Penn State Homecoming: Remembrance, reflection and revelry

by Jackie Esposito, University Archivist
October 07, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Ross Lehman, a 1942 graduate of Penn State and executive secretary of the Penn State Alumni Association from 1970-83, once declared that “traditions give a university its heart and substance.”

He could easily have been describing Homecoming, which represents some of the longest standing and most cherished University traditions. Penn State will kick off Homecoming Weekend 2015 with the traditional Homecoming Parade at 6 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 9, and face off against Indiana University at noon on Saturday, Oct. 10.

The University community has observed Homecoming festivities regularly since 1920. The first officially designated Homecoming football game occurred on Oct. 9 of that year, as Penn State defeated Dartmouth, 14-7, under the coaching of Hugo Bezdek.

“Traditions give a university its heart and substance," said Ross Lehman, class of 1942. Since the 1920s, many treasured Penn State traditions have grown from Homecoming.

Autumn gatherings of alumni combined with special football games actually can be traced back to 1904, when they were linked to campus celebrations of Pennsylvania Day, a kind of founders’ day with the governor and other state officials in attendance. An annual Harvest Home event, sponsored by the then-Agricultural College of Pennsylvania, was staged as early as 1867, well before the advent of intercollegiate football. In fact, the popularity of Harvest Home activities led to the formation of the Penn State Alumni Association in 1870.

Since the 1920s, many treasured Penn State traditions have grown from Homecoming. For example, parades combining town-and-gown celebrants with a specific theme and a grand marshal, highlighted by crepe-papered floats, are perennial favorites. In 1931 a lawn display competition for Greek organizations began that was eventually superseded by the Homecoming parade competition for both Greeks and Independents. Float awards have become prized honorifics, received after careful planning and speedy execution.

The Penn State Blue Band, the Alumni Blue Band, local marching bands, the Tailgating Kazoo Band, and former Nittany Lion mascots join local fire companies, ROTC units, and other campus and community organizations to fill out a celebration of camaraderie and memories that winds its way along campus thoroughfares and College Avenue for two or three hours. Parade grand marshals have featured astronauts, Olympic athletes, politicians, distinguished alumni, and the ever-popular Mike the Mailman. At the end of the parade route, celebrants join  in the ceremonial Guarding of the Nittany Lion Shrine.

Guarding the shrine on Friday nights has largely replaced the sometimes unruly bonfires and pep rallies of yesteryear. The candlelight vigil is meant to protect the Nittany Lion statue from vandalism by fans of the opposing team, and rouse campus spirit for a football win at Saturday's game. To date, the vigil has been extraordinarily successful in keeping watch over the shrine from parade’s end until dawn of game day.


Other traditions include the election of a Homecoming queen, once known as “Penn State’s Perfect Coed.” Started in 1940, the selection was suspended during World War II and did not return until 1952, when photos of the Homecoming queen were sent to Penn Staters serving in the Korean War to remind them of the girls back home. In 1973, following a two-year protest by feminists, a Homecoming king joined the royal court. The court presides over numerous social events during Homecoming week and is prominently featured in the parade lineup of celebrities.

Notable Homecoming celebrations have included the 1920 inauguration of Penn State President John Martin Thomas, the 1930 dedication of the new Old Main building, the 1986 “Fan of the Century” grand marshal contest, and the 2005 sesquicentennial theme recognizing the 150th anniversary of the University's founding.

In 1942, the ceremonies featured the dedication of the Nittany Lion shrine and related speeches by prominent Penn Staters including Joe Mason, the Penn State baseball player credited with giving rise to the idea of a Nittany Lion mascot. Fifty-five years later, in 1997, football game halftime ceremonies featured the unveiling of the University Libraries’ 4,000,000th volume — appropriately enough, "The Nittany Lion: An Illustrated Tale," authored by Penn State librarians Jackie Esposito and Steven Herb.

Dances and musical performances have always captured plenty of attention during Homecoming. Talent has ranged from jazz great Duke Ellington to rock’s Three Dog Night, from rhythm and blues legend Roberta Flack to the University’s own Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians. Waring dedicated the song “Mighty as the Mountain” to his alma mater at the 1940 Homecoming dance.

Today’s Penn State Glee Club concerts continue this musical heritage, and the football game itself features the musical renderings of the Alumni Blue Band during the halftime show. 

During the 1950s and early 1960s, freshmen — who were required to wear “dinks” to football games — routinely tossed their beanies into the air during the halftime show. Tailgating became a famed Homecoming tradition when games were moved from New Beaver Field to Beaver Stadium following the 1959 season. In a 1975 Daily Collegian article about Homecoming, the legendary Ridge Riley affirmed, “We’re probably one of the tailgate champions of the world.” Some traditions never change.

Penn State will kick off Homecoming Weekend 2015 with the traditional Homecoming Parade at 6 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 9, and face off against Indiana University at noon on Saturday, Oct. 10.

Many other Homecoming activities, some of which still happen today in various forms, included students decorating their dorm windows which then won prizes; the Homecoming ball, considered “the first large social event of the season”; a sponsored golf tournament; campus walking tours; and the sharing of personal Penn State narratives by alumni and current students as easily and methodically as each would sing the lyrics to the Alma Mater.

Of course, no Homecoming visit for alumni would be complete without an ice cream cone scooped at the Berkey Creamery, celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. Some memories and traditions stay in the mind’s eye long after they have been experienced. Penn State Homecoming, as it is celebrated under the shadows of Mount Nittany, offers alumni a chance to remember, reflect, and revel “in the glory,” and that is among the best reasons "We are…Penn State."

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated October 02, 2019