Tommie Traditions: Homecoming

Yesterday Once More

The College of St. Thomas held its first Homecoming on May 21, 1918. It was a modest affair, compared to what it would become in just a few years. No bonfire. No dance. The purpose of Homecoming was more simple and straightforward then. It lasted one full day, beginning with an early morning blessing of a handmade service flag to honor those killed in action, followed by a regimental parade, lunch, a baseball game (against Macalester), dinner and a reception.

But gathering alumni for one day wasn’t so simple. It was the era of World War I. Unknown to the organizers, the Armistice that would end the war was just shy of six months away. So they wrote letters to each alumnus’ respective commander and requested furloughs on the men’s behalf so that they could attend.

St. Thomas’ Homecoming has evolved much since its introduction 95 years ago. The colossal bonfires, much beloved in the tradition’s first half, flickered off and on and scaled down before being extinguished in the 1990s. Parades have come and gone and come back again. New events have surfaced and disappeared. But the nucleus of Homecoming – a trifecta of the big football game, the gathering of alumni and school spirit – has remained.

Homecoming float featuring a smokehouse and a banner which says "Smoke out the Pipers." Football players Tom Preston (left) and Nick Combs (right) are seated on float. From the University Archives photo collection.

This 1950 Homecoming float featured a smokehouse and a banner that reads "Smoke out the Pipers." Football players Tom Preston (68) and Nick Combs (70) are seated on the float. (From the University Archives photo collection.)

The great American Homecoming tradition

Like most American colleges and universities, football is the St. Thomas tradition around which all Homecoming festivities revolve and all alumni and current students look forward to. Football games have steadfastly been played at every St. Thomas Homecoming since 1921, with the exceptions of 1943 and 1944 during World War II, a time when enrollment hovered just below 100 due to the massive number of students serving in the war.

For many years a pep rally, in conjunction with a bonfire, took place the night before the game to incite the fans and team to victory. St. Thomas still holds a Homecoming pep rally that is held over the lunch hour.

Game-day entertainment has ranged from the tame – homecoming queen and king coronations, marching bands and snake dances (popular conga line-esque dances often performed by students during Homecomings of the first half of the 20th century) – to the bedazzling: an aerial circus flown directly above the football field led by St. Thomas student 2nd Lt. John Kipp in 1930 that included loop-the-loops, barrel rolls and “Flipper” spirals. After the demonstration, which also included formation flying, Kipp dove his “Devil Dog” down and dropped a football onto the field.

Notable Tommie victories of the past include:

  • 1929 vs. Macalester (39-0)
  • 1949 vs. Concordia – Moorhead (58-14)
  • 1979 vs. St. John's  (30-0)
  • 2011 vs. Hamline (49-0)
  • 2012 vs. Bethel (37-0)

Slogan contests in support of the team were most popular through the end of the 1960s, though student clubs continued to hold the contests in successive years. Some historical examples of the succinct stabs Tommies took at their opposing teams are: Dry-dock Duluth, Bustavus, Mob the Cobs, Husk the Cobbers, Wrench the Pipers, Knife the Mac, Give 'em a Tommy-ache and Junk the Johnnies. In 1970, student organizers chose to have a “mature outlook” on the game and axed the contest – perhaps still revolted by the previous year’s winning anti-Hamline slogan, “Canned Ham,” and opted for buttons that read “Good Luck Tommies” instead.

Organizers in 1978, however, brought many old-time traditions back to the festivities, and the opponent-knocking slogan contest was resurrected with “Blow Away the Gusties,” in recognition of the Tommies' Homecoming game against Gustavus Adolphus.


HC bonfire

Students watch the Homecoming bonfire on the campus of the College of St. Thomas in 1938. (From the University Archives photograph collection.)

The heydays of the legendary Homecoming Eve bonfires stretched from the early 1920s to the 1960s. Traditionally held the night before the football game, the bonfires originally were the responsibility of the college freshmen – or "yaps" as they once were called – one of a handful of initiation rites required of them. The first-year students were tasked – under the supervision of the Tiger Club for many decades – with gathering the wood, boxes and discarded construction scraps used to build the gigantic fires.  

The freshmen classes' mammoth blazes (the 1945 fire, held on O'Shaughnessy Field, was reported by The Purple and Gray to be two stories high and 15 feet in diameter) gained such fame that in 1927, according to a Purple and Gray article from that fall, “unscrupulous vandals” lit the fire prematurely. (It wasn’t unheard of for freshmen to begin piling wood for the fire two weeks in advance.) The freshmen, who would not have their efforts thwarted, hopped to and rebuilt it in time. The tomfoolery, however, set fire to an unlucky tradition: The following year and years thereafter, freshmen kept all-night vigils the night before the bonfires to protect their hard-earned pyres-in-the-making from match-happy rivals up to no good.

