VOL. 9 NO. 3 THE MAGAZINE OF THE UNIVERSITY OF UTAH WINTER 1999-2000
Beanies, Songs, and a Roving Rock
150 Years Of Traditions At The U
By Theresa Desmond
Postwar euphoria, pre-stock-market-crash innocence, the vote for women, mass production of the car, Fitzgerald's Jazz Age: the '20s are surely a memorable decade in American history. And in the U's 150-year history, the '20s seem the richest decade for student involvement, as well as for students' attitude toward involvement. It was a serious commitment—the Shriners' fez has nothing on freshman beanies.
While interest in athletics grew in the '30s, and theme weeks and their accompanying queens peaked in the '50s and '60s, the honoring of unofficial—all right, sometimes strange—traditions is most evident in the '20s, the midpoint of the last 150 years.
Just as the University took time to establish itself, geographically and as an academic institution, it took time for the student body to gel. Once the U had a site of its own in 1884 (Union Square, now West High School), a "Field Day" followed. Students were encouraged to participate in intercollegiate athletic and literary competitions, ranging from "twenty to twenty-five girls to compete in drills with dumbbells, wands and Indian clubs" to debates and orations.
Over the next several years, these pre-aerobic activities gave way to other student activities, including Greek sororities and fraternities and school plays. Thomas Parmley BS'21, the renowned physics professor who started at the U in 1915, writes in Remembering of "[t]ugs-of-war through the mud on Cummings Field [precursors, perhaps, to the Greek mud races of the '50s], painting the Block 'U' on the hill in the spring, [and] marching in parades before important football games." There was even a "U day" on which students faced the nail-biting challenge of not wearing a tie on campus. And one can only pine for the loss of the herd of campus dairy cows, administered by the dean of women, Aunt Lucy Van Cott, that provided milk to the cafeteria.
By 1921, a Chronicle editorial intoned that "there is no one who will not say that traditions are the life of college life" and that "if traditions are not established now the same existent condition will obtain in 2001." Armed with this dire warning, students began an enforcement of traditions (literally-an "official vigilance committee" is referred to in a 1923 Chronicle). Among them were the wearing of a green cap on campus and to rallies and athletic events by all freshmen; not stepping on the University seal on the floor of the Park Building (that one was to be held in "strict reveration"); and the painting of the Rostrum, the boulder in front of the flag pole on Presidents Circle, so called because it was the site of many speeches. In addition to the green caps, freshmen were also warned not to use the main steps of the Park Building (violators were subjected to "a tubbing at the hands of the Vigilance Committee"), and men were forbidden to wear mustaches their first year (it was considered "unbecoming").
In addition to highlighting these traditions, some of which would continue for decades, students at the time also promoted the importance of Homecoming, Founders' Day, and the fall pilgrimage to the Block U. Celebrating the founding of the University began in 1920, with the firing of a gun at 11:00 a.m. and all students standing in tribute and in silence until a second shot was fired. And knowing the words to "Utah Man," a song that had been around since the turn of the century, was considered a duty in the '20s (including lyrics such as, "We drink our stein of lager, and we smoke our big cigar," which seems to have been omitted over time). Sydney Angleman, former director of general education at the U, noted that in 1927, the Park Building's small parking lot (most students took the trolley) was often used by lovers and smokers, two time-honored student traditions, and that the fields and streams of Fort Douglas offered mushroom picking and fishing to those searching for outdoor activities.
By 1930, the Utonian pictured well-dressed students registering in the Park Building, a happy freshman wearing his beanie, and a rowdy "Frosh-Soph pushball contest." Gertrude Ryberg Garff BS'35 remembers that "the social gathering place was the basement of the Park Building. We would meet our friends at the 'Pump,' which was the water fountain in the middle of the room." And she vividly recalls Homecoming 1933—"the dance in the street in front of the Park Building, and Songfest held at the U on the mountain." That U continued to be whitewashed on U Day, on which, a 1936 Chronicle noted, "the annual Sophomore-Freshman Tug-of-War is staged and luncheon is served by the girls." The combination of virility and domesticity may have been too much, as the next year students were warned that "coeds and fellows will be separated in the seating arrangements" at the football game, with the still-popular "Vigilantes" exercising "police power in enforcing the observance of this regulation."
