From opening Convocation to the Senior Candlelight Ceremony, the College of William and Mary remains unique among universities for its more than 300 years of history and student traditions. Former Vice
President for Student Affairs Sam Sadler ’64 M.Ed ’71 returned to campus Tuesday to share the history of these traditions and his own experiences as a student and administrator at the College.
“Tribe Traditions: The Origins and History of W&M Traditions,” a lecture and powerpoint slideshow, was sponsored by the Bishop James Madison Society, a secret on-campus organization that is best known for
sponsoring the “Last Lecture” program for one retiring professor each semester.
Louise Kale, director of the Historic Campus, was scheduled to participate in the lecture but could not attend due to illness.
“Has anyone seen ‘Fiddler on the Roof?’ The main character at one point goes on singing, ‘Traditions!’ But why are they such a big deal?” Sadler said. “If it has survived at William and Mary, then it has survived in some form because it gives value to us, it expresses something important about our community,” he added.
Sadler said only a few current traditions of the College are relics from its early colonial history. While the Lord Botetourt Medal was first given to honor student scholarship during Commencement ceremonies in 1772, many of the most popular rituals are relatively new creations. The King’s and Queen’s Ball, which takes place at the end of each Spring semester, was created in the 1980s and based on a previously discontinued dining and concert event called “spring finals weekend.”
Some traditions have disappeared from the student body altogether. The bronze statue of Lord Botetourt in the Wren Yard is now commonly decorated with green and gold balloons on special occasions. However, the University of Richmond was once known for coating the statue in red before sports games. The stone statue was also involved in some hazing rituals during Sadler’s time as a student.
“One of the things you had to do as a freshman was to stop every time you came up the sidewalk and approach the statue of Lord Botetourt,” Sadler said. “If you were a woman you had to curtsy, and if you were a man you had to bow to Lord Botetourt and wear ridiculous little dunce caps.”
During Sadler’s early years as a College administrator, a popular tradition was “breakout.” The annual event involved male students calling female students out of their dorms to form a massive snake-dance all the way to the Williamsburg Inn pond. The event had to be completed before the female students’ mandatory 11 p.m. curfew.
Sadler said that some of the College’s most beloved traditions are actually borrowed from other universities.
The “senior walk” across campus during Commencement was adapted from a ceremony at Brown University, during which a set of gates are locked behind freshmen at the start of the school year and unlocked only for senior graduation.
The “senior class candlelight ceremony” during Commencement was adapted from the Cornell University tradition of carrying candles around a nearby lake. Students at the College became frustrated when College President Tom Graves moved the graduation ceremony away from the Wren Building, so Sadler and other College administrators created the Candlelight Ceremony as a replacement event at the historic building.
“I think it’s one of the prettiest ceremonies. There have been a number of years where I’ve actually gotten to
stand on the second floor of the Wren and look out on the crowd and the candlelight begins to spread through the crowd with tremendous symbolic value,” Sadler said. “There’s just something that strikes a very responsive chord in students.”
Some traditions have been reworked and revived by students throughout the history of the College.
The Yule Log Ceremony originally involved College administrators dressed in elaborate colonial costumes at a formal dining event.
The ceremony evolved when Mortar Board and Omicron Delta Kappa began sponsoring it in the 1960s.
Convocation has existed at the College in various forms and at many locations throughout its history, reaching its current form in 1993 at the Wren Building under Sadler’s guidance.
He said that the now-common welcome of the incoming class by upperclassmen began as a spontaneous gathering by students one year to celebrate the new freshmen, and this festive atmosphere has remained part of the tradition ever since.
Sadler not only had a part in creating College traditions, but has participated in many of them as well.
During his time as a student in the 1960s, the Triathlon consisted of only the Governor’s Palace stretch.
“I waited until the last semester to jump the wall, and then when I came out there was a German shepherd on the other side,” Sadler said.