Commencement quirks and oddities

College commencements always carry a tension between a sense of decorum and even solemnity and a desire for celebratory frivolity. Davidson has had some unusual commencements.


1842 Program titled, "Order Of The Exercises On Commencement day"
Early Davidson commencements were multi-day affairs and students early on took leading roles in engaging speakers and organizing musical events to lighten up the hours of speeches that were an essential part of the program.

The first commencement was in 1840 with 11 students graduating.

1871 program titled, "Philanthropic & Eumenean Literary Societies"By 1854, we were up to 16 graduates but a student revolt in December 1854 reduced the 1855 graduating class to 3. Despite the small class, the literary societies held their regular program of speeches including a guest speaker, the Rev. J. Jones Smyth of Greensboro.

President McPhailPerhaps the most solemn commencement happened in 1871, when ailing college president George McPhail died during the first day of commencement activities.  All other activities were canceled.

Document titled, "Class Day" that includes planting a class tree and "Senior Dramatics" for the year 1895The class of 1895 added to the usual festivities by not only planting a class tree but also by convincing the faculty to give permission for “Senior Dramatics” as part of the class exercises and temporarily ending the ban on drama productions (the faculty later revoked this privilege).

Over the years, commencement activities have been pared down with fewer speeches, no plays or tree planting.  In 1961, the ceremony was further reduced in response to the valedictorian and salutatorian speeches of 1960. The salutatorian speech was, “Much as been written, and much said, and those who wrote, or spoke, are either dying, or dead. Jesus said, before he died, love one another. I have nothing significant to add.”

Most Davidson commencements have happened indoors – the largest hall in the original Chambers Building was originally called commencement hall. It was not until 1962 that the college began the tradition of outdoor ceremonies — a tradition that is not easily compatible with long speeches.

Beginning in 1963, the college has not had a speaker — allowing the ceremony to be focused on the students.  The college president is allowed to speak — but in 1968 president D. Grier Martin elected to cut his words short as storm clouds rolled in.  The class of 1983 waited out a storm and had their final moments of bonding while setting up chairs overnight to have their outdoor ceremony.

Around the D wishes the class of 2010 a beautiful – and non-quirky ceremony!

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