Pomp and circumstance, presidents and peddlers: a history of Dartmouth's graduation ceremonies

by Tracy Landers | 6/10/01 5:00am

When former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright gives the keynote address at the 231st Dartmouth Commencement, she will be just one more name on a list of famous people to speak at Dartmouth graduations.

Commencements in the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth were marked by the presence of famous American poets and writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1938, Walt Whitman in 1872, and Robert Frost in 1933.

In the latter half of the last century, Dartmouth had the privilege of welcoming three American Presidents to the podium: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Bill Clinton.

Other VIP speakers in the twentieth century include Leonard Bernstein and Walter Cronkite. No doubt Albright's name will be mentioned among these notable names in future histories.

But Dartmouth Commencement has not always been such a high class, high profile event. In fact, the first ceremony, on August 28th of 1771, presented unsigned diplomas to four graduates due to the lack of Trustees at the time.

The students, one of whom was Eleazar Wheelock's son, had been at the College only one year, having spent their other three undergraduate years at Yale University.

At least one VIP was in attendance at this hodgepodge event, which took place in the location where Reed Hall now stands. John Wentworth, governor of New Hampshire, came all the way from Portsmouth to attend the ceremony with 60 guests.

Wentworth provided rum to be served on the Green, along with a banquet of roasted ox. Dartmouth tradition has it that the cooks thoroughly enjoyed the rum and were too intoxicated to actually prepare the meal.

Legend has it that a Native American student delivered a graduation address from the overhanging branch of a pine tree.

This first Commencement 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 odd nature of Commencement, as a mixture of community festival and somber ceremony, continued into the middle of the nineteenth century. An 1833 account of Commencement cites "peddlers, gamblers, drunkards and shows" as undesirable elements on the Green.

"I should think there were in sight of one another 30 places of gambling," said one observer. "During the graduation exercises in the meeting hall, the vociferations of a dozen auctioneers were to be distinctly heard in the house."

Commencement was made no more "normal" seeming in 1872 when Walt Whitman showed up to give his speech wearing, rather than the traditional cap and gown, a "flannel shirt with a square-cut neck, disclosing a hirsute (shaggy) covering that would have done credit to a grizzly bear," as one observer put it.

Whitman said he enjoyed his visit to Hanover, describing it as "a beautiful New England village, 150 years old -- everything comfortable but very Yankee."

Commencement has also not always been a participant-friendly as it is today. 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 a history of Dartmouth Commencement written by English Professor Francis Lane Childs '06.

As one can imagine, the use of Latin 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.

Unlike today's shortened ceremony, Commencements of the past demanded a considerable time commitment from the audience. In 1807, the program listed 10 to 20 orations in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Chaldaic, French and English.

President Nathan Lord, whose tenure spanned the 1830's, is infamous in Dartmouth tradition for requiring all graduates at Commencement to give a 10-minute speech on an assigned topic.

Because he believed that "ambition and emulation are selfish principles," he abolished class ranks and honors designations, preventing students from competing for the privilege to speak.

The decade of his tenure was filled with ceremonies that lasted all day and bored the audience to tears.

In an effort to shorten the ceremony four years later, Lord required only half of the graduates to deliver speeches. After Lord's resignation in 1863, this practice was laid to rest.

As the College increased its student body, the number of speakers at Commencement gradually diminished to one student in 1939. The Commencement Committee chose this student and his speech was titled "Valedictory to the College."

Nowadays, it is usually the senior student with the highest grade point average who speaks at the ceremony. Today, however, both graduating junior and valedictorian Brian Stults '02 and senior salutatorian Terrence Wong '01 will speak.

In 1997, the first co-valedictorians, Daniel Fehlauer and J. Brooks Weaver both addressed

their class during Commencement. Only .00026455 points separated the two students' GPAs.

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

According to History Professor Jere Daniell '55, the ending of this tradition could have been linked to the terrible speech delivered by Nelson Rockefeller in 1971. "He either brought the wrong speech or gave some other dumb thing about finance in the state of New York," Daniell said.

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

Moving up from August to July and finally to the current date of second Sunday in June, the date of Commencement, like all other aspects of the ceremony, has changed over time.

Commencement has been roughly in it's current form since Eisenhower's visit in 1953, when over 10,000 people came out to listen to the President give an impromptu speech against McCarthyism at the first ceremonies ever held on the Green in front of Baker Tower.

"We have got to fight [communism] with something better, not try to conceal the thinking of our own people," Eisenhower said.

"They [Communists] 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 added.

Tight security measures accompanied Eisenhower's visit to the College, including several bodyguards hidden under caps and gowns. According to Donald Goss '53, there were "secret serviceman in the windows of Baker and machine guns on the roof."

Daniell said his 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 surprised dog!"

Clinton's visit in 1995 was less eventful, but drew a crowd so large that the ceremony had to be moved for the first time since 1953 to the football field.

Clinton told the graduating class that education is especially important in the economy of the 1990s.

"In the last 10 years, earnings of men between the ages of 45 and 55 have gone down 14 percent because in the global economy, if you live in a wealthy country and you don't have an education you are in trouble," Clinton commented.

"We cannot walk away from our obligation to invest in the education of every American at every age," he added.

The Dartmouth reported that the day after graduating and shaking hands with Clinton, Peter Hecht '95 fell ill with meningitis, sparking an alert with the White House physician.

Perhaps the most unique Commencement tradition is that of the Class of 1879 Trumpeters. In 1929, at its 50th reunion, the class of 1879 established a fund, in the form of a bond worth $10,000, for music at the Commencement ceremony.

The 1879s placed one restriction on the music; it had to be played by student or faculty trumpeters located in the Baker Library Tower. The music of Class of 1870 Trumpeters has sounded at every Commencement since 1929.

One of the most atypical graduations was the 178th in 1947. As a result of the recently concluded Second World War, 542 Dartmouth students from 12 classes received their diplomas on June 8, 1947.

This number represented the largest graduating class to date, and Commencement exercises were held on the Bema instead of in Webster Hall for the first time to accommodate the crowd.

For most of these students, returning to Hanover was a strange experience after having been inEurope or the Pacific. According to an article in The Dartmouth, many of the former soldiers felt separated from the undergraduates at the College who had not gone to war and who were often five or six years younger than they were.

President of the College John Sloan Dickey spoke to the graduating seniors, praising their return to campus to complete their Dartmouth educations.

"For most of you ... this is your second going out from college into the world. It is surely a more joyful occasion than those earlier leave-takings from Hanover, but the task ahead is harder," Dickey said in his Commencement address.