Solemnity and high spirits coexist through the decades
On June 15, 1892, in Encina Gym, 38 students received the first degrees conferred by nine-month-old Leland Stanford Junior University.
The male graduates “were all of them handsome, and the [four] ladies in the receipt of similar honors were bewitchingly beautiful and supremely intellectual,” wrote the San Francisco Morning Call.
Unlike the university’s freshmen, who would call themselves the “Pioneer Class” of 1895, Stanford’s first graduates had come to the new university to finish educations interrupted elsewhere. In all, there were 29 bachelor’s degree recipients and nine master’s degrees, with two women in each category. Hours after receiving their diplomas, the Call reported, most members of the Class of 1892 packed their bags in businesslike fashion and boarded trains to begin their adult lives.
The Stanford classes that followed treated Commencement very differently. They forged traditions that Stanford graduates still cherish today, including Baccalaureate, a multifaith celebratory gathering in front of Memorial Church; the class-year plaques and time capsules that line the Inner Quad; and the Commencement procession that became increasingly individualistic in the 1970s and is now popularly known as the Wacky Walk.
For decades, solemnity and high spirits have coexisted at Stanford Commencement as graduates through the decades find new ways to express pride in the university, gratitude to their loved ones, a poignant farewell to their student years and a last burst of youthful self-expression before entering the larger world.
While artisans from all over Europe and America raced to complete Memorial Church, the class of 1900 held its Commencement in a brand-new Assembly Hall in the outer Quad’s Building 120, now McClatchy Hall.
Six years later, earthquake damage obliged the Class of 1906 to hold its graduation outdoors and in September. Some seniors apparently eschewed this makeshift event and walked with the Class of 1907. Celebration and ceremony had become very important. And so had having fun.
If I may offer you a simple maxim, “Be interested.” — John W. Gardner ’33 MA ’36, Commencement 1991
The Class of 1896 was the first to lay a brass class-year plaque in the Inner Quad pavement. Earlier classes followed retroactively. From the start, the plaques concealed sealed capsules containing class lists or, later, mementos chosen by graduating seniors. The plaque ceremony followed exercises held in Memorial Church, repaired and reopened after the 1906 earthquake. Today, Baccalaureate begins in the church the day before Commencement, and participants still leave the church in a procession that symbolizes their voyage into the wider world.
Stanford’s class of 1937 was the first to graduate in Frost Amphitheater. University President Ray Lyman Wilbur urged the 1,150 graduates to avoid “coasting” through life.
In 1941, the Commencement procession marked Stanford’s 50th anniversary by featuring members of the university’s 49 graduating classes. Lou Henry Hoover ’98, Stanford’s first female Commencement speaker, promised graduates, “You will find as fascinating frontiers to explore as we did in our day.”
Three years later, the tone was very different as inductees took their diplomas in military uniform.
The redwood-leaf design that graces campus banners debuted at 1967’s Commencement, along with other university heraldic symbols designed by chemistry Professor Eric Hutchinson, a heraldry buff.
Some graduates in this Baby Boom era disdained the heraldry as an irrelevant throwback, along with academic robes that derived from medieval times.
I hope that you will never become patient about the gap between what is and what ought to be. — Archibald Cox, Commencement 1974
It wasn’t that the Baby Boomers disliked Commencement. In fact, their swelling numbers strained Frost’s capacity such that each graduate was allotted only three tickets.
Rather, they saw the event as a stage to express their personal values and their concerns about issues like pollution, civil rights and the Vietnam War.
In 1970, many of the 1,000 graduating seniors foreswore caps and gowns and donated the $10 rental fees to a national collegiate fund to support pro-peace congressional candidates. They walked in street clothes to protest U.S. policy in Indochina.
“Our protest is not a rejection of academic values, but is a rejection of business as usual when monstrous things are happening,” Barry Ensminger ’70, of the No Cap and Gown Committee, told the Stanford Daily.
Most participants that year wore dressy clothes to accept their diplomas from University President Kenneth Pitzer. The one garbed as Captain America wasn’t typical. But he augured a trend toward self-expression and irreverence.
The next year, university officials moved toward diploma conferrals by individual departments. Soon, caps and gowns were once again required.
But when Commencement moved to Stanford Stadium in 1985 (returning briefly to Frost during stadium renovations), the new venue’s vastness seemed to make room for revelry.
One 1985 graduate popped a champagne cork on the stadium field that nearly hit University President Donald Kennedy in the face during his introduction of Commencement speaker Mario Cuomo. Responded Cuomo, according to the Daily: “If you want to shoot those things, take your best shot now and then we’ll get on with it.”
Students streamed into Commencement with signs, goofy hats and such accouterments as giant beach balls, Slip ‘N Slides and even wading pools. Counting time to assemble the water toys, hurl flying discs and take group photos, it took 45 minutes for the procession to be seated.
The first mention of this by name as the Wacky Walk in the Stanford Daily is April 27, 1995, after university officials proposed to cancel the procession for taking up too much time and becoming, in the words of one, “an enormous mob scene.”
Never ask why someone else has been given more; ask why you have been given so much.
— Condoleezza Rice, Commencement 2002
After an outcry, the procession was quickly restored.
Explained one senior: “Those 45 minutes will provide the opportunity for 1,500 proud Stanfordites to have one last taste of what Stanford is really like – fun.”
Today, graduating seniors walk wackily but also realize the gravity of the moment. As Commencement speaker Steve Jobs told graduates in 2005, they aim to “stay hungry” but also to “stay foolish.”
Last time I was on this field some guy from UCLA tried to bury me right here. It’s good to be back on top of the soil. — Cory Booker ’91, Commencement 2012
As university President David Starr Jordan told graduates in 1903, they know that “The color of life is red. Life is repaid by the joy of living it.”
If our optimism doesn’t address the problems that affect so many of our fellow human beings, then our optimism needs more empathy. — Bill Gates, speaker with Melinda Gates, Commencement 2014
Watch video of recent Stanford Commencement addresses, along with a list of all the speakers and links to many of their talks.