In 1932 the freshmen class was charged with organizing the 15th annual Homecoming. Steering away from tradition, they made the radical move of not only abdicating their traditional role as freshmen to stock the annual bonfire, but they did away with the fire altogether, substituting it with a modest parade through Merriam Park; moreover, they must have figured that as long as they were breaking traditions, they ought to absent themselves from wearing the mandatory, college-decreed green caps traditionally worn by the “frosh,” or freshmen, at all Homecoming events.

None of this went over well with the upperclassmen. In an auspicious stroke of convenience, the senior class was given organizational responsibility of Homecoming in 1933 and took their revenge. They resurrected the bonfire and reinstituted the green cap tradition. The seniors also bestowed on the sophomore class – the tradition-offending class of yesteryear – the duty of ensuring that the freshmen built the most gigantic fire the college had ever seen.

In 1942 the bonfire was suspended in lieu of a campuswide scrap metal collection to support the war effort overseas. Freshmen had the added responsibility of contributing at least 100 pounds, which was later dropped to 35 pounds.

Homecoming bonfires continued to be staged at St. Thomas, though on a smaller scale compared to the flames of yore, when Gusties were burned in effigy (1935) and green beanie-topped freshmen staged a "pajama parade" around the fire (1926). In the 1990s, however, festive bonfires were held on their own with toasted marshmallows and S’mores or in conjunction with outdoor films on the former Foley Plaza. Today city codes prevent the university from holding bonfires.

One more bonfire story: The calamity of 1922

Just four years after the first Homecoming, the annual event had become a more effervescent affair. So much so that one 1908 alumnus eloquently gushed, “To describe fully the many happy events of the day is beyond me. If you were not there, and you deliberately absented yourself, you own yourself a self-condemning speech, filled with the choicest vituperation. Oh boy! It was a great day. Shall I ever forget it? Never!”

Unfortunately, not one but two scandals overshadowed the Homecoming dance, held in the Armory, and the record-breaking, 7,000-spectator attendance of the Cadet’s win over Hamline. During an informal parade the previous day a St. Thomas cheerleader and leaders of the parade were rescued then arrested by police as the parade passed Hamline. According the college newspaper, The Purple and Gray, “a near riot was averted only by the timely arrival of the city police force.”

At the bonfire later that night, 10 fire-fighting companies were called to campus when the blaze grew so large that it threatened to spread to neighboring houses. One concerned student who had attended the bonfire acknowledged that the arrival of the firemen made the event more exciting, but implored to his fellow students a year later in the Nov. 23, 1923, Purple and Gray, that they observe better manners next time: "... when authorities ask that a certain rule be observed, is it not better to sacrifice a portion of the excitement in the interests of gentlemanliness?"

The events of that Homecoming Eve were so raucous and infamous that any talk of a parade in 1923 was duly squelched.

The Homecoming Dance: "Through the eyes of passing years"

HC queen candidates

Five candidates vying for the title of Homecoming queen at the College of St. Thomas pose with a tiger mascot, 1961. From left to right: Lucy Forester, Marilyn Cummings, Bonnie Lee Anderson, Julie Callahan and Mary Riehle. (From the University Archives photo collection.)

One silver-tongued – and prescient – alumnus stopped outside the brightly lit Armory in which the 1923 Homecoming dance was held and described it thus: "Twenty years ago I saw that tower just as I see it now – then through the eyes of youth, now through the eyes of passing years; yet the same ivy clings to it, the same brick is missing, and the same moon shines over it. God bless the good old place and may I live to see the day when S.T.C. becomes S.T.U."

If he is alive today, he most likely would notice the evolution of the dance: changed from halls lit up with 20-piece orchestras to the live rock bands and DJ's that play now. But perhaps he also would wax poetic that the same Tommie spirit of his day pervades the halls of today's dances.

Historically, the dance long was organized by St. Thomas' Monogram Club – a club founded in 1922 and comprised of student-athletes who had lettered in their sports – whose task it was to bolster school spirit, particularly student interest in St. Thomas athletics. In the earliest decades, the drill grounds inside the Armory (which once stood on the space now occupied by Anderson Athletic and Recreation Center) were transformed into a ballroom decked in the purple and gray as well as the colors of the opposing team's school.

Murray Hall also was used often. In 1964, three rooms in the hall were devoted to the dance: one a piece for rock, jazz and slow dance so alumni and students could choose their favorite genre. Tickets to the dance cost $5.

Over the years, the annual dance has been held at various locations on and off campus, including the First Trust Center in downtown St. Paul, the Hyatt Regency and International Market Square in downtown Minneapolis, the Earle Brown Heritage Center in Brooklyn Park and the late Coughlan Field House, which was used in 2005 for a sold-out "Homecoming Hoe-down."

