History in Focus: #Grads2020
High school graduation is a ceremony steeped in specific and long-held traditions. However, this May coronavirus has left high schools across the country scrambling to combine age-old traditions with appropriate social distancing norms in order to create a worthwhile graduation memory for the class of 2020.
One of the most recognizable parts of high school graduation is the entrance processional, Pomp and Circumstance. Composed by Sir Edward Elgar in only 1901, it was first performed at the coronation of England’s King Edward VII
In 1905, the piece made its first appearance on Yankee shores when Elgar received an honorary doctorate from Yale, but it was played only as the recessional tune. Soon, Pomp and Circumstance grew in popularity and was adopted by eastern and midwestern universities as the processional to graduations. Eventually, it spread its way into high schools across the country (NPR.org).
In 1901, Craig High School celebrated its very first graduation ceremony with just four graduates. The ceremony was held at the opera house, located at the now shuttered Spicy Basil Chinese restaurant and once the site of Ann Bassett’s celebrated cattle rustling trial (Craig Courier, 4/6/1901).
Before Elgar’s tune migrated to Craig, a variety of songs ushered students into commencement exercises and lent a very different vibe to the ceremony. In 1910, the seniors were serenaded with Let The Hills and Vales Resound, a patriotic chorus singing, “…where our flag doth fly ‘neath freedom’s sky, Wake now our song! Oh bless our native land…” (Routt County Courier 5/26/10 and http://www.loc.gov).
In 1913, graduation was kicked off with a medley of popular city band music titled, Bits of Remick’s Hits, No. 12 (Moffat County Courier, 5/26).
It was not until 1936 that Pomp and Circumstance became part of a Craig High graduation when it was performed by the Craig-Hayden Orchestra. It’s possible the song had reached Moffat County before 1936, but a survey of commencement programs in the archives of the Museum of Northwest Colorado did not reveal any earlier evidence.
In those years graduation took on the flavor of a church service. Often held at the Congregational Church and later the armory, the commencement address was usually given by a local minister.
On May 21,1920 Reverend Horace Mann spoke to the seniors with an address titled, “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” The good reverend spoke to the young graduates on the “importance of training the mind to think clearly and the influence of thinking not only of character but on the material prosperity of a young man or woman” (Moffat County Courier).
And even as graduation has become more secular, the rise of new schools, varying honors and awards, ever-changing faces and names, it is the idealistic dreams and hopes of our youth for their future that constantly provide inspiration to us all.
This year all of our long-held traditions will take on a new look. Instead of a packed, hot, and stuffy gymnasium, the town will be adorned with yard signs and banners of the names and faces of the class of 2020. A video featuring each graduate will be produced and aired on moffatcountyproud.com. Finally, a community-wide parade will wind its way through town ending at MCHS and a private diploma ceremony for each graduate.
As a history teacher, I treasure the values and traditions of American culture, but unforeseen events can jolt us into creatively reinvigorating the old and developing a more meaningful graduation tradition.
Maybe it’s time to gently say adios to the crusty and aristocratic Pomp and Circumstance along with the hot and stuffy gymnasium,and say hola to a new tradition of a sunshine-filled parade and an outdoor ceremony at the future Loudy-Simpson bandstand.
James Neton teaches history at Moffat County High School and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks to Dan Davidson, Director of the Museum of Northwest Colorado, for help with research and access to the museum archives.
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