Fall 2019 Issue

An Annual Pilgrimage to Alma Mater

By Sara Piccini and Claire De Lisle M.B.A. ’21

“The Alumni Office takes pleasure in sounding the first gun in the campaign to provide a Home Coming Day for former students in the fall.”

So wrote Alumni Secretary J. Malcolm Bridges ’25 in the March 19, 1926, issue of the Flat Hat. He continued: “Surely such a suggestion should appeal to all concerned and with a little effort could be made the occasion of an annual pilgrimage to Alma Mater.”

Bridges’ appeal met with approval from alumni. The first Home Coming Day — Oct. 23, 1926 — “was a complete success from every angle” according to the Flat Hat. And thus a grand tradition was born.

In the years since, Homecoming has transformed to Homecoming & Reunion Weekend, a multi-day extravaganza attracting thousands of alumni. There’s something for everyone — parties, class reunions, departmental open houses, children’s activities — plus the traditional parade and football game.

Ruth Weimer Tillar ’45, a 2012 Alumni Medallion winner, was the Grand Marshal for the 2018 Homecoming Parade. Before she passed away in January 2019, she witnessed almost every Homecoming, attending all but one since her freshman year in 1941. (Doing the math, that’s 77 Homecomings!)

The biggest changes she saw? “The older we would get, the more people who would be there, particularly if it was a reunion. And the events became much more elaborate.” Among Tillar’s favorite memories were the dinner-dances that were held at Williamsburg Lodge and at Kingsmill Resort.

We Love a Parade!

Tillar’s Homecoming memories were bookended by her participation in the parade.

“My very first Homecoming in 1941, I had joined Kappa Alpha Theta and we had a float in the parade. It was kind of strange walking from the sorority house at 9 a.m. in an evening dress!”

Then, 72 years later, Tillar rode in the 2012 Homecoming Parade in celebration of receiving the Alumni Medallion, the highest honor awarded by the Alumni Association. In 2018, she rode in a Thunderbird convertible at the head of the parade as the Grand Marshal. She also was honored on the field before the football game.

“Being grand marshal is one of the highlights in my life, which is so much about being an alumna of William & Mary,” Tillar said.

The tradition of naming parade grand marshals — honoring outstanding alumni and staff — began in 1974. For a full list, go to wmalumni.com/marshal.

From a group of Wookies (the furry creatures from Star Wars) singing “Our Alma Mater” to Lord Botetourt on rollerskates, the Homecoming Parade is all about fun — for adults and kids alike. There’s some spirited rivalry as well, as student, community and alumni groups vie to build prize-winning floats. The top award is the Lambert Trophy, named for Dean J. Wilfred Lambert ’28, L.H.D. ’81 who served as grand marshal from 1946 to 1970.

A new tradition began in 2012, with the first livestream of the parade. Now alumni, family and friends can watch the parade — enjoy colorful commentary from alumni hosts — streamed live on the W&M Alumni Facebook page.

1952 Homecoming Queen Dorothy Bailey Sazio ’53, M.Ed. ’68 and attendants riding on a parade float.

Parade fun facts

  • The first parade in 1929 featured just one float, but the entire student body of 1,400 marched behind it in lines of four.
  • During World War II, from 1942-45, the Homecoming Parade was cancelled. Funds normally used for floats and other decorations went to the purchase of war bonds.
  • While the Colonial Parkway tunnel was under construction in the late 1940s, students used the space to construct parade floats.
  • The 20-plus-foot “wedding cake” float constructed by Chi Omega sorority in 1960 led to a height restriction because of safety concerns.
  • The 1974 parade organized by marshal Wilford Kale ’66 featured the famous Budweiser Clydesdales, attracting a then-record crowd of 22,000.

In 1969, Homecoming Queen Elaine Barnes ’70 was crowned at half-time ceremonies surrounded by her court of princesses — including “Sam,” a campus mutt — who was the Flat Hat’s candidate for queen.

Gridiron Glory

Who can imagine Homecoming without football? Countless traditions have grown out of the game — the annual crowning of a Homecoming Queen, pep rallies, tailgates, raucous fraternity brothers painted green and gold.

The first Homecoming Day in 1926 centered around the afternoon football game against George Washington University. The W&M Indians won handily, 14-0. In the late 1920s and early ’30s, some Homecoming games were held at night under the lights of Cary Field. With the completion of what is now Zable Stadium in 1936, alumni could view the game and half-time festivities from the relative comfort of stadium seats. Football has been an integral part of Homecoming ever since, with the only interruption occurring during World War II.

2018 Homecoming football game Photo Credit: Alfred Herczeg

Over 92 years, W&M teams have always fought hard, experiencing both triumph and heartache (including a 41-0 loss to Ohio State in 1968). After the victory over Washington & Lee in 1939, W&M freshmen threw their duc caps into the postgame bonfire. As the Flat Hat reported, no disciplinary action was taken: “Campus spirit is running at such a high pitch … that they could have gotten away with practically anything short of burning the Wren Building to the ground.”

