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Celebrating Homecoming for More Than a Century

On a crisp November weekend in 1911, 3,000 University of Wisconsin alumni met up for what was known as ‘smokes and cider’ at the gymnasium before heading to Camp Randall to root for the home team, not knowing they were establishing a Badger tradition that would continue strong for over 100 years.

Homecoming, 1920. Photo Courtesy UW-Madison Archives

For years before that first official Homecoming, the Wisconsin Alumni Association had been hosting class reunions around commencement season in June. But in 1911, WAA leaders proposed inviting grads back during football season. Plans were quickly put in place for a mass meeting Friday evening featuring prominent alumni speakers and refreshments — doughnuts, apple cider and cigars — and an all-university and alumni smoker Saturday after the game, complete with vaudeville acts, dinner and a reception.

1911 Homecoming Badge saying "I came home"

The community also threw its support behind the celebration. Merchants in downtown Madison decorated windows, and most stores closed on the afternoon of the game. WAA sold 4,000 buttons with the slogan "Wallop Minnesota" for 10 cents, the beginning of another lasting Homecoming tradition.

"Mr. Alumnus, you are here given a chance not only to help your university but to bring much pleasure to yourself. There is hardly a doubt that the Minnesota game will decide the Western championship and it will be one of the hardest fought games ever played at Camp Randall. Everything is ripe for a successful Homecoming."

Wisconsin alumni magazine, November 1911

An editorial printed in the December 1911 Wisconsin alumni magazine (now On Wisconsin) declared the weekend an unqualified success: "Never before in the history of Wisconsin athletics was such a throng of alumni and former students seen on Camp Randall. Wisconsin men and women did indeed 'Come Back.'"

There is some debate over who first came up with the idea of a collegiate Homecoming, with the University of Illinois, the University of Missouri, and Baylor each laying claim to the honor of starting the tradition between 1908-1911.

Suggestions were also made to improve the following year's festivities, including appointing a permanent planning committee. Members began work soon after, distributing tickets, making hotel arrangements and planning the weekend's entertainment.

Efforts to bring more alumni back to Madison also began earlier. In an open letter to alumni published in the October 1912 issue of Wisconsin Alumni Magazine, grads were told "Remember when you get here you will be an alumnus returned, a sort of Prodigal son along with seven thousand others, and we will all join in the killing of the fatted calf, to wit: Chicago." And the following year, specially designed Homecoming stationery and stickers flooded alumni mailboxes, while the Class of 1909 received handwritten invitations to an early five-year reunion of sorts.

Homecoming Bonfire, 1921. Photo Courtey UW-Madison Archives
Homecoming Bonfire, 1921.

These early years featured another Homecoming tradition that boomed in popularity, until its cancellation in the late 1940s. The first Homecoming bonfire was held on the lower campus in 1912, and the following year it became a full-blown parade down State Street, in which the band marched and alumni carried flaming torches.

During World War II, organizers canceled the bonfire in favor of a community scrap drive for the war effort. When the fire lit up once again in fall 1946, a near-riot erupted on State Street, and university administration put an end to the ritual. The crowd's behavior compelled the editor of the Wisconsin Alumni Magazine, Clay Schoenfeld '41, to write a scathing opinion piece questioning how much longer the once-beloved tradition could — or should — continue:

"A modern tradition that seems to have outlived its usefulness is Homecoming. This annual fall event started out before the First World War as a bucolic reunion of old grads. The Athletic Department picked it up in the '20s as a means of exploiting ticket sales to an otherwise unpopular football game. Now Homecoming stands for nothing more nor less than a full-blown Madison riot. Last November, for instance, there was a regular free-for-all up and down State St. and around the Square after the traditional bonfire pep rally on the campus. University students were joined by teen-age Madison youngsters breaking windows, stealing gas tank caps, rocking cars, disrupting traffic, crashing theaters, jeering policemen, and in general acting like semi-civilized hoodlums."

But the tradition marched on — albeit in a more civilized manner — and in 1948, even President Harry S. Truman caught Badger spirit when a student presented him with an official Homecoming button during a visit to Madison. (Related: Confessions of a Button Man.)

War Years

The cloud of war gave students and alumni the chance to turn Homecoming spirit into a show of support for U.S. troops more than once over the last century. The atmosphere of Homecoming during World War I was said to be inhibited. So when the war ended, Clarence Johnson '20, the committee's general chairman, wrote of the 1919 event: "Homecoming this fall will undoubtedly mean more than any previous Homecoming in the experience of Wisconsin. The relaxation after the last two years of war, the desire to return to the Alma Mater, the wish to renew old friendships are all reasons compelling men to the thought of Homecoming."

