History of C&R is full of quirks and strange twists

by Kaitlin Bell | 6/9/02 5:00am

Imagine being told that as part of your graduation requirements you will be required to present a ten-minute speech to the entire Commencement audience. Now imagine that your speech is just one of four dozen that will be given in the hot July sun before the diplomas can be granted.

Dartmouth commencement ran something like this under the presidency of Nathan Lord, which lasted from 1839 to 1863. In a spirit of egalitarianism, President Lord not only required all members of the graduating class to speak at Commencement, but also abolished class rankings, awards and honors because he considered all ambition immoral.

These unorthodox graduation proceedings provide just one example of the drastic changes commencement has undergone in Dartmouth's 232-year history. From speeches in exotic languages to secret service agents patrolling Webster Ave. to antiwar protests, Commencement has witnessed a wide variety of extraordinary events amid the usual pomp and circumstance.

At Dartmouth's first Commencement, which took place in August 1771, College founder Eleazar Wheelock had the four graduating seniors -- all transfer students from Yale -- cluster around the Lone Pine for the ceremony. The first four Darmouth students were presented with unsigned diplomas due to the lack of Trustees at the time.

At least one VIP was in attendance at this hodgepodge event. 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 also 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.

Later Commencements preserved Eleazor's vision, having the graduating seniors smash their clay pipes on the tree's stump after Class Day's "senior smoke-in."

This original Commencement also featured orations in Latin and an anthem "composed and set to music by the young gentlemen candidates for degree."

Dartmouth Commencement was graced by the presence of Walt Whitman in 1872. The New York City-based poet 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."

Other early Commencements witnessed a similar amalgam of elements representing both high and low culture. In addition to the traditional salutatory address, given in Latin until 1897, students presented speeches in Hebrew, Chaldaic, Greek, French and English.

But according to a history of Commencement written by the late Dartmouth professor Francis Lane Childs 1906, graduation was once not an event just for the elite. Auctioneers, gamblers, and peddlers crowded the Green, competing for the audience's attention.

Contrast this 19th century revelry with the heavy security precautions in place during President Dwight D. Eisenhower's address at the 1953 Commencement. Secret Service agents inspected the Baker Tower belfry for assassins, and the FBI ran background checks on an Eastern European immigrant couple employed in President Dickey's house, citing the fact that they had been "born in a country behind the Iron Curtain."

Despite the elaborate security measures, however, the Secret Service failed to notice a false bomb planted beneath the graduation platform until an electrician who had been laying loudspeaker wire brought it to their attention.

A report on Eisenhower's Dartmouth visit later speculated that the guilty party was "some prankster, or a member of The Dartmouth who hoped to suggest that it might have been a bomb and, if not found, would show the inadequacy of the Secret Service."

In his speech, President Eisenhower himself pointed to some of the government's weaknesses. Criticizing the rampant McCarthyism of the era and its proclivity toward censorship, he told the graduating class, "Don't join the book burners. Don't think that you're going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed."

Sixteen years later, members of the Class of 1969 criticized the U.S. government more openly by sporting white armbands and staging a walkout during the ceremony to protest a Commencement address by New York governor Nelson Rockefeller '30, which they thought demonstrated the College's tacit support of the war in Vietnam.

Another president, Bill Clinton, came to Dartmouth for Commencement in 1995. Though his visit was less eventful than that of Eisenhower, he drew a crowd so large that the ceremony had to be moved for the first time since 1953 to the football field.

Other notable Commencement speakers from the world of politics include Franklin D. Roosevelt and Madeleine Albright, who spoke to last year's graduates.

But not all Commencements have been filled with political pundits or luminaries.

In 1969, Nelson Rockfeller gave a notoriously bad Commencement address, which History Professor Jere Daniels '55 described as "either the wrong speech ... or some dumb thing about finance in the state of New York."

Besides the eccentric Walt Whitman, Dartmouth has attracted other important cultural figures to speak at Commencement. These include writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Robert Frost, pianist Leonard Bernstein, and television newsman Walter Cronkite -- and of course, Mister Rogers.