BY TIM BRADY
The sound of the bagpipe band wafting through the air at Macalester functions seems as engrained in the fabric of college life as the plaid kilts its members wear. In fact both the band and the kilts are relatively new to campus ceremony and might have seemed strange to students from generations before 1948.
That was the year the pipe band tradition was actually born at the college. Professor Ivan Burg brought the idea of forming the group to one of his journalism classes. His intention was to offer a lesson in public relations—to see if his class could promote Macalester to the larger community through the unusual nature of the band and its obvious links to the college’s Scottish roots. Of course, it would be good to learn how to play the pipes, too.
As an indication of their priorities, however, Burg’s students had hardly squeezed their first bags before they sent a letter off to the chief of the McAlister clan in Scotland informing him of the project. Lt. Colonel Charles McAlister not only thought the bagpipe band was a splendid idea, but officially “adopted” Macalester College into the clan, granting the group the right to wear McAlister plaid.
The bagpipe band evolved in fits and starts, nearly dying in the 1950s, but it eventually emerged as one of the most enduring campus traditions. Some 30 years after Burg’s class gathered, a first-year student from St. Louis named Julie Stroud ’81 arrived at Macalester oblivious both of the college’s rituals and its connections to the Scottish highlands. “The first time I entered my dorm room, my new roommate was holding an instrument I’d never seen before,” says Stroud. “It had a strange mouthpiece and a tone like nothing I’d ever heard. She was so intent on learning her fingering that she could hardly pull away to introduce herself.”
Turned out that instrument was a chanter and Stroud’s roommate was vying for a coveted place in the Mac Bagpipe Band. Joining the organization that had emerged from Ivan Burg’s class had become a popular goal for Macalester freshmen. By the time she’d finished her years at Mac, Stroud herself had become an aficionado, if not a practitioner, of the instrument. “I still live near campus, and whenever I hear a bagpipe coming from that direction, I feel like I ought to stand up,” she says.
Predicting the appeal and longevity of Macalester traditions is an exercise in futility. Their existence and evolution is as quirky and idiosyncratic as some of the rituals themselves. A hundred years ago or so, membership in one of the three dominant literary clubs at Macalester—the Clionians, the Eulogians, and the Athenaeans—was a must for social acceptance on campus.
The organizations themselves then seemed as enduring as the 700-pound rock that had been recently rolled to the campus from the corner of Grand and Cambridge and placed just outside of Old Main, by the Class of 1908.
What was new at Mac in 1915 was the game of Pushball, which had been encouraged by the administration as a substitute for the annual “Capture the Flag” contest between freshmen and sophomore boys. Over the years the flag match had evolved into a sometimes bloody brouhaha, making pushball seem like a lesser evil. A game invented only a few years earlier by a Harvard professor, pushball featured two competing sides trying to guide a ball as big as a Macy’s Parade balloon from one side of a field to the other. It was kind of like rugby with the ball itself on steroids, but students loved it. “Pushball has undoubtedly come to stay,” announced the Mac Weekly after that first game on campus. And, in fact, pushball turned out to long outlast the Clionians, the Eulogians, and the Athenaeans. The literary clubs died out in the ’20s, while pushball has had a Lazarus-like existence, resurrected as recently as the 2007 Founder’s Day festivities (and continuing up through the present).
It’s fair to say that one tradition at Macalester is that traditions themselves go through cycles. The first Founders Day was held in 1938 in honor of President James Wallace’s 90th birthday. In years following, the celebration became an annual and popular campus ritual, featuring Scottish treats and speeches extolling the virtues of Macalester founders and the history of the college. However, Mac students of latter years were not as enthralled by tales of olden times, a fact to which George Bonniwell ’61 can attest. He was asked to give a Founders Day speech in 1960, just a few years before the tradition was temporarily shelved. “To say I didn’t captivate my audience is an understatement,” he says.
Years later, the tradition was resurrected on the occasion of Macalester President Brian Rosenberg’s 2004 inauguration. Now celebrated as a kind of campus birthday party, Founders Day shows every indication of resuming its status as an honored campus tradition.
The Scottish Fair is another tradition that was born, died, and was reborn. Originally founded as the Highland Games at Macalester in the 1950s, these field competitions were initially held exclusively by and for Mac students, Bonniwell remembers. He tells of football players in crew cuts and Madras shorts heaving cabers in squat-thrust fashion. The games eventually died out in the late ’50s, but came back with a vengeance under President James Robinson in 1972. In fact, the increasing popularity of the Scottish fair finally surpassed the college’s ability to host the event, and festivities moved off campus in 2003. (The event, now called the Minnesota Scottish Fair and Games, is held annually at the Dakota County Fairgrounds in Farmington.)
