Homecoming Through the Ages

Anticipation is thick in the air as the University of Redlands prepares for this year’s homecoming weekend. The groundskeepers are trying to mask the drought by creating lush, green lawns, administrators are tidying their paper-strewn desks, and fraternities and sororities are initiating new pledges and revving up for a weekend of reunions and parties. It’s going to be a busy weekend, so let’s take a look at how homecoming has evolved over the past sixty years.

Homecoming is a massive keystone in American culture. As a foreigner, I can say that when asked what comes to mind as quintessentially American, homecoming falls somewhere between Thanksgiving, fast food and (American) football. Countless movies and TV shows display homecoming (typically under the guise of a high school homecoming dance – one of the most important events in a teenager’s life, if pop culture is to be believed), and it combines what many Americans keep close to their hearts: holding onto the past, football, and the opportunity to show off.

These three elements, along with that intangible spirit of homecoming, have remained constant for the past half-century, but the details of the weekend have certainly changed. Char Burgess, Vice President of the University and Dean of Student Life, describes her own experiences as an undergraduate at U of R in the 60s.

“It was still very formal,” Burgess said. “People would get dressed up in suits to go to the football game, and they had a tradition of selling these huge chrysanthemums with a big pipe-cleaner R on top of it. It was a totally different time and a totally different experience.”

The Redlands students of past times also made massive floats every year that were displayed in a big parade. Burgess remembers, “they were made of these tissues, crepe paper, and all the people in the organizations created the float to go with the theme of homecoming, and spent days decorating these floats.”

Jeff Martinez, Director of Athletics, also commented on the many different themes of homecoming over the years. Examples of Homecoming themes from the past include “How the West Was Won” (in hindsight, resulting in some unfortunate depictions of Native Americans) in the 50s and “The Golden Age of Hollywood” in 1987. Not only would these themes shape the floats, but the residence halls would be similarly decked out, with one hall winning a prize for best decorated.

In recent years, the University hasn’t had themes for homecoming, but now utilizes much more intentional programming. If you take a glance at the program for the weekend, you’ll be forgiven if you feel slightly overwhelmed, with a smorgasbord of Greek lunches, cultural events like the New Works and Craft Beer and Wine Tasting festivals, and athletic competitions, including of course, the big football game (this year against La Verne University). When asked whether he thinks we’re going to win this year, Martinez laughingly responded,

“I always think we’re gonna win”. Although he admits, “the football game is always a big part [of homecoming],” he goes on to talk about the other athletic events being equally as important, including women’s soccer and water polo.

At the University of Redlands, however, it’s not athletics but the major speaker that is arguably the biggest event of the weekend. This year, we welcome Elizabeth Gilbert, journalist and author of the bestselling memoir “Eat, Pray, Love” to campus. She will draw from her latest book, “Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear,” to demystify the creative process and talk about how every single person can tap from inner sources of inspiration and connect with their own creativity.

Connection is emphasized over and over, both by the school’s advertising for homecoming and by members of the administration, as being the most essential part of homecoming at Redlands. Char Burgess describes it best:

“The essence of homecoming is the total experience of coming back and just connecting”. Whether that is connecting with people, an event or an athletic contest doesn’t really matter, because “the important thing is [alumni] coming back and reconnecting with the institution (…) and the more connected they are the most supportive they are.”

The importance of connection – of being at one with the community and showing your Bulldog pride – is something that has held steady over the past sixty years, and will continue for many decades to come. Hopefully, everyone is able to catch at least one or two of the many events being held this weekend and form as many connections as possible.

[Image courtesy of University Archives, (1964, note the incorrect spelling of Gloria)]