Episode One:  The Early Commencements

May 1, 1999

Mary Ann Travis

The first 12 graduates didn't know what a tradition they were starting. The dozen young men receiving their M.D. degrees on April 5, 1836, in a ceremony in the Congregational Church on St. Charles Avenue, couldn't have foreseen the size, scope and substance the yearly spring commencement ritual would have in 1999, 163 years later.

Training for these doctors--which, conveniently, took place at the same church--had only begun in January 1835 under the auspices of the Medical College of Louisiana, forerunner of Tulane University. Known as the "necropolis of the South," a sickly New Orleans desperately needed physicians to deal with "peculiar diseases" such as yellow fever and cholera that were afflicting its population.

So, these freshly minted M.D.s, whose education consisted of one year of study under a practicing physician and two sessions at the medical college, were launched into medical practice, ready to combat a disease-ridden world. In addition to the conferring of earned degrees, the 1836 commencement ceremony also included the bestowing of two honorary degrees.

This practice, which began in this country in 1692 at Harvard University, became embedded in Tulane commencement tradition. In 1935, when Tulane celebrated the university's centennial at commencement, a whopping 13 honorary degrees (compared to 1999's four) were given. Law and academic departments joined the medical school to form the University of Louisiana in 1847.

Later, in the 1880s, the university changed its name to Tulane, and Newcomb College and the College of Technology (antecedent of the Schools of Engineering and Architecture) were established. Still, the "medics" kept the attention on themselves at commencement through engraved invitations featuring intricate drawings of sepulchral figures and requesting the presence of guests to Tulane's commencement exercises.

From the 1880s to the 1910s those exercises were held at the renowned French Opera House. In addition to the university commencement, graduates of Newcomb and other colleges attended separate closing exercises in various places such as the Newcomb Chapel on the old Newcomb campus, the Newcomb Gym and Dixon Hall. In 1918, the College of Commerce and Business Administration awarded its first diplomas.

The following year, the French Opera House burned to the ground. In the 1920s, Tulane found another place for commencement ceremonies--the Jerusalem Temple, also known as Shriners' Auditorium. By the 1930s, the main event moved to the Municipal Auditorium.

In 1935, during its centennial,Tulane pulled out all the stops in a 5-day celebration revolving around commencement. The round of events included two operas, portraits of faculty members by Newcomb Art School founder William Woodward and an exhibit at the Middle American Research Center. Tulane President A.B. Dinwiddie conferred degrees on 450 candidates that year. Records reveal that Dinwiddie had his choice of attending banquets for Medicine, Law, Arts & Sciences, Engineering, Business and Newcomb--all scheduled at the same time, which created something of a rivalry among the schools. Newcomb couldn't help bragging when its banquet won out.

"The Alumnae were all delighted that Dr. Dinwiddie chose their banquet to attend out of all the banquets of various colleges of the University that were being held that night," the Tulane News Bulletin reported.

That same year, Edward A. Filene, president of Boston's famous Filene's department store, told the business school graduates, "If you would only study change, change would not dismay us as it does," demonstrating that, in the business world, plus ga change, plus c'est mjme chose.

By 1938, Tulane had a new president, Rufus C. Harris. To his chagrin, commencement that year was not held in the comfort he had anticipated. On June 15, 1938, just a week after commencement, Harris wrote Carrier Air Conditioning, expressing his disappointment that the installation of air conditioning was not complete in time for the ceremony.

Harris wrote, "We were particularly anxious to have it finished in view of the fact that, as you probably know, the caps and gowns make it extremely hot for those who have to wear them! It will be very nice indeed to have air conditioning in the auditorium next year." Perhaps because the City of New Orleans was slow to refrigerate the air at the Municipal Auditorium, Harris made the decision in 1940 to move commencement to campus.

Of all the 429 degree candidates that year, the announcement in May(!) that the June ceremony would be held in the 1,500-seat McAlister Auditorium most incensed the 118 medical school degree candidates. J. H. Feltus, director of public relations, warned Harris of the rumor of a "strike" by medical students.

"The medics are most militant," Feltus wrote of the students who insisted on having 4 or 5 tickets each to admit their friends and family. The demand could not be accommodated by such a small venue. Even after dozens of medical school students signed a petition demanding that the commencement ceremony move back to the Municipal Auditorium, where the university had already placed a reservation deposit, Harris stood firm.

From New York, on university business, he telegraphed his assistant, Kathryn Davis, the clearly articulated message, "I prefer McAlister Auditorium."

McAlister Auditorium it was and McAlister it would be throughout the 1940s. To meet the demand for more seating, Tulane went to a two-ceremony system in 1941. According to Earl Retif, university registrar, there were morning and afternoon commencements in McAlister, each with its own speaker and presided over by the president.

Feltus had advocated for an outdoor ceremony as early as 1939, writing to Harris, "June nights in New Orleans are so beautiful that it seems a pity to have the ceremony indoors." But it wasn't until 1951 that an outdoor ceremony was instituted on the Gibson Hall Quadrangle, the site of commencement until 1959.

By 1960, commencement was back inside, on campus at the Central Building Gym. Then, in 1966, Tulane returned to the (presumably chilled) Municipal Auditorium for three years. The last all-in-one commencement, until this year's Louisiana Superdome extravaganza, was in 1969. All of the existing 11 schools and colleges, including the 2-year-old School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, participated. Then they "peeled away," says Retif.

Once again, the medical school was the leader--followed by the School of Social Work. Both schools held their own commencements in 1970. From the first class of doctors to now, Tulane graduates have been launched like ships christened with champagne. With all the changes in venues and formats, all the speakers and hoopla, an enduring sentiment has lasted.

Perhaps, Robert Lester, secretary of the Carnegie Corp. and commencement speaker in 1940, had it exactly right. Lester said, "Your alma mater has tried to send you forth as free, self-reliant, thinking men and women." No matter from where Tulane graduates commence.

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000