A Sesquicentennial gallery of some distinctively "Rochester" undergraduate traditions
Undergraduate traditions, like undergraduate students, are a bit of a moving target. They come and go at more or less regular intervals, to be succeeded by new generations that will in turn also leave their mark on Alma Mater.
Shaped by the University's history, Rochester's traditions have evolved over the last 150 years from the donnybrooks enjoyed by an all-male student body during the first half-century, to the separate traditions that grew up in coordinate colleges for men and women over the next 50 years, to the gender-blended entertainments that followed the union of the two colleges in the 1950s.
The following pages chronicle a few of those traditions that have flourished among Rochester's College students over the years--from gum-shoe fights in the 19th century to tunnel-painting in the 21st.
In the University's early days, it was tradition for the sophomore class to ceremonially burn, bury, drown, or otherwise exterminate "calculus" at the end of the required--and generally detested--course.
In observance of the ritual, sophomore students processed to the secret site of annihilation (it was part of the challenge to keep time and place concealed from rival freshmen). There, dressed in mock mourning and with elaborate ceremony, the executioners submitted the "bones" of calculus (that is, textbooks) to their ultimate doom.
The Class of 1886 records that its members journeyed by train to Niagara Falls, where they placed their bête noir on its Goat Island funeral pyre to the accompaniment of orations delivered, with "lavish superfluity," in Greek, Latin, Italian, German, French, and English.
Boar's Head Dinner
Gender-blended Boar's Head feast, 1999
Legend has it that back in 16th century Oxford, a student strolling in the woods was set upon by a wild boar. The stroller retaliated by stuffing his copy of Aristotle down the creature's throat, which promptly choked to death on the "dry stuff," allowing our hero to escape. In gratitude, fellow students carried the beast back to the university, where they replaced Aristotle with an apple and enjoyed roast boar for dinner.
Rochester students adopted the tradition in 1934, initiating what has become one of the University's longest-running and most beloved annual events. Modeled on English court dinners of the 16th and 17th centuries, the feast begins with a trumpet call and procession of students, faculty, and administrators clad, not always equally becomingly, in more or less authentic period costume.
For nearly 40 years the Boar's Head Dinner was an exclusively male event until the University's Women's Caucus, in a letter to the Campus Times, expressed its discontent over conspicuous gender discrimination. (See Letters to the Editor for more on this.) Before long the feast was made coed, and so it remains.
These and similarly exhilarating melees often were subdued by President Anderson, who rushed about wielding his walking stick. This may have been the inspiration for the "well-regulated, systematic" Cane Rush by which the '80s classes sought to channel--or perhaps enhance--sibling competition.
According to an account in the 1890 Interpres, the contest began "at the discharge of a pistol," whereupon opposing lines of freshmen and sophomores rushed at a cane gripped by two of their respective classmates. Victory was declared by the class that in the end found itself in sole possession of the stick--or its surviving "bits and pieces."
The report doesn't specify the time of year, but one may hope it was relatively warm, "for at the close, shirts and trousers were scattered over the ground promiscuously." The event was proudly recorded as "giving complete satisfaction to the audience."
Direct descendant of the Cane Rush was the 20th-century Flag Rush observed until 1964, at which point prudence declared that enough undergraduate limbs had been bent, broken, or otherwise impaired to warrant its discontinuance.
In this event the prize was a very small flag securely nailed to the top of a well-greased pole defended by a dense circle of blood-thirsty sophomores. If, as almost always happened, the attackers failed to capture the flag, they were required to wear their freshman beanies until the end of the semester and--after they moved to the generously tunneled River Campus--prohibited from traveling cross-campus above ground.
Recalls a member of the class of 1961 (which distinguished itself by managing to capture the prize), "The event involved a lot of pushing and shoving, clawing and climbing, rotten eggs, water bombs, rotten tomatoes, and sacks full of horse manure." It was, he understated, "a pretty sloppy business."
Another account records that "solid projectiles were forbidden, but nice soft materials were fair game." The "soft materials," however, appear to have carried their own hazards. "Pig manure," we are told, "does tend to ferment at room temperature," and when the top blows off the container, it is followed by "very unpleasant olfactory repercussions."
"Co-ords" later engaged in more elaborate competitions. In the 1940s, for instance, freshmen and sophomores fought for supremacy in a complicated game of hide-and-seek staged in a hilly local park. A rather more subdued version of the Flag Rush, the contest tended to run more to blisters and lost "freshies" than to bashed heads and broken bones.
First-year students also were ritually hazed. The war-time class of 1946 welcomed its little sisters by requiring them to parade around campus sporting paper soldier hats and broomstick rifles and (what kind of a uniform was this?) layering skirts over their "dungarees."
Juniors, on the other hand, were kinder to incoming students, hosting them at the traditional "Frosh Camp" before classes began in the fall. Here, in an informal off-campus setting, beanie-wearing freshmen learned school songs, devised their class yell, and got to know their classmates and professors.
Both men and women (separately) observed the freshman camp tradition, beginning in the 1920s and persisting into the '60s. First-year students today are welcomed into the College community during orientation sessions conducted in the same casual spirit at home on the campus.
