Death of Traditions

Although it often seems as if traditions have existed forever and always will, that is not the case. Traditions are created and traditions die out. The first interclass rivalry tradition to end at Colgate University was the Cane Rush, abolished in 1905 due to growing class sizes which made the event less manageable and more dangerous. However, the true beginning of the end for freshman-sophomore class rivalry events was in 1919, when tragedy struck during the annual Proc Rush. The death of freshman Frank McCullough forced Colgate faculty, students, and alumni to take a hard look at their beloved interclass rivalry traditions and decide if they were worth the potential risks and dangers they presented.

Following McCullough’s death, the Proc Rush was abolished and other class rivalry events were more carefully scrutinized, resulting in the abolition of the Mercury tradition soon after, due to safety concerns. This greatly upset some students and alumni who believed these traditions were cornerstones of the institution and crucial for developing Colgate spirit.

“College spirit is a peculiar thing. So is morale which is the more inclusive term. I don’t pretend to know what Colgate spirit is. I have heard about it, talked about it myself, and have actually seen it. And yet I do not believe that I or any one else could give a definition or explanation of it. It is a part of the college and as long as it is so, Colgate will be Colgate. And Colgate spirit, whatever it is and whatever its foundation, is made up on intangible things which in the eyes of some are: “Meaningless, antiquarian traditions.” Foolish unreasonable and altogether absurd as the elements are which make up Colgate spirit, yet the ultimate good which arises out of the senseless incongruities justifies their existence. The tradition of “Mercury” is one of those incomprehensible things that has done much to give Colgate life much of its distinctive personality.

I doubt if there are many Colgate men who will deny the fact that “Mercury” has played an important part in the creation of the unique Colgate Moral, if you please. But, you suggest, why now abolish this old expensive competition over a decrypt and mutilated piece of junk for some more constructive tradition? That is altogether reasonable but unfortunately traditions are not built that way. They do not come in response to a definite effort. For the largest part they merely happen. It is the spontaneous growth of such traditions and customs that give them value and which should keep them intact until such a time as another intangible and foolish something may have arisen to take their place.

Colgate is passing through a unique period at the present time. It is fitting possibly that at the end of a hundred years, a new period of activity and customs should be ushered in. The War has of necessity made the continuance of former customs and traditions impossible. It is reasonable to suppose that in the readjustment period that is going on now things should undergo normal change. But I for one do not believe that that change should be revolutionary  or that any attempt should be made to forget the Colgate of a hundred years growth in an attempt to build a new Colgate. Traditions in so far as possible should be preserved and maintained. 

“Exit  Mercury? No.”

Letter to the Editor from Alumnus, ’18 in The Colgate Maroon, January 28, 1919

However, others believed student safety should be the primary concern, although some believed the University had gone too far with the abolishments.

“We must make class rivalry “safe and sane.” If it cannot replaced on this basis it must go!”

“Safe and Sane,” The Colgate Maroon,October 15, 1919

Abolish1923 copy “To propose the abandonment of all class rushes, clouding the tug-of-war, would be to take a radical stand. The brief is prevalent that underclass rushes are the sine qua non of class spirit, leading ultimately to the best college loyalty. Take them away and you take away spirit. This idea seems to have been handed down through the years along with the now obsolete one that individual hazing is the only road by which the freshman may enter into a successful college career. Fortunately hazing has been quite generally given up in American universities. Unfortunately, however, – judging from the two fatalities that have occurred this Fall, one at Franklin & Marshall and one here – rushes, the companions of hazing, are still in vogue. If everything worked out as it ought to, there would be little danger in rushes; but circumstances do not follow 

Abolish1923 2

the ideals set for them. A crowd, enthusiastic and jubilant, so often over looks the individual, and tragedy darkens the mirth. However much the fun of rushes, however valuable the spirit developed, the price of both is high when human life is demanded. It is not feasible to do away with every activity of the colleges in which there is danger of loss of life, for fatal accidents occurs even in our most popular sports. The abolition of rushes does seem worthy of consideration, however, when in a single Fall they take a toll of two lives.”

“The Price We Pay” in The Colgate Maroon, 1923

David Belford West

David Belford West, Class of 1920

“We have heard before the statement that “Colgate men are never stampeded.” Let us think a minute. Isn’t that practically what is happening now! In trying to make things “safe and sane” are we not going to the other extreme and seriously considering doing away with competitions which in addition to building up college spirit, are also of a vital benefit to the men themselves. Let us look at it from this angle for a minute. In the writer’s opinion there are a large majority of men entering college at the present time who would be greatly benefitted and improved by getting into good, keen, lively, athletic competition and receiving the bumps and satisfaction that come as a consequence. The kind of men that would be benefitted most by such affairs are the class who as a rule do not receive such training and who would be very liable to go through their entire college course without it, were it not for these very rushes which we are thinking of abolishing.

To return to the matter of college spirit again: I believe there is little doubt in the minds of anyone here when the college was on its ‘before the war’ basis, who does not believe the rushes and other class competitions aided greatly in giving birth to, and developing college spirit. Surely if any benefit is derived in this direction it is a strong argument at the present time for the continuation of the rushes, for in my opinion the spirit here is far from what it should be at the present. The spirit shown in the celebration following our victory over Brown was remarkable by its absence. This is not in the form of a growl, but merely an attempt to bring our faults to light, that we may realize and correct them.

