Written by on June 14, 2019

A Look Back at Commencement: Fascinating Facts from the University Archives

It is the end of Spring Quarter which means that it is time to celebrate our graduates at Commencement! The Special Collections students assistants team has helped us gather a variety of interesting commencement facts and stories they discovered in the University Archives.

Do you have a commencement story to share? Tell us in the comments!

Cal Poly’s First Commencement, 1906

The first Cal Poly graduation ceremonies took place in 1906. That makes this year Cal Poly’s 113th commencement! Our first graduating class was made up of EIGHT graduates total. The ceremony took place at the Pavilion Opera House in downtown San Luis Obispo. Read Courtney’s article on the first commencement here.

Irene Righetti was one of the first graduates from Cal Poly in 1906. She made this dress for her commencement. University Archives Photograph Collection, ua-pho_00000980.

Irene Righetti’s diploma is now located in University Archives. University Archives, ua-pho_00000981.

Commencement competes with the World Series

Commencement had to compete with the World Series two years in a row, in 1958 and 1959, so President Julian A. McPhee made sure to update the audience on the score throughout the ceremonies. By 1960, the commencement planners learned their lesson, moving the ceremonies by a day so that they would not have to compete with the World Series again!

Robert Hostetler, (Special Collections Student Assistant and HIST, ’19)

The 1962 graduating class and their supporters in the stadium. University Archives Photo Collection, ua-pho_00002942.

Oldest and Youngest Cal Poly Graduates?

Rafael Guerrero was 84 when he graduated from Cal Poly in 1979. Born in 1895 in Sonora, Mexico, the popular student had been a Colonel in the Mexican Army and fought alongside Pancho Villa and knew Leon Trotsky while he was in exile in Mexico. Called “The Colonel” on campus, he was an accomplished author and graduated with a degree in English. His senior project can be found in the Kennedy Library.

The youngest Cal Poly graduate recorded in the archives is Priscilla Butler, an English graduate, who graduated at the age of 18 in 1988. She was the recipient of the Academic Achievement award for the School of Liberal Arts. One quarter she took 32 units! Read more about her in the 1988 student newspaper.

Alistair Forston, (Special Collections Student Assistant and CRP MA, ’20)

Commencement Speakers

Cal Poly has invited guest speakers to speak at commencement ceremonies since the first graduation in 1906. For many years, students proposed the speakers. Some notable speakers include:

  • Princess Inonge Mbikusita-Lewanika, Zambian politician who has served as Ambassador of the Republic of Zambia to the U.S., spoke at commencement in 2009. She graduated from Cal Poly in 1965 with a degree in Home Economics and in 1966 with a masters in Education.
  • Astronaut Robert L. “Hoot” Gibson (Aero Engineering, ’69) spoke at the 1994 and 2004 Spring Commencements
  • Future-president, then-Governor Ronald Reagan spoke at the 1974 Commencement, which was also the first year Cal Poly charged for tickets. Read about student reactions to his visit .
  • Actor Raymond Burr (of Perry Mason and Ironside fame) spoke at the 1973 Commencement. Listen to his speech here.
  • Dr. S.I. Hayakawa, President of San Francisco State College (and future US Senator from California), spoke at the 1970 Commencement.
  • David Starr Jordan spoke to the 1911 graduating class.
  • The first female commencement speaker (and only speaker to receive a standing ovation before and after their speech) was Adela Rogers St. John, well-known reporter and screenwriter, in 1975. See a photo of her speaking at commencement in the online University Archives collections.

Governor Reagan speaking at Commencement, 1974. University Archives Photograph Collection, ua-pho_00001994

Alistair Fortson (CRP MA, ’20), Courtney Thompson (HIST MA, ’20) and Robert Hostetler, (HIST, ’19)

Celebrating Graduates’ Spouses – Pushing Hubby Through

Pushing Hubby Through (or PhT) was a special commencement ceremony to recognize the wives of graduates. The special ceremony, which began in 1955, recognized the contributions of wives to their graduating spouses’ success. The sexist overtones were challenged in the 1970s, when the ceremony was updated to “Pushing Honey Through.” It was discontinued in the early 1980s.

 Special Collections Student Assistants Alistair Fortson (CRP MA, ’20) and Anna Leon (ENGL ’21)

Pushing Hubby Through ceremony, circa 1960, in front of Dexter Library. University Archives Photograph Collection, ua-pho_00002925

Pushing Hubby Through supporters in the audience, circa 1960. University Archives Photograph Collection, ua-pho_00002925.

The Nisei Diploma Project

In June 2010, the California State Universities awarded honorary degrees to Japanese American students who were forced to leave school after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Thirty Japanese American students were forced to leave Cal Poly in 1942. Twelve of Cal Poly’s honorees, or their families, were able to attend the awards ceremony. Read more about the project in this 2010 Mustang Daily article.

Courtney Thompson (Special Collections Student Assistant and HIST, MA, ’20)

Cultural Commencements

All Cal Poly graduates are invited to participate in Cultural Commencement Ceremonies including Black Commencement, Chicanx/Latnix Commencement, and SWANA Commencement. Black Commencement Ceremony dates back to 1989 at Cal Poly. The Lavender Commencement was first held in 2008, hosted by the Pride Center. Visit Special Collections to view commencement programs, and learn more about this year’s cultural commencements here.

The Cal Poly Mace

In the University Archives you can find an interesting shaped item that many first-time visitors puzzle about. Is it a giant head massager? Some musical device? It is actually the first Cal Poly mace, which was used in commencement ceremonies from the late 1960s to 2000. The mace was designed by Thomas Johnston, College of Architecture instructor, and it was built by the Manufacturing Processes department. The design was said to represent the eternal flame of education, symbolized by the rods which crown the upper part of the mace. The number of rods represented Cal Poly’s Schools and Departments. A new mace was designed in 2001 for the Cal Poly centennial, which is still used today.

President Baker and youngest graduate Priscilla Butler at the 1988 commencement ceremony with the Cal Poly Mace. University Archives Photograph Collection, ua-pho_00002938.

The Mace in action, circa 1968. University Archives Photograph Collection, ua-pho_00002947.

Controversial Caps

Today we celebrate the creative #CalPolyCaps that students design for graduation. But did you know that in 1968, the Cal Poly President Robert E. Kennedy received many complaints from faculty about “exhibitionist” students who decorated their caps? One frustrated professor wrote to Kennedy:

“I was disturbed, however, by the exhibitionists who refused to conform to the standards of appropriate dress for the occasion and thus reduced the solemnity and effect of the ceremony. I am referring, of course, to the School of Architecture, the one who wore a cowboy hat, and several who had put flowers on their mortar boards. If such deviations as these are allowed, each school or department would be justified in demanding its own variation of the academic costume.”

In order to quash future “deviations” to the mortar boards, Kennedy proposed for the first time adding tassels to the caps of graduating students. Kennedy recommended each college have a different-colored tassel to distinguish themselves, which is a tradition that continues today.

“Hi Mom” at a commencent, circa 1980. University Archives Photograph Collection, ua-pho_00002464.

Another decorated cap, circa 1985. Photo by Ken Dintzer. University Archives Photograph Collection, ua-pho_00002967.

Do you have a commencement story to share? Tell us in the comments!

Read more on 1960sand1970sCalPoly, commencement history, and university archives.

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