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Spirit of Central; Looking back at nearly a century of CMU Homecoming


Students in a dragon costume rush the football field during halftime in 1924. After the game, the football team was known as the Central Dragons until 1927.

Like the university itself, Central Michigan University's Homecoming celebration has changed and evolved since its origins.

Kickoff on Oct. 14 will mark the 99th year that CMU has welcomed back alumni for its annual homecoming celebration.

The university’s first Homecoming took place in spring 1918. Rather than a football game, the celebration coincided with the commencement ceremony for that year's graduates.

In the earlier days of CMU's history, the majority of students lived nearby. Hosting a small event for alumni during a graduation ceremony was easy to put together.

"In the 1920s, most people coming to (CMU) were relatively local," said Bryan Whitledge, archivist manager of the Clarke Historical Library. "When I say local, all of them were definitely from Michigan — a lot of people were from surrounding counties, or maybe a few counties away. Travel wasn't difficult."

Alumni celebrations can be traced back to the late 1890s under university president Charles McKenny. During this era, Alumni Day events took place in May and June.

The origin of Homecoming as students know it today is hard to pin down, since a number of universities take credit for the idea. 

The University of Illinois claims to have invented it in 1910; University of Missouri claims it hosted the first homecoming in 1911; University of Michigan hosted a homecoming ceremony in the late 1890s, but only as a one-time event. 

By the 1920s, homecoming events were a widespread phenomenon. Many universities and high schools around the country celebrated a version of the ceremony.

Many festivities which have become synonymous with Chippewa Homecoming can be traced back to as early as 1925. Events included a parade, a bonfire near Finch Fieldhouse and two dances – one in the gymnasium and another downtown.

The first CMU Homecoming associated with a football game was in 1924, when Central defeated Alma College 13-0. During halftime, a group of students took the field in a large dragon costume, which led to the football team being called the Central Dragons until 1926. 

The mascot was later switched to the Bearcats.

Changing with the times

"Virtually everything about homecoming has changed since it first started," said Jay Martin, director of Museum Studies for CMU's history department. "The way parades have been done, whether there have been parades, the locations for events – all of it's changed over the years. There have been times when homecoming was extremely formal, and when it's extremely informal."

One of CMU's most "formal" traditions can be traced back to the 1940s, when the homecoming court system was introduced.

Jean Chisholm was named the first Homecoming Queen in 1946. For nearly 40 years, the Homecoming Queen and her female court were the only homecoming representatives elected.

The all-woman tradition continued until 1958, when male students on campus — believing there was a lack of male representation on the homecoming court — began dressing up one male student in women's clothing to act as an unofficial candidate. The man in costume would go by the name "Elvira Scratch" while campaigning.

Martin considers Elvira to be a small but meaningful representation of the many social changes the campus and nation endured during that time period.

"(Elvira) fit into the changes that were happening in the 60s and 70s historically,” Martin said. “There were the protests against (the Vietnam War), women's rights, Native American rights, African American rights – everybody's rights are finally starting to come up, and it was changing American culture. 

John Nader was named the first official Homecoming King in 1982. 

In 1997, the university moved away from the gendered "king and queen" system in favor of the Homecoming Ambassadors. With the ambassador program, 10 students – five male and five female – are nominated by registered student organizations to represent the student body. One male and one female student will be chosen as the "gold" Ambassadors the night before Homecoming Day.

Ambassadors are chosen for their work ethic and dedication to the CMU community. 

Tailgating traces back to the late 1970s, which coincided with the period when people started driving to football games en masse and parking in large lots. Before then, most people would come to Mount Pleasant by train or by car if they lived close enough. 

For alumni like Mount Pleasant City Commissioner Mike Verleger, tailgating is integral to the Homecoming experience. Having graduated in 1998, Verleger and his wife Jennifer have hosted their own Homecoming tailgate that has annually welcomed more than 200 visitors.

"The food and the camaraderie are big parts of Homecoming," Verleger said. "It's a great crowd, and while we may only see these folks once a year, it becomes a great reunion."

Traditions like the Medallion Hunt and Cardboard Boat Race, while comparatively new, attract a lot of enthusiasm from alumni, Whitledge said.

The first Cardboard Boat Race took place in 1998. The event sees student-engineers construct boats using cardboard and duct tape and trying to make it across Rose Pond without sinking.

The Medallion Hunt first took place in 2003. The Office of Student Activities and Involvement hides a medallion somewhere on campus, releasing clues online about its whereabouts online for students to decipher. The clues must usually be understood in context to CMU's history.

Whitledge said the Medallion Hunt is among his favorite of the events because it gets students interested in the history of the university.

"I'm looking forward to what the 125th (anniversary) Medallion Hunt will include, because this is such a big year for the university," Whitledge said. "Every year here at the Clarke (Historical Library), we see students coming in and looking for some history information because they're trying to track down the clues. It's always a fun event for us."

Modern Homecoming

The Homecoming celebration on Oct. 14 will consist of traditions both old and new.

Festivities will officially kick off at 6 p.m. Friday, Oct. 13 in Plachta Auditorium with the annual Rock Rally. The rally includes a pep rally and mock rock contest aimed at getting students excited for Homecoming. This year's Homecoming Gold Ambassadors will also be announced at the event.

Southfield senior Amani Johnson is one of the 10 students nominated as an Ambassador this year. Johnson was nominated by his peers in Wheeler Hall Council after giving a series of interviews and presentations throughout the early half of fall semester.

"(Being an Ambassador) is humbling, and honestly it's really exciting," Johnson said. "I love CMU and I really enjoy being involved in the things I'm involved with, because I get to provide really great experiences for other people."

As an Ambassador, Johnson will volunteer for the many events and activities of Homecoming Week. 

Homecoming Day, Oct. 14, will begin with the 5K walk/run hosted by Special Olympics Michigan at 8 a.m., and a coffee and donuts get-together for alumni at 9:30 a.m. in Powers Hall.

The Homecoming Parade begins at 11 a.m. in Parking Lot 22, followed by tailgating in the south end of campus at 11:30 a.m. 

Alumni Village will take place near Rose Pond from 1:30-3:30 p.m. It is a celebration put on by the CMU Alumni Association and typically sees between 3,000 and 4,000 attendees, said Alumni Association executive director Marcie Otteman.

Colleges and organizations around campus will set up tents for returning alumni to peruse and see old friends. This year will mark the first time space will be dedicated to "affinity" groups on campus – groups and registered student organizations such as Central Michigan Life, LGBTQ groups and CMU Greeks.

"People have been reaching out to (Alumni Association) for years who have really wanted to be able to bring groups together outside of academic affiliation," Otteman said. "It's really about the affinity (alumni) had for something they were passionate about when they were in school. (Alumni Association) wanted to give them a chance to come back and connect in that sort of way." 

Kickoff for the football game against Toledo is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. Oct. 14 in Kelly/Shorts Stadium.

"When you start putting all of this together, it's what makes homecoming," Whitledge said. "As much as it's an athletic event, it's really a cultural phenomenon."