Q Club and K-scope
Its intent wasn't to needle anyone, but from its inception, Quilting Club had a way of keeping its audience in stitches. The annual production debuted in 1939 at the College for Men and for years presented musical comedies, written, directed, acted, danced, and sung by its members. Since "Q Club" was an all-male ensemble, female roles were assumed by versatile Rochester men--flamboyantly in drag (they loved it). The group pieced together such shows as The Ape Walks In (a respectable effort, but reviewed as a "dull thud"), Right About Face ("good hard honest work"), and (put on your life vests for this one)--South Pathetic.
For women over on Prince Street who needed more drama in their lives, there was Kaleidoscope, which made its first appearance in 1910 as a money-raiser for the YWCA. The all-female production--self-described in 1942 as "a mass of thrills, excitement, and fun"--was, like Q Club, an original student effort. Just as the men were tickled to sport pearls, pumps, and (smirk) petticoats for their productions, the Prince Street women made it clear they could perform equally well without their River Campus counterparts, even in roles like "Don Juan" or "A Caveman" (certainly some creative costuming was required for the latter).
Perhaps the most notorious K-Scope was the 1939 production, On the Brink, a satire on the international situation brashly publicized by a telegram to Adolf Hitler asking him to hold off from war so as not to outdate its theme.
The curtain fell for gender-exclusive Quilting Clubs and Kaleidoscopes when in the 1961-62 season they got their acts together and performed as one group--the Jesters. Rochester women and men continue to stage comedy, musical, and dramatic productions under the same proscenium today. But they're usually written by someone else.
Dandelion and Yellowjacket DaysLike bookends flanking the start and finish of the academic year, the Dandelion and Yellowjacket holidays welcome students in the fall and offer a last fling before exams in the spring.
Dandelion Day, which blossomed in the early 1950s, may have been inspired by 19th-century Field Days showing off athletic prowess in events like baseball throwing, sack races, and what was billed as the "hop, skip, and jump" (best record, 40 feet, 4 inches).
Born at a time when the school year began and ended about a month later than it does now, the close-of-classes holiday actually coincided with the blooming of the dandelions. In the early days, a muddy freshman-sophomore tug-of-war fought over a creek in Genesee Valley Park highlighted the day's activities, which also included an NROTC parade, prize-giving, a barbecue, and a dance.
Today's Dandelion Day, like its sister celebration, Yellowjacket Day (initiated in 1976), focuses on more contemporary entertainments--amusement park rides, festival food, and street performers. In any case, by tradition, a good time is had by all.
Tunnel PaintingTunnel travel has been a way of life at the River Campus since its first days in 1930. In the early years "lowly freshmen" were consigned to an underground existence, even in clement weather, by their sophomore masters--and all students then and since have ducked below ground during the inclement stuff.
The tunnels have (of course) been the object of student pranks. On one famous occasion, the main cross-campus link was cinder-blocked at both ends by a hard-working nocturnal crew. The passageways have also been used for student research, says Ilene Busch-Vishniac '76, now dean of engineering at Johns Hopkins. She remembers bursting balloons and firing starter pistols in the echoing halls while studying the behavior of sound waves. (She has since become an expert in the design of highway sound barriers.)
The custom of painting the walls of the cross tunnel originated around the turn of the '70s, when student philosophers began affixing their aphorisms. Samples: "Life is a category mistake." "Is there life after birth? Only your guru knows for sure." And, candidly, "This is a good tunnel but not a great one."
More recently tunnel-painting has become more of a group activity, with expressions of love and loyalty among Greek organizations alternating with a heads-up for one or another organization's "Awareness Week."
Azariah Boody Society
And here's another, budding, tradition that first made itself known at last fall's College Convocation:
It seems that as University Dean of Students Paul Burgett stood up to lead "The Genesee," masked intruders took to the stage.
They had, they declared, stolen the cherished dandelion emblem from the façade of the athletic center. (Actually it had been removed during the center's current renovation, but that's another story.)
The assembled freshmen were invited to secure its return by completing a scenic paper chase across campus, retrieving photographs of the abducted floral icon hidden along the way.
Thus was launched what may be the beginning of another long-running tradition. The perps, it has been revealed, are members of the Azariah Boody Society, a secret organization self-proclaimed as dedicated to promoting school spirit.
Boody, as any self-respecting Rochester graduate should know, was the original owner of the University's first campus, on Prince Street. The well-fertilized Boody cow pasture is said to be responsible for the profusion of dandelions that distinguished that campus and led to the flower's adoption as the school symbol. (An illustration of the "If you can't fight 'em, join 'em" mentality?)
Boody conspirators work quietly and in mask--presumably at night. So far they have been stirring things up by dressing the Anderson statue as what might or might not be construed as a field-hockey player--or possibly a shipwreck survivor--and, at mid-year break, replacing the Wilson Commons clock hands with a timeless "Happy Holidays" message marked with their signature "A.B." monogram.
Perhaps a new tradition has been seeded at Rochester, and the idea that the school does have spirit--albeit that of a long-gone landowner--seems to be growing with the newest crop of undergraduates.
Much of the material in this story has been drawn from the forthcoming pictorial history of the University, Beside the Genesee. To find out how you can obtain your copy, check the Alumni Association announcements.
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