5 Facts of IU Commencements Past

Dressed in their caps and gowns, students at IU's 1959 Commencement direct their attention to the platform party. All photos courtesy of IU Archives.

Much has changed over the course of IU’s 200-year history, including the largest and most symbolic of the university’s ceremonies—Commencement. With historical research and findings provided by IU Director of University Archives Dina Kellams, BA’98, MLS’01, we’ve turned back the clock to uncover a few interesting facts about Commencement and its beginnings.


1. Students gave speeches. Each and every one.

James Sidney Rollins, whose diploma is pictured, was one of the four graduates of IU’s first graduating class in 1830.

With only four students graduating at IU’s first Commencement on Oct. 27, 1830, each student was able to give an original address on a topic of their choice. According to Kellams, the Indiana Journal reported on the first ceremony as follows:

The performances to begin at 10 o’clock. They will consist of speeches by the candidates for THE DEGREE; followed by the formality of conferring the degree, and an Address to the Graduates by the President. The remainder of the day will be occupied with a debate and sundry speeches by a number of the young gentlemen belonging to the College, in different stages of their education.

As this will be the first public occasion of the kind for this infant institution, it is expected that considerable interest will be excited in the friends of education, in reference to the exercises and ceremonies of the day.

H. Maxwell, Pres’t. B.T. [David H. Maxwell, president, Board of Trustees]

Fast forward to the class of 2019 with its more than 21,000 graduates—it’s obvious that this approach wouldn’t work today. Present day Commencement addresses are given by guest speakers such as Sage Steele, BS’95, an ESPN sports news anchor, who spoke at the Spring 2015 Commencement on the Bloomington campus.

2. The “peace pipe ceremony” put feuds to rest.

Students participate in the peace pipe ceremony, previously an IU Commencement tradition, on April 22, 1943.

Beginning in 1905, the junior and senior classes would put their feuds to rest by smoking a pipe together at a “peace pipe ceremony.” On Commencement day, students from each class would gather on Jordan Field—what is now the Indiana Memorial Union’s parking lot—to retell stories of their disputes, and then pass around the peace pipe to settle their rivalries once and for all.

Representatives from the junior and senior classes would give speeches, and the graduating seniors would often offer their sage advice to the junior class. The peace pipe, which was donated to IU by the Class of 1905, became one of the most distinctive IU Commencement traditions. Today, the pipe is housed in the University Archives.

3. Caps and gowns were not always the status quo.

A class of 1906 graduate, Clarence Edmondson, poses for a photograph in his cap and gown.

It’s hard to imagine Commencement without its sea of gowns and cleverly decorated mortarboards, but it wasn’t until 1896 that IU students began wearing the full ensemble. An 1896 article from the Indiana Student, the equivalent of today’s Indiana Daily Student, notes, “They presented such a handsome appearance that the faculty are thinking seriously of adopting the senior uniform for ‘all state occasions.’”

4. Greetings from … the state?

From left to right, Mrs. McEntire’s son, Mrs. McEntire (President Wells’ first-grade teacher), Herman B Wells, BS’24, MA’27, LLD’62, and Indiana Gov. Ralph Fesler Gates converse at the 1947 Commencement.

In 1892, IU began inviting outside speakers to address graduates at Commencement, much like today’s ceremonies. From 1947 to 1987, however, state representatives delivered “Greetings from the State.” Most of the time, the governor of Indiana would deliver the speech, but other state officials would periodically take on the role.

Between 1892 and 1947 and after 1987, other prestigious speakers appeared on the Commencement stage. For instance, Theodore Roosevelt, the U.S. president from 1901 to 1909, delivered the commencement address at IU’s 1918 ceremony. On the tail end of World War I, Roosevelt’s speech was titled “Straightforward Americanism.”

5. Location, location, location.

Ladies relax under the shade of trees along the Old Crescent—the historic southwest corner of IU Bloomington’s campus—during the 1901 Commencement, which is taking place in the background.

Commencement ceremonies have taken place all across campus throughout the years. Some of the most unique locations include the outdoor amphitheater (where the chemistry building stands today), the Intramural Center, Assembly Hall, and the lawn of the Old Crescent (outside Kirkwood Hall).

Today, spring Commencement for graduate students is held at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, while the undergraduate ceremony takes place at Memorial Stadium. Winter Commencement combines graduate and undergraduate ceremonies at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.

Written By
Kami Gallardo
Kami Gallardo, BA'20, is an editorial intern at the IU Alumni Association. After graduating with a degree in English, she is pursuing law school at IU's Maurer School of Law in the fall of 2020.