One of the greatest moments came in 1985, when the Tribe beat archrival Richmond, 28-17. As the Alumni Gazette reported, “After the game, many of the 18,000 fans poured onto the field and tore down the goalposts, something Cary Stadium has not seen in many years.”

Party On, Tribe!

The first organized Homecoming dances were held in 1926 for both alumni and students. Venues have changed over the years — the old Blow Gymnasium, the Williamsburg Lodge, the Sunken Garden. So has the music, from the big band melodies of Buddy Morrow in the 1950s to the reggae rhythms of the Wailers in 2006. Homecoming get-togethers have included a wide variety of other events, including luncheons, dinners and tailgates.

At the instigation of Jim Kelly ’51, former head of the Alumni Association, class reunions were moved from Commencement to Homecoming in 1960. Anne Reese Carson ’51 summed up the experience after her 20th Reunion: “People who were not close friends during college days plus mates who did not attend college with us became friends because we shared this unforgettable weekend.”

Formal attire may no longer be the fashion, but William & Mary still knows how to throw a party. Class reunion receptions are now fully catered and take place in individual class tents in the Sunken Garden and in the Great Hall of the Wren Building. They are followed by the Saturday Night Bash, a dance party for all alumni and friends in the iconic big white tent in the Sunken Garden.

Another fun addition to the lineup is Virginia Uncorked, where attendees gather under the big white tent to sample Virginia wines, beers and spirits. Local food trucks come right to the action, assembling on the Sunken Garden to provide a variety of delicious foods.

Paying it Forward

Another important Homecoming tradition is reunion giving. Since 2001, reunion classes have raised more than $391 million for William & Mary, with 34% on average of each class participating. Reunion giving funds scholarships, academic programs, faculty research and many other campus initiatives.

Homecoming & Reunion Weekend was also the stage for the launch of William & Mary’s record-setting For the Bold campaign in 2015. Hundreds of alumni, students, faculty, staff and friends gathered in the Sunken Garden, holding candles and singing “Our Alma Mater,” to celebrate the public launch of this ambitious campaign to raise $1 billion, strengthen alumni engagement and achieve 40% alumni participation. The launch of For the Bold also marked the introduction of the big white marquis tent on the Sunken Garden, which has been a venue for signature Homecoming events every year since.

The For The Bold campaign launch tent featured a reception area that housed relics from the university's history as well as an oyster bar, thanks to an industry revitalized by VIMS research. There were also interactive displays that allowed attendees to explore the campaign’s priorities and learn about ways to get involved. Photo Credit: Edwin Ramsberg

Building Community

More alumni than ever are attending Homecoming & Reunion Weekend — 2017 was the biggest year yet, with 4,350 registrants for weekend events — and there are more opportunities than ever before to get together with alumni who share similar affiliations and interests. In 2019, LatinX is holding its third annual reception during Homecoming for Latino and Latina alumni, and the Association of 1775 is hosting its second annual breakfast for military and veterans. Sunday morning includes the LGBTQ affinity group’s first-ever Homecoming drag brunch.

Other identity and affinity groups who meet during Homecoming include the Order of the White Jacket (alumni who worked in food service), the Hulon Willis Association (black and African-American alumni), the Alumni Band Organization (alumni who participated in William & Mary bands) and the Olde Guarde (alumni who graduated 50 years ago or more).

Saying Farewell

No tradition better symbolizes the closeness of the Tribe family than the Sunset Ceremony. Taking time out from the hectic pace of Homecoming, guests gather in the Wren Courtyard to honor those alumni, faculty, staff and students who have passed away in the previous year.

According to university records, the tradition of honoring deceased alumni dates back as far as 1900. From 1930 to 1959, the Alpha Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa sponsored a memorial service on Alumni Day during Commencement Weekend, held at Benjamin Ewell’s gravesite on campus.

Beginning in 1962, Homecoming featured a Sunset Parade in the Sunken Garden that combined a memorial service with a review of the Queen’s Guard. The Sunset Ceremony as we know it today was introduced in 1976. The Queen’s Guard continues to participate, and the W&M Choir performs as well. The Wren Bell peals and candles are lit in honor of each member of the William & Mary who has passed.

People gather in the Sunken Garden for the Sunset Parade during Homecoming in 1963. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Swem Archives

A W&M Family Shares Homecoming Memories

Homecoming not only nurtures friendships, it nurtures families — “knitting the generations each with each.”

The Sell/Phillips clan is now a three-generation Tribe family, thanks in part to special memories created at Homecoming. Here is a rundown of the eight alumni in their family: Stewart “Stew” Sell ’56, Patricia “Pat” King Sell ’58, Sherri Sell Phillips ’83, Howard Lee “Bud” Phillips III ’82, Sean Sell ’87, J.D. ’93, Stephanie Sell Kinzel ’91, Samantha Phillips ’14 and Alexandra Phillips ’16.

