Memory Lane: Neat As a (Homecoming) Pin

From tweeds to T-shirts to our memories, sticking into everything they meet

Homecoming buttons
From tweeds to T-shirts to our memories, sticking into everything they meet

It couldn’t be simpler. A bit of paper, a bit of plastic, a piece of metal, ribbons in orange and blue. These are some of the raw materials that make up the U of I’s Homecoming pin, a symbol that has been cherished by thousands of Illini every autumn for more than a century.

Since the University’s first Homecoming celebration in 1910, the Homecoming pin has served as a festive, easy way for returning alumni to show their school spirit.

Every year, the newest pin is a celebration of the here and now, with a design that reveals much about the values, traditions and aesthetics of the people who made it, and the alumni who wear it.

But as the years pass, that Homecoming pin becomes something else. An artifact of its time and place. A reminder of the University’s history. An object that bears reflection. Whether its design features a campus landmark or a football legend like Red Grange, responds to a social issue of its day, or sizzles the eyes with the graphic proclivities of a former age, the Homecoming pin is school spirit made manifest.

Dr. Michael Raycraft, MS ’96, AHS, PHD ’01 AHS, a clinical associate professor in the U of I’s department of recreation, sport and tourism, agrees. He began collecting the pins 40 years ago and likes to look at them as a group, to “appreciate the story they tell over time—Memorial Stadium’s construction, world wars, free love, [the U.S.] Bicentennial, disco, ‘The 80s Belong to the Illini,’ and the new millennium,” to name only a few of the era-defining events and cultural phenomena that appear on the U of I’s pins.

Asked to name his favorite pin, Raycraft didn’t hesitate: the Vietnam War-themed “When the Boys Come Home” (1970). Of the 100+ pins in his collection, it’s his favorite because its bold, stop sign design makes it “completely unique in terms of art.” “If you didn’t know it was a Homecoming pin, you wouldn’t recognize it,” Raycraft says. “I waited outside an estate sale for five hours to buy it. People think I’m nuts—which is likely a fair assessment.”

Nuts or not, Raycraft belongs to a proud tradition of Illini collectors who bid against each other for Homecoming pins and scads of other memorabilia. One of his archrivals (and friends) in this endeavor is Jesse Nauman, ’01 BUS, MHRIR ’02 LER. For Nauman, the pins represent “a simpler time” on campus. “Every time I drive down Green Street,” he says, “I’m taken aback by how much it has changed since I was a student. I look at some of the pieces from my collection, and I just can’t help but think of what the University would’ve been like when those items were first produced.” For example? The 1924 Homecoming pin, which celebrated the dedication of Memorial Stadium. “I find it kind of overwhelming when I think about the fact that my pin was almost certainly in Memorial Stadium that day,” Nauman says, “when Red Grange scored his six touchdowns [against] Michigan.”

Though they may be among the most fervent, Raycraft and Nauman certainly aren’t the only pin fanatics. Many other alumni are serious collectors, including Jayne Turpin DeLuce, ’87 AHS, MS ’88 AHS; David Dorris, JD ’73 LAW; Don Long, ’59 BUS; Kevin McCandless, ’01 AHS, MS ’02 AHS; Phil Matteson, ’57 BUS; and Paul L. Stone, ’67 BUS, JD ’70 LAW.

These dedicated alumni scour flea markets, estate sales and online marketplaces, building their collections pin by pin. And, of course, they add the newest pin to their collections each year during Homecoming Week.

“Stopping by the Alice Campbell [Alumni Center] each fall to pick up a pin is definitely one of my rituals,” Raycraft says. “I look forward to it—and enjoy appreciating the year it represents to the campus, and to me personally.”

Happy Homecoming. n