Bonfire tradition enjoys glorious past at the College

by N.F.S. Knight | 10/19/01 5:00am

For over a century, the people of Hanover have marked a particular brisk mid-October night to celebrate the unique New England traditions of Dartmouth College. Today, that custom will continue albeit in slightly altered form.

Dartmouth Night 2001will begin at 7:30 p.m., as a class-wide pack of anxious freshmen marches from the Connecticut River, across campus, through the streets of Hanover and onto the Green where hundreds of waiting upperclassmen, alumni, teachers, community members, and those simply curious will meet them.

Once the congregation has fully assembled, College President James Wright will speak before the illuminated white faade of Dartmouth Hall and the anticipated green light will shine down upon all from high atop Baker Tower.

At approximately 8:30, the bonfire will be lit.

Then, in a tradition recalling the tribal ceremonies of ancient peoples, the freshmen class will run laps around the blazing pillory as its flames flicker against their green-painted faces and its heat singes their reddened cheeks.

Eventually, the crowds will disperse and the flames will die down and all will be quiet and still until the next transfer of the honored tradition to the Class of 2006.

But the certainty of that succession has come into question in recent years.

In 1999, the annual bonfire at Texas A&M collapsed during construction, killing 12 students and injuring 27 others, prompting the College to reevaluate the state of its own bonfire.

Dean of the College James Larimore leveled criticism specifically at the history of misconduct associated with the bonfire.

"Last year I raised some concerns about the fact that eight assaults had taken place at the bonfire in 1999, including one that resulted in an undergraduate student suffering significant facial injuries in an unprovoked attack by another student," Larimore told The Dartmouth.

"I simply raised some questions about whether students and the administration were capable of working together to make it a safe enough event that we would not have to worry about its future."

In response, new safety measures were put in place and fewer incidents of misbehavior were reported.

Joe Cassidy, Associate Dean of Student Life, helped coordinate the process.

"We did two things. We hired an on-site consultant firm to evaluate the construction and execution of the bonfire, and we established an ad hoc campus committee to review everything and put a report together."

Many of the findings in that report supported the changes that had already been made, so comparatively little has been changed since last year except for the fact that '05s are now required to be in long pants, Cassidy said.

Each year, the bonfire is designed by graduate students at the Thayer School of Engineering and built by '05s during the week prior to its burning.

The bonfire itself is constructed of several tiers, as opposed to the Texas A&M bonfire, which was built around a single center pole.

Another tradition associated with Dartmouth Night that has caused much interest and speculation has been the illumination of the green light atop Baker Tower.

The green light is lit only for special occasions, according to documents in the College's archive. These include Convocation, Dartmouth Night, Winter Carnival Weekend, Class Officer Weekend, Freshman Parents Night, Green Key Weekend, reunions, Commencement, Club Officer Weekend, and trustees' nights.

This tradition was formalized in 1975. It had existed for some time prior to that, but few are sure exactly for how long.

Before 1975, the tradition had been temporarily abandoned in a symbolic gesture to save energy in response to the energy crisis of the decade.

The re-lighting was kept quiet then and since to avoid it from turning into a campus issue.

Interestingly, the actual light is not green. According to Linda Hathorn, Director of Custodial Services, the light is a very strong, high wattage bulb covered by a shade composed of green cellophane.

Many students and alumni have praised Dartmouth traditions such as these, arguing that they make the College the special place that it is.

"The bonfire...exemplifies values we hold dear: teamwork and communal celebration. Last year, there was some talk about canceling the event, due to the insurance risk it posed. Luckily, the administration backed down after student outrage was augmented by the prospect of reduced donations from unhappy alumni," wrote Chris Curran '03 in a recent op-ed piece in The Dartmouth.

Other students, such as Sarah Butterfield '02, echoed this sentiment.

"I personally love the bonfire. From my point of view and that of my friends it is a wonderful thing. I think it is an important part of Dartmouth's tradition and I'd hate to see it go because it's one of the few traditions that they'll let us keep," she said.

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