Though perhaps least important of the effects of World War II, student life at the U felt the global changes of the '40s and '50s. Dorothy Snow BA'23 notes in Remembering that "registration of young men dropped, naturally, during this period," which meant that Kay Warner BA'46, vice president of the Women's Association, in planning an evening of entertainment in the spring of 1945, brought together all the women's organizations in a "lonely hearts" theme. "Each group produced a skit on the stage of the old Union Ballroom depicting the misfortune we all felt in being lonely coeds," Warner says. The skits also portrayed the war work Warner remembers U women doing: "buying war bonds, volunteering at USOs, canteens, and Red Cross auxiliaries, and working summers in arms plants, defense depots, air bases, and arsenals," not to mention "bus trips to Bushnell Hospital in Brigham City."
Postwar, traditions remained. Marilyn Crawford BS'49 remembers not only meeting at the College Inn (now Kinko's) after classes, but weekends during which "extracurricular activities might be centered on 'passion flats' up behind the Capitol building on the north foothills, where the view of the city was spectacular, until the city policeman nudged you away with a tap on your window." Back on campus, activities like Hello Week continued through the '50s; in addition to welcoming freshmen to the U, the week emphasized earlier traditions such as the freshman beanie and the Park Building steps being off limits to freshmen. Perhaps in the spirit of saying "hello," no vigilantes were mentioned.
Designated weeks continued, along with the competitions and queens that were an essential part of the themed activities. The Utonian marks the transformation of Hello Week into Welcome Week, along with Homecoming, U Days, Snow Carnival, and Founders' Day. In fact, Charlotte Garff Jacobsen BA'64 says that decorating the Kappa house for Homecoming and practicing for Songfest are among her favorite U memories. Even the Rostrum reappeared, a 1964 Chronicle notes, moved from the flag pole to the back of the Union, with the paint color continually changing. Jacobsen also remembers non-organized traditions such as the sprint to get from a class on Presidents Circle to one immediately following at the Annex. And while "registration was a line-hater's nightmare, as we had to stand in a separate line for every class we wanted," it was also "quite a social event because a lot of catching up went on." The Union organized committees to promote everything from bowling to folk dancing to art exhibits.
As society questioned its traditional values in the late '60s and early '70s, so too did the student body question some of the U traditions. Vietnam War protesters marched through campus, Jerry Rubin was invited to speak, the Utonian was no longer published, and the marching band was temporarily eliminated.
Heidi Sorensen Swinton BA'71, then editor of the Chronicle, remembers war protesters storming the newspaper office just after the shooting of students at Kent State. "They burned down the Intracultural Center," she says, "and then they decided to take over the student newspaper to make their concerns known to the world and to speak with a greater voice." Swinton and Angelyn Nelson Hutchinson BA'71 ended up sneaking the newspaper to University Printing Services and printing it under a police guard in the locked building.
In the decades that followed, other changes led to a decline in the student traditions that characterized the U in the first half of the century. A greater number of both students and faculty members, more nontraditional students, and the increased size of the physical campus are only some of the factors that have contributed to a winnowing of the sense of intimacy that often leads to formal and informal traditions. Still, in the '80s, the Rostrum continued to move mysteriously around campus, and registration lines were still long; in the '90s, the Office of Orientation and New Student Programs has reinstated the "Hello Week" tradition with "First Week."
But today, most students, even those who have participated in painting the Block U, unknowingly stroll across the seal in the Park Building on their way to class, still wonder when the annex buildings will be abandoned, and are often too busy running from school to job to worry about beanies and ties. Where is that Vigilance Committee?
—Theresa Desmond is managing editor of Continuum.
Copyright 1999 by The University of Utah Alumni Association