Two decades later, leaders took extra steps to back the war effort and honor Badgers fighting overseas. In 1942, students gave up their bonfire in exchange for a campus and community scrap drive, which netted more than $1,000 toward the university's War Memorial Fund. The gaiety of decorating competitions among fraternities, sororities and dormitories gave way to the solemnity of war, "not as elegant or elaborate as in years gone, but still clever."

In 1944, the entire weekend schedule was planned around paying tribute to those serving in the military, from Wisconsin and from football rival Ohio State. Organizers again postponed the bonfire, and at halftime of the football game, the band formed a star on the field, while a Navy chorus sang. The athletic program listed all former "W" men in service, and an honor roll of those missing or killed in action was read aloud after the musical tribute.

The sacrifice of war gave the word "Homecoming" a double meaning in 1945, when Fighting Badgers joined their fellow alumni in returning to UW-Madison for a celebration unlike any before.

Homecoming, 1945
Homecoming, 1945

"Homecoming brought back the largest crowd of alumni and former students since pre-Pearl Harbor days," according to the November 1945 issue of Wisconsin Alumnus. "Some said it would have taken a shoehorn to have crowded many more people into Camp Randall Saturday afternoon, and others declare that alumni must have scared undergraduates away from their usual Saturday night haunts with the tremendous number of recent grads returning.

"It was just the post-war Homecoming that everyone hoped it would be, with the final score a forgotten factor in the whole weekend picture."

The Student Influence

For the fifth year of Homecoming in 1915, the Wisconsin Alumni Association decided to hand control of the planning to student leaders, under the supervision of the "W" Club and the athletic board. Funding rules were also instated so all money collected for Homecoming could only be spent on the celebration itself, instead of any surplus being turned over to the athletic department, as had been done in years past.

The involvement of students led to more new firsts at Homecoming, including the inaugural Homecoming Ball, held at the gymnasium in 1919 ("an event second only to Junior prom") and the intense contest for the trophy of most spirited house decorations. Sometimes, the contests got a little out of hand. In 1930, one fraternity spent Homecoming weekend tracking down a number of pigs they had taken from the stock barn and penned in their front yard. The next year, police arrested a fraternity member for leading a mob of students and fans into a State Street theater after the Friday night pep rally, causing a panic when the mob was asked to exit the building.

The popularity of the house-decorating competition fluctuated throughout the 1960s and 1970s until the 1980s, when the contest was held only among floors in residence halls. Today, the creative energies of the fraternities, sororities and other student organizations are put toward parade floats and the time-honored "Yell Like Hell."

One of the earliest references to a Homecoming court comes from the 1937 edition of The Badger, in which Hal Roberts and Doris Burghardt '40 are named King and Queen of the 1936 Homecoming festivities. Fifty-five years later, Darrell Allbritton '94 was selected as the first African-American student to be named UW Homecoming King.

"It was a sense of accomplishment, to know that the work they'd done on this campus — it was justified," Allbritton was quoted as saying in the 1993 Badger yearbook. "It was an emotional experience. I'm glad the university is breaking boundaries — noticing minorities on this campus as more than athletic commodities."

In 2011, court ended and the Homecoming Committee began honoring exceptional UW-Madison students through a new award called the "On Wisconsin Society." Those chosen are outstanding student leaders and will be recognized throughout the weeklong celebration, including a ceremony on the field during halftime and the gift of a WAA Life Membership.

"As a fourth-generation Badger, I always looked forward to Homecoming, and so do my parents and grandparents," says Betsy Pike '13, former president of the UW Homecoming Committee. "Some events, like Yell Like Hell, have existed since my mom was a student here, and hopefully some of the newer events will still be around for the next generation. For me, that's what Homecoming is all about: honoring the best of Badger traditions while introducing new ones into the fold every year. There's no better week to be a Badger."

2011 Homecoming President Betsy Pike '13 and her parents, John '78 and Kay Pike '77.
2011 Homecoming President Betsy Pike '13 and her parents, John '78 and Kay Pike '77.

Through winning and losing football seasons, wartime and major changes in the student culture, the goal of Homecoming is the same as it was in 1911: celebrate the university and its graduates by bringing alumni back to campus.

"Homecoming is one of the few times each year when everyone is all about the same thing: being a Badger," says Jackie Ordan '12, a member of the Homecoming committee. "On a campus this big, it can be hard to bring everyone together, especially alumni who live around the world. Homecoming is a truly special event that beats those odds with Wisconsin school spirit."

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