class ranks and honors designations, preventing students from competing to speak at Commencement.

Instead, he required all graduates in 1835 to give a 10-minute speech on an assigned topic. What resulted was an all day ceremony with 48 student speeches and an audience that was bored to tears.

Four years later, Lord required only half of the graduates to deliver speeches, choosing 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 said.

Daniell said that by the time the president spoke about McCarthyism it was a safe topic politically.

"It was clear that [Eisenhower's speech] came as a suprise to his staff, but McCarthyism was already over the peak. He was free from political consequence," Daniell said.

Tight security measures accompanied Eisenhower's visit to the College.

Donald Goss '53 said there were "secret serviceman in the windows of Baker and machine guns on the roof."

Several bodyguards were also hidden under caps and gowns.

Daniell's most vivid memory of that ceremony was the secret serviceman stationed in the revolving door at the front entrance of Baker.

"A German shepherd dog came running out of the library and headed for the platform. Without flinching a muscle -- I mean these guys must have had eyes in the back of their head -- one of them lifted the dog right off the ground," he said. "That was one suprised dog!"

But like many of the ceremony's traditions, even the practice of having a Commencemet speaker was disbanded for 12 years during the 70's and 80's.

According to Daniell, the ending of this tradition could have been linked to the terrible speech delivered by Nelson Rockefeller at a previous ceremony.

"He either brought the wrong speech or gave some other dumb thing about finance in the state of New York," Daniell said.

But it could have just been a result of a series of bad choices, Daniell said.

Annother possibility Daniell cited was the fact that the ceremony was becoming lengthier because the graduating class was now 30 percent larger with the addition of women and something had to be cut.

"Students receiving a handshake was perceived as more important than the speaker," he said.

But the tradition was resumed in 1983 when Paul Volcker, then-chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, was invited to speak.

The College has also awarded several distinguished Americans with honorary degrees.

Robert Frost, Class of 1896, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Leonard Bernstein and Walter Cronkite have all visited the College to take part in the Commencement ceremony.

The ceremony has also evolved to reflect the greater institutionalization of the College, Daniell said.

"It has increasingly become a more institutional ceremony as the visibility of these degrees increases," Daniell said.

At previous ceremonies "I have no recollection of Tuck school graduates," he said.

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