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Beanies and Boonies:
Traditions of Student Life at St. Lawrence

By Varick A. Chittenden ’63

Bam! Bam! Bam!  The sounds of banging on doors and loud shouts in the hallways of Men’s Res on weeknights early in my freshman year are still sharp in my memory.  It was time to take a break from studying and follow “Bum” Steer (St. Lawrence’s star hockey goalie) and other members of the L Club for a little “orientation.”  We green freshmen would hustle down to the interior quad, or the Common Room in bad weather, and follow their orders: Do duck walks in large circles, recite silly verse, do some push-ups, sing a St. Lawrence song, find our own shoes from a heap we had created.  Break or ignore the rules, pay the price later!   It was a tradition, one of many that were part of student life in the early 1960s.

Such behavior, and the stories told about it, was an important part of college students’ lives in our time.  We may never have thought of either the behavior or the stories as folklore because we learned them so casually, we never really knew where they came from, we shared them with new students easily and, especially in years after, we didn’t take them very seriously.  But on closer examination, life for many at St. Lawrence–whenever we were students–was full of rituals, celebrations, legends, tall tales, heroes and villains.

In the 150-year history of St. Lawrence, many customs have come and gone; others have survived.  Daily religious services (with required attendance), debating societies and annual class banquets all had their day and are long gone. On the other hand, the daily ringing of the chimes of Gunnison Memorial Chapel has been a ritual for going on 80 years.

Annual institutional traditions, like Convocation, the Candlelight Service (now the Service of Lessons and Carols), ODK tapping, Commencement and Reunion Weekend, each has a carefully crafted series of events and prescribed roles for faculty, students or others.  Seldom do these vary much. They confirm order and dignity in the academic world.  How can we forget the warmth and beauty of the chapel decorated for the holidays and completely bathed in the light of hundreds of small candles lifted high in the air, or the colorful regalia of professors purposely marching a little out of step into the rows of chairs at graduation each spring? 

No Questions Asked
It’s the informal and student-generated traditions, however, that most of us remember from our undergraduate years.  For me, it all began the day I arrived on campus in September 1959.  Shortly after we unloaded my parents’ car and I saw them off, I was directed to a small room where I was given a pile of goods that I was told to value with my life: a scarlet and brown beanie about three sizes too small, a bright red bow tie, and a large white placard with a loop of string attached, on which was written in large black Magic Marker letters my name and hometown.  Like every other entering student, from that minute forward I was to wear them all in public until notified otherwise, no questions asked.

That was the first of many St. Lawrence traditions I encountered in my college life, most of which I remember fondly to this day. Freshman hazing–a term that seems a little harsh when it describes much more destructive behavior today than any we knew--was not much fun at the time.
Big Weekends
In that same era, Homecoming Weekend was a highlight for many students.  There were several other big social weekends in the year as well; most have diminished or, like Homecoming, disappeared.  For Sigma Chi, Derby Day featured games on the Quad and a big dance or a concert or both-- in 1962, Louis Armstrong filled Appleton Arena with students and townspeople. The SAEs broke up the doldrums of winter with Yukon Day, complete with beard contests and sled races. Leigh Berry ’64 remembers MERP (Male Economic Recovery Program) Weekend, akin to Sadie Hawkins Day, when women asked men to be their dates.  Leigh says, “I never had much money, so I had to be creative, but that made it more fun.” 
Then there were the Mistletoe Ball, the Alpha Auction and, of course, Winter Carnival, a high point of the year especially for Greeks with their healthy rivalry to build the most ambitious and spectacular thematic snow sculptures.  For sorority women, one of the fondest end-of-year traditions was the strawberry breakfasts at their houses on Moving-Up Day weekend.
Expressions of Belonging
People in institutional settings, especially those without much power, often create ways to cope. Thus it has always been with students, and those informal ways that are in defiance of rules or norms often become entrenched.  They are passed down, are learned by word-of-mouth or example, and are subject to variation, particularly from place to place. These expressions of identification with St. Lawrence, or with a smaller community within it (a Tri-Delt, a hockey player, a Laurentian Singer), whether oral, musical, behavioral or material, are folklore.

For nearly everything, regardless, it seems there is a story.  I remember some, most likely half-truths and rumors or exaggerations, but they’re part of how I think of St. Lawrence. Professors were good for a few. Prof. William Mallam let his dog into his early-morning history classes after his lecture began, but not his students. Those of us who took Constitutional Law lived in fear of Dr. Harry Reiff, a brilliant, old-school professor who was very demanding and authoritarian. Every long Wednesday night was “give your life to Reiff night” as we prepared for his weekly tests on court cases. Dean of Women Doris Stout was widely reputed to require “girls” not to wear red since it provoked passionate behavior, or patent leather shoes since they could act as mirrors. 

Tradition and Change
Shortly after my time at St. Lawrence, life for students began to change significantly. Civil rights, Vietnam, Watergate, the women’s movement: as on many campuses, St. Lawrence students were finding their own voices in response to those broader social movements. “Tradition” stood for the old authority and conformity--exactly what students of the late ’60s thought needed changing.  Ginny Schwartz, who came to St. Lawrence in 1971 as dean of freshman women, part of a growing staff of professional student service personnel, says that colleges like St. Lawrence began creating “a gentler, more nourishing learning and living environment.”  She and her colleagues sought to alter St. Lawrence to succeed with a new generation of students.

Yet, Schwartz maintains that students seem to be hungry for traditions. “They want to feel part of something that’s been around a while,” she says. “In fact, they often seize on something that’s been going on for only three or four years and insist that it’s a tradition.” 
In response to that need, some “traditional” campus activities in recent years have been initiated by administrators, although students have often picked up the ball.  The Outing Club of old was revived in Peter Van de Water’s day in student services in the 1980s, and continues to thrive; its Peak Weekend, when at least one St. Lawrence student climbs to the top of each of the 46 Adirondack high peaks, has become a fall highlight. The Quad Experience, begun by Schwartz and the staff in the early 1970s as an experiment in introducing first-year students to college life, with group activities and games, is today more formal, with remarks by the president and dean and some rituals, like passing torches to light candles.

Traditions, old or new, satisfy a need in all of us.  While we may not have thought much about St. Lawrence folklore at the time, these informal moments–and many more–that we took for granted were significant, when silly behavior was serious and becoming part of something much bigger than each of us was very important.

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