Breaking watches and growing ivy; commencement traditions

From the first Commencement on Sept. 2, 1795, when Williams awarded degrees to four men in an old meeting house, to now, with an open-air ceremony for hundreds of graduates in a packed science quad, Williams Commencements have undergone many changes. Throughout it all, however, old traditions have survived and more recent ones have begun.

Among Commencement Weekend events with roots in Williams’ past are such quirky events as the dropping of a watch from the tower of Thompson Memorial Chapel, as well as Ivy Exercises and the new tradition of gathering for Lightnight.

Stopping time from 80 feet up

The tradition of dropping a pocket watch from the tower of Thompson Memorial Chapel on Class Day has continued throughout the years, with the class president and vice president ascending the chapel tower to do the honors. The breaking of the watch upon hitting the pavement 80 feet below has come to be a token of good luck for the graduating class.

The first watch-dropping took place in 1916, and was, according to that year’s June 21 issue of the Springfield Republican, a “spur of the moment” event. The first of what was to become an annual tradition came about when, having finished singing “The Mountains,” the 1916 graduating class was debating what effect a fall from the top of the Chapel tower would have on a human body.

Wanting to perform the test on something with a reputation for being unbreakable, they decided to use an Ingersoll watch. They immediately started a collection and bought what the Springfield Republican article called one of the “dollar brand.” The watch, surviving the fall, stood up to its reputation, and as the article said, “was found, imbedded in the earth, somewhat battered and beaten, the case very much scratched, but the works still ticking valiantly away.” Given that the breaking of a watch is a token of good luck, in future years, the class presidents bought one that did break.

In the past, Goodman’s Jewelers on Spring Street donated a pocket watch. They no longer do so, although they still emboss the watch with the College seal.

The watch will be dropped by the class president and vice president, Catherine Bagley and Dede Orraca-Tetteh. If the watch does not break the first time, the president and vice president must run back up to the top of the chapel and drop it until it does break. In the past there have been very strong opinions about throwing techniques. Traditionalists feel the watch should only be dropped, while others, more concerned with the future of the graduating class, recommend the president throw the watch – hard.

A close look at the the area of impact in front of the Chapel reveals a concrete pathway flanked by grass on either side; so, although the watch might not break if it hit the grass, the concrete area is large and difficult to miss. Throughout the years, a common concern among class presidents is that the watch will miss the concrete, and hit the grass.

However, a far greater fear for any president with vertigo would be leaning over the edge of Thompson Chapel to launch the watch. Tradition has it that the president and vice president must lift their feet off the ground as they drop the watch. Do not fear, security officers often hold on to their feet to ensure that they don’t topple over the edge.

Once the watch breaks, the president and vice president are entitled to its remains. The president receives the engraved back and the vice president the inner workings.

Although it was not part of the initial tradition, somewhere in its history the breaking of the watch came to symbolize the stopping of time and thus perhaps represents the preserving of memories.

Planting ivy at West College

Ivy exercises involve a graduating senior planting ivy next to a wall or building, and performances by the class poet, historian and a music performance. Although the exact origin of the tradition is unknown, there are references to Ivy Exercises in Class Day programs as early as 1861. Currently, the senior class president and vice president plant the class ivy next to West College.

The class poet, chosen by the class officers, composes a poem for the ceremony.

The possible symbolism of the planting ceremony is that the ivy climbing up the side of West College is a way to show “solidarity with other classes and school spirit.”

As the members of the graduating class go their separate ways and begin their lives away from Williams, the ivy they planted as a class will continue to grow. Like the ivy, the senior class will, over time, branch out in different directions, but ultimately all have roots at Williams.

Gathering for Lightnight

Lightnight, a more recent Williams tradition, has been a part of Williams Commencement activities since 1986. Stephen Fix, Dean of the College from 1985 to 1992, who was involved in the creation of Lightnight, said in 1986 a number of changes were made in an effort to expand the number of events held during Commencement Weekend.

Lightnight, as well as the faculty-student picnic Thursday of senior week, came out of an effort to create events where graduates, their families and faculty could gather. Fix noted that such an event had been lacking after Class Day, and that there was no gathering involving the entire graduating class, their families and faculty until the next day at Commencement. Lightnight was an effort to fill this gap, providing a chance for graduates and their families to mingle and meet each other. Fix said, “[Lightnight] is very well attended, and it gives people a gathering place Saturday evening.”

During Lightnight, many campus buildings are bathed in light and candles are placed along Chapin lawn. About the decor of Lightnight, Fix said, “We wanted to do something involving light, something that would make the campus look dramatically different from every other night.” Lightnight involves spotlighting various campus buildings. Although the buildings lit vary from year to year, they typically include Griffin, Adams Memorial Theater, West, Hopkins and sometimes the President’s House.

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