An event-filled week

St. Thomas always has hosted a fun-filled roster of Homecoming events in addition to the class reunions, football games, dances and parades. But festivities also have included many smaller events sprinkled throughout the week.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the most popular festivities included military drills and military bands (St. Thomas was designated a military college by the U.S. Department of War in 1906), vaudeville acts, "peppy speeches," even a four-act comedic play and other stage acts. Homecoming buttons, or badges as they were called then, first were sold in 1928 and served as admission to these events. There is no record of their cost, but in 1940, the buttons sold for 10 cents, so they must have been quite a deal.

In 1942 a physical fitness program was added to the roster to fit in with the patriotic theme of the World War II era, as well as amateur boxing bouts. After the war ended in 1945 the college planned a "Victory Homecoming." The Homecoming, which had been on hiatus for two years, honored the Navy by employing a naval theme, complete with a naval-themed slogan, "Capsize Adolphus." St. Thomas was able to stay open during the war thanks to a Navy contract that brought 700 naval cadets to campus for V-5 (basic flight-training program) training from July 1942 to August 1944, and V-12 training (officer-training program) in 1943.

In the late 1950s a bike race joined the roster, as well as a road rally.

Raft races on the Mississippi River during homecoming at the College of St. Thomas, 1970. From the University Archives photo collection.

Raft races once were held on the Mississippi River during Homecoming at the College of St. Thomas, 1970. (From the University Archives photo collection.)

The 1960s were memorable and tumultuous, and the events that came out of that decade were a testament to the cultural climate of the time. Homecoming festivities let loose. The decade saw the mixing of the sexes as joint Homecomings between St. Thomas and the all-women's College of St. Catherine began to take shape. Under the auspices of their combined forces, the road rallies and bicycle races in the communities surrounding both campuses took off, and dances sometimes were held on the Katie campus.

Less wild newcomers included all-male and mixed touch football, a Crew Club regatta, a beard-growing contest, an "Ugly Man" contest (it's exactly how it sounds), tug-of-war and outdoor film showings.

Perhaps the most treacherous of all Homecoming traditions were the river raft races, which launched from the shores of the Mississippi River beneath the Franklin Avenue bridge beginning in 1965. Teams of five, usually clad in nothing more than swim suits (though a few of higher-than-average IQs wore wetsuits), plunged into the freezing river at 9 a.m. in late October, paddling and kicking their way to the dock of the boat house beneath the Lake Street bridge in strung-together inner tubes or more traditional hand-made rafts with bottoms.

Jim Winterer '71, University Relations, completed the race twice for Team St. John Vianney, and lived to tell the tale – a tale that in all likelihood mirrored the real-life stories of other rafters.

"There were flakes of snow coming down," he remembered. "One of my teammates decided to ward off the cold by over-imbibing on the shore right before the race. He got really sick, but we couldn't race without five men."

So his team plopped its ailing friend into their raft's back inner tube and kicked and paddled wildly after the gun went off.

"The cold wasn't so bad if you were working hard," he said, "but our friend was just lying there like dead weight. When we finished we got pretty worried because he had turned blue. After we had taken him to the hospital and learned a new word: 'hypothermia,' (he lived), the rest of us warmed up in the sauna at McCarthy Gym."

Not surprisingly, the college decided the river was a dangerous place to be putting students and relocated the race to one of the Minneapolis lakes. Soon after, however, in the early 1980s, the race met its demise.

True to the revolutionary nature of the '60s, 1969 marked the last year freshmen were required to wear green beanies, which they happily burned in the bonfire of 1970.

Events of more recent decades have included many gastronomical feats and festivals: apple juice-chugging contests, keg-rolling contests and ice-cream eating contests of the 1980s; the Taste of Saints food festival, held from the early 1980s through 2011; and this year's Purple on the Plaza, held after the annual Homecoming parade along Summit Ave., on John P. Monahan Plaza the day of the game.

The last few decades have seen more new additions that some might remember: a 5K fun run (1980s), which has morphed into the Wellness Center 5K, still held today, as well as talent shows, tailgating contests, Bingo night, a dunk tank, Tommie Tub Night and many others.

Since the 1970s, many prominent entertainers and speakers have been a part of Homecoming Week, including Badfinger, a British band discovered by the Beatles and known for their Billboard hit "Come and Get It," in 1970; comedian and "Jerry Maguire" star Jay Mohr in 1999; Al Franken and local favorite Tim Mahoney in 2001; and country band Emerson Drive in 2005.

Be sure to check the Campus Life and Alumni Association websites for information on this year's fun-filled week of Homecoming festivities!