Memory Lane: Let Us Commence

One hundred fifty years ago, the U of I’s first graduating class crossed the stage

The University’s early students knew a life of the mind, but also one of manual labor, mandatory military drill and a daily chapel requirement. The earliest known photo of campus (above). (Image courtesy of UIAA)
One hundred fifty years ago, the U of I’s first graduating class crossed the stage

They were the sons of country doctors and farmers, merchants and mechanics, blacksmiths and railroad workers. Some would follow in their fathers’ footsteps, returning to the farm, to the machine shop, to the family store. Others would forge new paths, as architects, bankers, professors and engineers. They were the Illinois Industrial University’s Class of 1872—the first graduating class at what would become the University of Illinois—and on a stormy June day 150 years ago, they celebrated their Commencement.

Today, the U of I honors its newest graduates—more than 15,000 this past May—through an action-packed weekend of department- and college-level ceremonies, along with a campus-wide main event at Memorial Stadium.

But in 1872, Commencement featured only one graduation ceremony, the capstone of a Sunday-through-Thursday slate of events that was meant to show off the brand-new campus to huge crowds.

Unfortunately, the weather forecast called for rain all week and rain it did, plaguing every event on the calendar, from public lectures and concerts to a campus-wide open house.

Fields turned to mush, walking paths to mud and the Parade Ground to swamp. Most outdoor events, including performances by the University band and military battalion, moved indoors.

But that didn’t mean they were immune from the rain. University regent John Milton Gregory gave his Sunday baccalaureate address with a maelstrom brewing outside and, without the benefit of a microphone—which hadn’t been invented yet—he was completely drowned out by the storm. The student newspaper, perhaps uncharitably, called his address “an entire failure.”

First graduating class, 1872 (Image courtesy of UI Archives)

Other speakers had better luck with the weather, but with every break in the rain, it seemed that the next thunderheads were always on the horizon.

Nevertheless, faculty and students gave daily tours of the University, showing off its three buildings, laboratory, library, workshops, farms and nurseries. Capacity crowds, umbrellas in hand, walked the campus in admiration, and state officials—the kind who funded public universities—were duly impressed, in spite of the rain and what one student remembered as “uneven boardwalks and unpaved streets.”

By the time Commencement arrived on Thursday, there was such a palpable feeling of excitement on campus that the rain hardly mattered. Nor did it matter that the ceremony started at 6 a.m.

Yes, 6 a.m.

Hundreds of early risers packed the Drill Hall to honor the first class of graduates—all 20 of them—who sat on a wooden stage built for the occasion, flanked by the University band, chorus and Board of Trustees. Flowers and evergreen wreaths from the University gardens decorated the hall, and a banner featuring the school motto, “Learning and Labor,” dignified the lectern.

Seven of the graduates had earned high honors and thus gave orations at the ceremony, a common practice at college graduations during that time. They spoke on topics ranging from civil engineering to the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson and “honored their teachers as well as themselves,” reported the Chicago Tribune. Many yelled out their speeches over the storm, and each received a bouquet of flowers from women students in the chorus, whose colorful dresses “made a bright spot upon the stage.”

When it was all said and done, the graduates exited the stage and entered the next chapter of their lives. They walked outside to the campus they knew so well, a campus that was now forever different, with the wind at their backs and a fulsome summer rain falling from overhead. The sun would shine soon enough. The Parade Ground would dry. And these 20 young men would someday return to campus as alumni. For now, their futures were wide open.

The seven living members of the class, back on campus for their 50th reunion in 1922. (Image courtesy of UIAA)