Oberlin Alumni Magazine

Summer 2009 Vol. 104 No. 4 OAM Home | Oberlin Online

When Does a Tradition become a Tradition?

Photos by Janine Bentivegna, Gary Cohen ’10, Yvonne Gay Fowler, Jeff Hagan ’86, Ma’ayan Plaut ’10, Dale Preston ’83, John Seyfried, and Mary Lou Spinner Lydecker ’74

Thomas Sherman ’09 (right) (G) James Rinaldi (center) has attended four Oberlin graduations, those of daughter Devon Clare ’64 (left), son Matthew Rinaldi ’69 (right), and his two grandchildren, Jacob ’07 and Amy, who graduated in May Honorary Degree Recipients (for full listing, visit Commencement web site) Jane Sandberg ’10 serving at the all-OSCA picnic Celebrating at the Feve are a group of seniors Celebrating at the Feve is Zenith Richards ’09 with his family OCircus at Hales Gym

To some, Illumination is a quintessential part of Oberlin’s Commencement tradition, seeming to stretch back to the beginning of the college’s history and guaranteed to be part of the Oberlin story forever. But it didn’t actually start as a commencement tradition, and it hasn’t been kept up as dutifully as is often imagined. In fact, Oberlin’s traditions are much more malleable than many alumni believe. The enduring customs of the ages actually took ages to evolve.

(A) Yolanda Walker ’09, clad in South Africa’s colors
(B) Rieko Yamauchi ’09

While Tappan Square was indeed the location of the earliest annual celebrations and commencements, the graduation ceremony was held in First Church for 65 years and Finney Chapel for nearly 50 before settling on the square in 1957. The Baccalaureate ceremony that takes place the day before Commencement seems cemented to Oberlin’s founding, but a speech designated as the Baccalaureate address didn’t take place until 25 years later. Illumination first celebrated Abraham Lincoln’s election, and later, an Oberlin president’s inauguration (see Illumination story).

Graduates of the 1980s and later may think of the concert by the steel drum band (what used to be the Can Consortium and is now Oberlin Steel) as synonymous with Commencement. Graduates of the 1990s have always known the Grand Piano Extravaganza. Tomorrow’s graduates may assume Circus has been around since Philo Stewart—or at least Bill Irwin. Meanwhile, 1959 graduates on campus for their 50th reunion who expected a show of uniform academic regalia may have been disappointed or delighted by the colorful hodgepodge of formal and casual attire they witnessed in this year’s procession, a tradition since the early 1970s. For many years, graduates filed under the Memorial Arch toward Commencement; others avoided walking under the arch as a political statement. In ’92 the faculty voted against caps and gowns while student sentiment favored it—1892, that is. (An academic paper on the history of the academic procession at Oberlin is available online at new.oberlin.edu/dotAsset/899625.pdf—it makes for great reading!)

(C) Rosa Tu ’11 of Oberlin Steel

As always, Oberlin is in the midst of innovations that may be the start of new traditions. A tractor fueled by recycled cooking oil kept the Oberlin grounds well-manicured, and paper plates were abandoned in favor of china as Oberlin continued in its five-year plan to make Commencement a climate-neutral event, which included donations to a carbon-offset fund. And Commencement itself shifted 90 degrees, from the western to the northern end of Tappan Square.

(D) Rev. Professor Peter J. Gomes, surprised by a sudden burst of affection from a woman who attended his Baccalaureate address.
(E) Ruth Weiss Bollinger ’59 and Joe Hickerson ’57

This year, the 150th Baccalaureate address took place, the Grand Piano Extravaganza took the stage for its 20th year, and the Oberlin Alumni Association turned 170 years old.

Along with about 700 men and women receiving degrees, and reunions of the classes of 1943-45, 1959, 1973-75, 1984, and 1993-95, there was a lot to celebrate during the Commencement/ Reunion Weekend. And that’s been an Oberlin tradition from the start.

(F) President Marvin Krislov and Dean of the Conservatory David Stull ’89

(H) Alumni Association President Bill Hilton ’65

(I) Assistant Director of Stewardship Marcus Fowler (left) and Shane Rock ’84 (right)

(J) Verlinda Powell ’95 (left) and Melora Bentz ’94 (right) post class gift totals at the Champagne Luncheon

(L) Peter Miller ’84 views the Frank Kuchirchuk Collection of Jazz Photography exhibition at the Con

(M) Esther Hunt ’29 was honored at the Half-Century Club dinner

(N) Nina Moffit Ensemble performs outside multifaith Baccalaurreate celebration
(O) Scott McInerney ’09 dances—every move—to Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It) at the ’Sco

(P) The 35th Cluster Reunion concert in Warner Hall, featuring (l to r) James David Christie ’75, Gretchen Hewitt ’74, Kathy Chiavola ’74, Katherine (Penny) Kemler ’73, Greer Ellison Wolfson ’74, Howard Lubin ’75, Wendy Rolfe-Dunham ’74, Howard Spindler ’74

For more information about Oberlin’s commencement traditions, read Robert Haslun’s 1973 piece printed in the Commencement program book and available online at www.oberlin.edu/archive/resources/oberlin/