As I have said before, I believe everything should be done to prevent the reoccurrence of such a sad misfortune as occurred this fall but I earnestly think that this could be accomplished without the abolishment of all rushes, etc. I sincerely believe that the college as a whole would feel much better satisfied and the classes yet to enter much more greatly benefitted, if the committee which now have this matter under consideration, instead of abolishing the rushes altogether, would change them in such a way as to do away with their present objectionable features.”

“A Communication” by D.B. West in The Colgate Maroon, October 24, 1919

The University was becoming larger, making it more difficult to monitor and hold traditional events. In 1929 the Salt Rush was also abolished. Although the Proc Rush was replaced with an annual freshman-sophomore Tug of War competition and the Salt Rush with the Pushball contest, the class rivalry tradition was slowly on its way out.


The Colgate Maroon, 1929

“Serious injuries and unwarranted destruction of property in the salt rushes and strip rushes of recent years has led a group of upperclassmen to advocate elimination of the old rushes and substitution of a semi-annual push ball contest between the underclasses to replace to old form of under-class rivalry. Announcement of this fact was made in the Students’ Association meeting in the chapel Saturday morning by John K. Cox, captain of football and chairman of the Senior Governing Board, and by Robert R. Bruce, editor of the Maroon.

Although many of the details of the contest have not been settled yet, the date has been set for Friday afternoon, October 11th. The date was fixed with the help of the athletic office in the belief that the alumni home-coming day Saturday and the Michigan State football game would attract a crowd of spectators from outside the college. The committee of seniors which originally sponsored the contest had decided that it should come under the purview of the Senior Governing Board since that body traditionally supervises under-class rivalry.

Explanation of the rules and line-up of teams for the contest will be made within a week or so by Howard Starr, member of the gymnasium and coaching staff. It is expected that the teams will be limited to forty men from both the freshman and sophomore classes. The non-participant members of the rival classes will join with their traditional upper class friends, the freshman with the juniors, and the sophomores with the seniors, to constitute cheering sections. The game will be played on Whitnall Field under the direction of football officials secured through the co-operation of Graduate Manager William A. Reid and the athletic office. President Cutten, when hearing of the desire of the upperclassmen to improve rush conditions, offered his financial as well as moral support to the success of the innovation. At considerable expense the president has purchases the six foot ball which is used in the contest.

As a result of the step to improve underclass rivalry Chairman Cox of the Senior Governing Board has requested underclassmen to avoid starting any rushes of any kind. Any attempts to start them will demand intervention of the board for discipline.” 

John Kenneth Cox

John Kenneth Cox

Robert R Bruce

The new events did not quite have the same lasting enchantment over students, causing their dedication to the class rivalry to fade. By the 1960s the interclass rivalry was all but over, no longer important to the majority of the student body. During this time Colgate was also changing from “Old Colgate,” a school that revolved around sports, fraternities, and alumni nostalgia, to “New Colgate,” a very different place. “New Colgate” was dedicated to advancing the arts, greater inclusivity, and coeducation.

“We came to Colgate at a crucial time: a time during which we could watch, and foster, the demise of the old Colgate. In the Fall of 1966, when we arrived, the college itself had provided two key physical requirements for change. The Cutten Complex, ironically named for the caudillo of the Old Colgate, at last presented the first real, appealing alternative to the fraternity. The Dana Arts Center was also opened for our arrival and served as more than a home for the arts: it was a grand physical demonstration of the college’s commitment to the arts at a time when workmen were still completing their last major chore – the Reid Athletic Center.

The college began one other less tangible but more important change with our arrival: it began to open its admission policy.”

“Transition” by Howard Fineman, Class of 1970 

1970 Salmagundi

Howard Fineman

Class of 1970

While these new values emerged, old values and practices, such as the emphasis on tradition and status, died out.

“The student body has been, in the last few years, the crucible of change at Colgate University. Some of what we have done has been very necessary destruction – of old social and educational values and institutions.”

“Transition” by Howard Fineman, Class of 1970

1970 Salmagundi

The 1968-1969 school year was the last year the Student Handbook stated freshmen were required to wear hats and identification buttons, thus making freshmen less obviously distinguishable, representing lessened class year identity and importance.

“There was the whole notion of the Old Colgate dying, which had nothing to do with women really, but had to do with institution rules and codes of conduct, that was all being pushed down and New Colgate was emerging. As a Freshman, I wore my beanie, and I’d walk 10 yards and someone would say ‘take your beanie off – it’s New Colgate.’ You’d take your beanie off and someone would say, “Where’s your beanie?”

John Hubbard, Class of 1972


Students in class, 1980s/90s

In 1970 the first class of full-time, degree-earning women entered Colgate University, changing the school’s environment and making the environment less fostering of class rivalry. Many of the class rivalry traditions focus on physical strength and violent competition. It is unlikely the University’s administration would want female students to participate in such activities and also unlikely male students would want to compete with female students. Women also would not be expected to wear the mandatory freshman ties, hats, and buttons that the male students wore through the late 1960s. Therefore, the already dying freshman-sophomore rivalry would also have to adapt to include female students, exclude them, or end altogether as it essentially did at Colgate.

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Colgate University, 2012

Today interclass rivalry is no longer a traditional part of Colgate student life nor student values. However, the decades of freshman-sophomore rivalry has left its mark on the institution’s identity and has an important place in Colgate’s history. The class rivalry tradition created a sense of community, alumni involvement, and school spirit, which is still prevalent and celebrated at Colgate to this day, even though its origins, the freshman-sophomore rivalry, is no longer relevant or even well known. This alumni dedication, sense of Colgate community, and school spirit continues to be hailed as a key part of the University’s identity, making Colgate University a special and unique institution.

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