College’s Commencement features quirky, colorful history
By Heather Szilagyi, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Saturday, June 9, 2012
If members of the Class of 2012 were graduating 200 years ago, they would be subjected to a ceremony conducted entirely in Latin, the official language of Commencement until 1827. Latin has not been spoken at Commencement since 1892, but as members of the Class of 2012 graduate, they will still take part in traditions as old as Dartmouth itself.
While the core of the ceremony remains largely the same, the 242-year history of Commencement has witnessed a significant amount of variation — and a great degree of mishap and intrigue.
Dartmouth’s first Commencement was held on Aug. 28, 1771, near Reed Hall, just one year after the graduating class arrived.
Four men were presented with degrees from the College, one of whom was the son of College founder and President Eleazar Wheelock. Because the College did not have any trustees at that time, graduates’ degrees were unsigned.
All four men studied for three years at Yale University before coming to Dartmouth, and two earned their Dartmouth degrees for their roles as “missionaries among the remote Indians,” according the New Hampshire Gazette of Portsmouth.
A number of prestigious guests were in attendance at the first Commencement, including New Hampshire Gov. John Wentworth, who provided a roasted ox and a barrel of rum for the audience. The chefs, however, supposedly became so intoxicated from the rum that they were unable to cook the meal.
Legend also has it that a Native American orator delivered a speech from an overhanging branch of a pine tree.
On the day before Commencement, known as Class Day, seniors used to march to the Lone Pine to smoke a clay pipe and hear the “sachem orator” give the class prophecy and Old Pine Address. The graduating class was seated “Indian fashion” around the stump as clay peace pipes were passed around the circle and subsequently smashed on the stump.
Early commencements featured orations, poems and dialogues in Greek, Chaldaic, French, Hebrew, English and Latin.
Since its beginnings, community members celebrated Commencement as a holiday that featured various forms of revelry and pleasure. The 1794 Commencement featured a horse race, one local resident noted in his diary.
For the first two-thirds of the 19th century, huge numbers of people flocked to Hanover to celebrate and partake in the excitement that enveloped campus. The Green was filled with booths and tents selling food, drinks and an unending variety of miscellaneous items. Jugglers, auctioneers and mountebanks — individuals who sold illegitimate medicines — were commonly in attendance.
The 1833 Commencement had 30 gambling booths and 12 auctioneers on the Green who shouted so loudly that they could be heard during the indoor graduation ceremonies, as English professor Francis Lane Childs wrote in a Commencement history in the early 1900s.
These more rambunctious elements of Commencement were gradually eliminated and the ceremony was moved from August to July.
During the early part of the 19th century, a Commencement audience could expect to hear 10 to 20 speeches.
In 1835, former College President Nathan Lord, a firm believer in egalitarianism, abolished all competitions, ranks and honors and instead required all graduating students deliver a 10-minute speech on an assigned subject. That year, 48 speeches were given and the event lasted an entire day.
After four years of this practice, only half of the class, chosen by a lottery, was required to give an oration. When Lord resigned, honors and selected speakers were immediately reinstated.
Perhaps one of the most unusual and poignant Commencement ceremonies took place in 1947, when the College granted degrees to 542 men, then the largest graduating class in Dartmouth history.
The students, many of whom were veterans of World War II, spanned 12 class years, ranging from 1936 to 1949. To accommodate the increased size of the event, the ceremony was moved from Webster Hall to the Bema.
Former College President John Sloan Dickey delivered a short but well-received address that praised the veterans for completing their Dartmouth education, concluding with his traditional phrase, “The word is ‘so long’ because in the Dartmouth fellowship there is no parting.”
Another notable Commencement was in 1953, when former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower received an honorary Doctorate of Laws degree and delivered the address. Preparations for that year’s Commencement Exercises were particularly elaborate and included extensive security measures by the Secret Service.
The unprecedented high attendance of 10,000 people forced the relocation of Commencement exercises from the Bema to the Green in front of Baker Library.
Eisenhower’s impromptu speech made national headlines as a passionate crusade against Communism in which he proclaimed, “Don’t join the book-burners! Have courage to look at the truth and fight evil with knowledge!”
Last year, Conan O’Brien’s Commencement address also received wide acclaim and is likely to be remembered for years to come for its unique mix of humor and worldly advice.
“With your college diploma you now have a crushing advantage over eight percent of the workforce,” O’Brien said. “I’m talking about dropout losers like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg.”
Dartmouth’s Commencement has also included esteemed speakers such as Walt Whitman in 1872, Robert Frost in 1933 and Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1938.
United States presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Bill Clinton have also addressed the graduating seniors.
This year, Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp will join the ranks of Commencement speakers who have shared their words of wisdom with Dartmouth’s graduating class.