Here are a few of their special Homecoming memories, in their own words.

L to R: Stewart "Stew" Sell ’56, Patricia "Pat" King Sell ’58, Sherri Sell Phillips ’83, Howard Lee "Bud" Phillips III ’82, Sean Sell ’87, J.D. ’93, Stephanie Sell Kinzel ’91, Samantha Phillips ’14 & Alexandra Phillips ’16. Photo Credit: Skip Rowland ’83

Homecoming Visits: A Kid’s Eye View

Sherri: “I remember when I was in ninth grade my mom was bugging me about William & Mary. In my perfect teenage way I told her to stop talking it. Then I probably stomped off, having made my point.

But things changed, and in my junior year my mom took me on a college ‘road trip.’ We timed our trip to see William & Mary to coincide with my mother’s 20th Reunion. What a hoot! She took me to all the festivities. Back then there was a big formal dinner with several alumni speakers. I remember this ancient man telling how he came to William & Mary on the train after World War I.

Seeing Homecoming from the ‘alumni’ perspective I got a wonderful sense of a common bond these people shared. After that trip I decided to apply early decision.”

Samantha: “My whole family got to walk onto the field during halftime because my dad was on the class gift committee for his 25th Reunion. I remember President Nichol telling me that he hoped to see me as a W&M student someday. I have a vivid memory of going to the Pi Phi house with my mom and grandma. My mom pointed out the room that she lived in, and now I live right next door to that one!”

The More Things Change …

Ally: “My dad and his fraternity brothers host a tailgate by the entrance to the stadium and their old friends are always stopping by to chat with my parents and their friends. I went to the game with my college friends and it was really cool to finally be able to sit in the student section.

Students love Homecoming! It’s awesome to see all the alumni coming back into town because it shows you that they really loved their alma mater.”

Sherri: “Moving the parade from the crack of dawn Saturday morning to Friday afternoon was brilliant. So many more students participate now. One thing that hasn’t changed is the Kappa Sigs are still out there doing their precision lawn mower drills. And it’s still hilarious.”

The Perspective of Time

Pat: “I have been fortunate to attend almost every Homecoming since graduation, except when out of the country. Even though I live in San Diego, I find flying to be with friends and family at the College worth every minute of the trip.

The fanfare of Homecoming refreshes my mind as the fun, freedom and fact-finding of college days are recalled; where friendships are forged, ideas are hatched, explored and challenged, knowledge and wisdom accrued. The aroma of the greenery, the sight of the fall foliage, the sounds of students enjoying life on campus excite my memory. The cheers from the stands when the football team scores, the band plays and cheerleaders shout, all bring a smile to my face. Watching the funny, fancy floats as the Homecoming parade passes by, listening to the foot-tapping music of the bands as they march up Richmond Road has brought tears of joy to my eyes.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that my motivation to visit campus has escalated through the years. It’s great to have three wonderful kids and two wonderful granddaughters to visit over the years. I am thrilled that they want to carry on the traditions that make William & Mary strong.”

Homecoming Timeline

Alumni Association hosts first Home Coming Day Oct. 23
Inaugural Homecoming Parade
WAMPO the pony makes first appearance
Homecoming scaled back for three years due to WWII
W&M beats VMI 41-0 at Victory Homecoming
Henry Billups rides in last Homecoming Parade
Class Reunions moved from Commencement to Homecoming
Sunset Parade first held in Sunken Garden
Alumni Band formed by James C. Anthony ’52
Last parade organized by Dean J. Wilfred Lambert ’28, L.H.D. ’81 as Chief Marshal
Alumni House opens, first Luncheon on the Lawn
Order of the White Jacket (OWJ) holds first Thursday evening event
Introduction of annual Honorary Parade Marshals
Hanna Barbara cartoon characters from King’s Dominion attract largest-ever parade crowd (25,000+)
Sunset Ceremony moves to Wren Courtyard
First Alumni tennis tournament (named in honor of Sandy Kelly in 1979)
“Celebration of the Arts” features Muscarelle Museum dedication
Zable Stadium dedicated, named for Walter Zable ’37, LL.D. ’78
Hulon Willis Association holds kickoff event
Tercentenary Homecoming features birthday party at Busch Gardens
Groundbreaking for Alumni Center expansion
Chancellor Margaret Thatcher LL.D. ’00 holds “Conversation with Alumni”
Jon Stewart ’84, D.A. ’04 holds Q&A for alumni and students
Debut of the Griffin, W&M’s new mascot
Homecoming Parade moved to Friday afternoon
Virginia Uncorked begins
The expanded Alumni House will open, providing additional space for alumni events