The Archivist’s Nook: Commencement Firsts

Last year marked the first time that The Catholic University of America celebrated commencement virtually; this year’s commencement, to take place in-person with social distancing at FedEx Field, will mark the first time the ceremony has ever been held away from campus. This blog post will run through some other notable firsts in the University’s commencement history.

The earliest commencement exercises on record took place in the Assembly Room of McMahon Hall, which was constructed between 1892 and 1895 (shortly after the University first opened in 1889 with the completion of Caldwell Hall). By the early 1920s the commencement ceremony was being held in the gymnasium (today’s Crough Center), a practice that would endure for decades.

Built in 1918, the gymnasium was one of many campus construction projects initiated by Rector Thomas Shahan. The lower image shows the interior decorated for a commencement ceremony, ca. 1950. Both from Photo Collection, Box 35, Folder 7.

In his excellent pictorial history of Catholic University (2010, Arcadia), Robert P. Malesky notes: “Many large-scale special events took place in the gym, from the 50th anniversary celebration in 1939 to rock concerts in the 1960s and an address from Pope John Paul II in 1979” (p. 67). Conspicuously absent from his list of “large-scale special events,” however, are the annual commencement exercises—an omission that would probably dishearten the 1923 Commencement Week Committee, which, on the front page of The Tower, pleaded with students and alumni to COMMENCE COMING TO COMMENCEMENT. The Committee felt that “a Commencement Week combining the dignity of academic exercises with the delight of social and of athletic events serves as a sort of epitome of University life,” and lamented that CatholicU, though “still pretty young,” had yet to sow the seeds of a “mighty tradition” like that of “the ‘Proms’ of American Universities, the ‘Commemoration’ of Oxford, [or] the ‘May Week’ of Cambridge” (see “Commencement Week,” The Tower, April 13, 1923). Hoping to rectify that and to entice more people to attend the end-of-year festivities, the Committee added a Senior Ball to the program.

1933 witnessed a “Historic Commencement” at which the sitting President of the United States, FDR, was a guest of honor. (Granted, CatholicU has an extensive history with our country’s chief executives.) According to the Catholic University Bulletin, “a new attendance record was set by the five thousand who attempted to secure admission to the University Gymnasium, [but] the audience that witnessed the affair was not to be compared with the vast radio audience of ten million people to whom the commencement exercises were brought” (July 1933, Vol. 1, No. 5, p. 1). Upon receiving his honorary Doctor of Laws, FDR offered the following unscripted remarks.

The 1962 commencement ceremony was “the first held outdoors.”

1962 marked the first time that commencement was held outdoors, against the backdrop of the recently-completed Pangborn Hall. In a Tower article hyperbolically titled From Hell to Heaven, one student celebrated the improvement in venue—ridiculing the idea of “columns of robed students receiving their diplomas here beneath the basketball nets.” Sadly for him, though, it would be a few more years before others came to feel as strongly as he did that the gym was appropriate (only) for “basketball, volleyball, crab soccer, effervescent cheerleaders, and 1-2-3-4 calisthenics.” The 1965 commencement exercises (at which then-President LBJ delivered the address!) were the last to be held in the gym. (Incidentally, two days earlier, he had also given the commencement address at Howard University.)

1966 marked the triumphant return to outdoor commencement exercises. This time, the ceremony took place in front of Mullen Library.

Graduates pictured in front of Mullen Library in 1967, the year after commencement was first held in this location. From Photo Collection, Box 61, Folder 4.

Although the University Mall has remained the traditional venue for the annual commencement exercises, in 1973 the ceremony did an about-face.

1973 marked the first time that commencement was held on the East Portico of the National Shrine. From Photo Collection, Box 61, Folder 5.
In 1977, rain drove the commencement celebrants into the Great Upper Church of the National Shrine.

Since then, except in extreme circumstances—such as those of 1977 (not to mention those of the past two years)—commencement has been held on the East Portico of the National Shrine. (In 1977, rain drove the commencement celebrants into the Great Upper Church of the National Shrine. A few days later, then-President of the University Clarence C. Walton, the first lay person to lead the University, wrote to the Assistant Director of the Shrine to thank him for “the thoughtfulness and the help [he] provided when, as escapees from rain clouds, the Shrine became our graduation home.” Walton was also sensitive to all the effort that went into setting up and breaking down the unused chairs.)

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