The 1960s sounded the death knell for a number of time-honored Mac traditions. Both Snow Week and the selection of a Homecoming Queen bit the dust in that revolutionary era. It should be noted, however, that even these seemingly long-lasting rituals were essentially invented from whole cloth not so many years before. In fact, Professor Burg, one of the great inventors of Macalester traditions, had his hand in establishing both.
Back in his student days at Mac in the early 1930s, Burg wrote a Mac Weekly column called “Ice Burgs,” which highlighted various doings around campus. He promoted Snow Week as an extension of the St. Paul Winter Carnival, and actually initiated the first Homecoming Queen contest at Macalester in 1937. According to the Weekly, “It was a tradition, which was at the time nonexistent in Minnesota small colleges [but] became front-page material in the St. Paul dailies.”
If the Vietnam era brought an end to some of the previous generations’ more earnest campus activities, 1960s students helped institute traditions of their own. Perhaps chief among these was the political activism that reshaped the campus.
By the time Erin Bowley ’93 arrived at Macalester, the campus was noted for its highly charged political atmosphere, and she jumped into activism with both feet. Before her first month in St. Paul was through, Bowley had helped organize a bus trip to Washington, D.C., to back housing rights (“Everybody was organizing bus trips to D.C. in those days,” she recalls); participated in the grand old Mac tradition of “tabling”—setting up political advocacy tables at the student union; and designed and printed the first of many T-shirts, which likewise advocated for a cause.
“The first one said ‘We all need a home’ and it was printed in a little kid’s handwriting,” she recalls. “Believe me, it was just one of many T-shirts we made during my four years.” So many, in fact, that a friend of hers—who had saved many of the shirts from their college days—eventually turned them into a substantial quilt.
Traditional Mac hangouts have evolved over the years as well. George Bonniwell remembers the Green Mill when it was a burger and popcorn joint owned by an elderly couple named Sy and Edie. “Mac students would go there on their 21st birthdays to celebrate with a schooner of beer.”
Judy Brown Marquardt ’66 recalls philosophical discussions and eating burgers with her “Grill Rat buddies” at Knowlton’s Greasy Spoon on Snelling or the Mac Grille. Aside from serious talk of matters like Vietnam and JFK’s assassination, there were moments of lesser concern. “I learned to play the ukulele and bridge there,” she says. “There was also a popular folk group called Dewey Decimal and the Librarians composed of Mac students, including Don Mackenzie, Pete Malen, Dave Howard, and Bob Stimson.”
For a couple of years in the late ’60s a club called NOEXIT was joined to the Grille through a door draped with black beads. The name of the place was painted just inside the door in fluorescent colors, which jumped in the café’s black lighting, giving it the appropriate psychedelic feel. Underground reading material like The Berkeley Barb and Haight/Ashbury papers added to the ambience, while performers like Leo Kottke took to the stage.
Grant Killoran ’86 arrived at Macalester at the height of the Minneapolis music scene. The NOEXIT had long since exited and campus hangouts had expanded across the river. Killoran remembers vying for free tickets–being given away by WMAC—to shows at First Avenue. “We’d carpool to Minneapolis to see Prince or the Replacements or Hüsker Dü,” he recalls.
Despite these adventures, the traditions that have stuck most with Killoran revolve around particular campus settings and activities, such as gathering in the stacks of the Old Library to study and socialize or going to Mac Cinema to see Psycho or The Exorcist. And then there was O’Gara’s: “I can’t remember if it was Wednesday or Thursday nights, but there was a Mac night each week down there,” he says.
Other Mac traditions mentioned by alums include the annual snow brawl on Grand Avenue, Religion and Life Week on campus, the frequency of marriages between Mac grads, and the Macalester bell, which was said to ring whenever a student lost his or her virginity (for years the Mac Weekly carried a column called “Ringing the Bell,” which announced the engagements and marriages of Mac students and alumni).
A more recent Mac grad, Tom Noonan ’01, mentions Macalester graduation ceremonies as among the school’s great traditions. He continues to return to the ceremony, years after his own commencement, just to witness it. “I like to be there,” he says. “It takes me back.”
But even in this moment, the idiosyncrasies of Mac traditions stand out. “The graduations themselves are ‘so Macalester,’” says 1981 grad Julie Stroud. “I don’t think I learned the lyrics to ‘Dear Old Macalester’ until that day. And of course all of us were sitting with our friends rather than in any particular order; when our names were called, people came up from all different corners of the audience. It was a kind of organized anarchy,” she says. “Yet somehow it all worked.”
TIM BRADY is a St. Paul writer who specializes in historical topics. He most recently wrote about Ambassadors for Friendship (Winter 2010).