When some of the top students at Chadron State College are singled out for recognition at the Ivy Day ceremony preceding commencement exercises in May, chances are few will realize that they are taking part in a college tradition dating back almost a century.
And parts of the annual observance, that honors graduating seniors with high academic records, members of the Blue Key and Cardinal Key honor societies and other top students, lead back even farther, to much older traditional May Day ceremonies.
On May 27, 1919, Chadron State, then known as Chadron Normal School, celebrated its first May Fete and Ivy Day exercises, in front of the main building of the young institution. The outdoor event included the crowning of May Queen Vida Mackey, elaborate dance performances by senior female students dressed all in white and the planting of ivy by three senior boys, according to a report in The Chadron Journal. The Journal praised the event as “one of the prettiest ceremonies ever performed at the Normal.”
Similar ceremonies were held at schools, especially women’s colleges, across the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Their origins sprang from traditional spring holiday observances common in northern Europe. Features such as dancing around a May pole and crowning a May Queen were often part of the events on U.S. campuses. Old CSC annuals depict similar activities, and stories mention other traditions, including an Ivy Day oration, and young children participating as May Queen attendants.
Celebration of a May Fete at CSC continued annually until 1938. By then the college was home to chapters of Blue Key Honorary Fraternity, a national organization for college men, and Cardinal Key Honorary Sorority, a similar group for women. Both organizations recognize high academic standards and promote ideals of service, character and leadership among college students.
On May 3, 1938, the honorary societies collaborated in sponsoring Ivy Day at Chadron State, and incorporated crowning of the May Queen into the ceremony, along with ‘hanging of the keys’ on new honorary society members, a student orator, and planting of ivy.
Ivy Day celebrations continued to include a May Queen, elected by students from among women in the senior class, for many years, but parts of the ceremony changed. In 1940 a woman was first chosen to deliver the Ivy Day oration. Recognition of outstanding students in various departments of the college was added and the event moved indoors. In 1973, Ivy Day orators were selected from both Blue Key and Cardinal Key. In 1989 naming an Ivy Day King was included.
At some point ivy planting was dropped, but the ceremony still includes an ‘ivy chain’ held by female and male undergraduates as the procession of honorees enter.
Timing of the ceremony also changed, from early May to the Friday evening before spring graduation. That has increased attendance, said former CSC Information Director, Con Marshall, the college’s unofficial historian.
“It sure packs Memorial Hall with parents and grandparents who have come for graduation,” he said.
The most recent Ivy Day celebration (2014) included a revival of one tradition that had been abandoned for a time-the inclusion of young children of faculty members as attendants for the Ivy Day royalty.
While there was talk at one time of discontinuing Ivy Day, Marshall said he is glad the event has continued.
“I think it’s a really great tradition. It’s got to be one of the longest-standing in Chadron State’s annals,” he said.
That’s exactly what The Chadron Journal writer wished for back in 1919, when reporting on the first Ivy Day.
“This is an innovation here and it is hoped that it will be continued as one of the trademarks of the Normal,” the paper’s front-page story said.