Homecoming: 100 years of history on the Hill
For students currently on the Hill, the phrase “Homecoming Weekend” likely evokes images of a cappella concerts, football tailgates and photographs with family and friends atop Miller Library. Over 100 years ago, students at the College celebrated the weekend in similar ways. They showed their Mule spirit by way of a variety of festivities planned for the alumni returning to their old stomping grounds.
The tradition of Homecoming itself began far outside of New England. Many credit the University of Missouri with the establishment of what high schools and colleges today consider Homecoming in 1911. According to Eric Anthony Joseph’s article in the Langston University Gazette, “more than 9,000 MU alums returned for a game, but also found a parade, pep rally, and other festivities awaiting them.”
However, as Joseph explained, others believe that the University of Illinois—as well as other institutions that held alumni football games—could have started the tradition earlier.
On the Hill, however, “Colby Night” became popular among students in the early twentieth century. “Some colleges have an annual Homecoming Week, others have an Alumni Day, but at Colby the tradition [had] been to celebrate the evening before the big game as Colby Night,” a 1923 Echo article explained.
The event “[occurred] the evening before Colby’s first State Series football game, usually [fell] in late October and [was] coincident with Alumni Homecoming Weekend,” according to an edition of the Echo from 1942. Students enjoyed a “big rally and bonfire…and football the next day,” College Historian Earl Smith said. Smith served in a number of positions at the College; he worked as the Dean of Students from 1976-1981 and Dean of the College from 1981 until his retirement in 2004. He is also the author of Mayflower Hill: A History of Colby College.
Following “Colby Night” was “Colby Day,” which began in the early 1900’s. The Colby Club, a former campus group composed of College officials, coordinated the event. As stated in a 1913 Echo article, “it was decided to give the college a holiday, Colby Day, every year, provided the students would promise to ‘cut out’ their annual ‘night-shirt’ parade.” Students had run this pajama parade for several years, yet faculty and college officials chose to terminate it because of the amount of destruction and property damage that resulted from it. Colby Day “was what we now call Homecoming,” Smith said. “Football was at the center of it all.”
Football and Homecoming Weekend have gone hand-in-hand on the Hill for over a century, but other activities have changed with the times. The College did not combine Homecoming and Parents’ Weekend into one event until 2000. “We actually had [two separate] weekends and…the programming was very similar. We offered the same faculty [presentations] each weekend, [so] we decided to combine forces and have a robust weekend with more people here at once,” Director of Alumni and Donor Relations Meg Bernier Boyd ’81 said.
Nowadays, parents and students often spend the weekend rushing from one athletic event, student performance or lecture to another. “I think the parents love the sessions that we have about life after Colby; [we’ve done] that type of stuff…over the years for students,” Boyd said.
In the early twentieth century, however, the weekend was focused less on students and more on alums’ return to campus. As described in the same Echo article from 1923, “…the student body [took] a back seat to the ‘old grads’” and sang “the haunting strains of that sweetest of college songs, the ‘Alma Mater.’”
Today, alumni from as far back as the class of 1940 enjoy tailgating and continue to show their school pride. C Club, an organization of alumni, parents and friends who support athletics at the College, hosts a dinner that is also popular, Boyd said. “The receptions we hold for alumni are big-ticket items, but [alums] also like going to the lectures.” While Boyd said that most of the alumni visitors are younger and live locally, “the older alumni really enjoy the chance to get back into the classroom.”
A cappella, a lasting Homecoming tradition, began during tough times. As Smith wrote in Mayflower Hill: A History of Colby College, the College cancelled the football game and limited weekend celebrations in 1947 so that students could travel down to Bar Harbor and York County to assist with damage caused by forest fires in those parts of the state. As a result of the College’s limit on celebrations, homecoming entertainment consisted of “a simple double quartet of men in bowties [who] sang barbershop harmony. The Colby Eight, formed around an old, loosely-tuned baby grand on the second floor of the new Roberts Union, was an instant success.”
Although a cappella is still an integral part of homecoming, other rituals fallen by the wayside over the years. “When my parents were here, there was a homecoming king and queen, likely a homecoming dance, more of the traditional thing you would see in the movies,” Boyd said. “[Homecoming weekend has] morphed into more of a family weekend now.”
As Smith wrote, “In 1970 [students] elected William ‘Tim’ Glidden ’74 as the first male Homecoming ‘queen.’ The old fall tradition never recovered.” Many alumni, including Boyd and her parents, who also attended the College, also remember the way in which Greek life “dominated the weekend,” Boyd said. “Everybody would go to the fraternity [or] sorority parties held after the football games.
Despite the changes made to its programming over the years, the College’s Homecoming weekend still reflects the same degree of school spirit. “If you look in the stands of the football game you’ll see alumni from all different decades...I think the Colby pride is very much there,” Boyd said. “A lot of these people are die hard Colby fans...people just love coming back.”