Imagine walking across The Oval to class when someone you dislike crosses your path, yanks something out of your hand and breaks it.
This act — what some would call a “mugging” — doesn’t necessarily happen in 2018 at Ohio State, but it was actually a tradition of sorts near the time of the university’s beginning.
Like most universities in the late 1800s, Ohio State had a strong sense of seniority and class camaraderie. Each class donned its own set of colors. Each class lived every day to compete against each other.
Most of the competitions involved sports and academics, where classes tried to score more points or get better grades than the others. Sometimes, the formalities fell apart and upperclassmen chose to haze freshmen on campus.
Very few events, though, led to as fierce of a class rivalry as the Cane Rush.
In 1880 or 1881, senior classmen reportedly started their spring quarter walking around with canes. These additions represented a sense of class distinction and superiority. This didn’t sit well with junior classmen. By the end of the first day, junior class members were tackling the upperclassmen, grabbing their canes and breaking them in half.
The first tackle grew into two, then to three and so on until a mass crowd of students moved onto a field rolling around and fighting for a cane. It wasn’t until Edward Orton, the university president at the time and the namesake for the geology building on The Oval, walked onto the field and said:
“Gentlemen, cease this disturbance and pass to your places.”
The crowd dispersed and broken canes were left in the trash, but the idea lingered.
Men took to it and in the following years, some form of the game continued. Events were planned around the Cane Rush. Students drafted strategies to beat their rivals in the upcoming showdown.
Typically, once a year, campus paused for the Cane Rush. It continued for the next 50 or so years.
With little reason and a lot of determination, a tradition was born.
The Cane Rush is only one of hundreds of traditions that have settled into the lives of Ohio State students, but traditions can be fleeting. Sometimes, only few get the introduction or farewell they deserve. Generally, each tradition is recognized at its best but is almost always forgotten at its worst.
Since the university was founded in 1870, few traditions have lasted.
The traditions that persisted since the creation of the university have dwindled in
number — only 40 that were created around the university’s beginnings still exist. Some of these include commencement, the scarlet and gray colors, and Homecoming.
Over the years, traditions like May Week and the Mirror Lake jump have ended.
The amount of traditions has fallen, but modern ones have increased in number on a smaller scale. Traditions that have begun in recent years are created between student organizations, on-campus jobs and groups of friends.
Because the definition of “tradition” can vary, new traditions are unquantifiable.
Of all traditions, there are two types: ones that were created by the university like Convocation and those that were brought about by students like the Cane Rush.
Some traditions stay stagnant and change very little. Others like Brutus Buckeye, Ohio State’s beloved mascot, have evolved over time.
A tradition’s longevity depends on the population size of its students, the intent of those who maintain the practice and the safety of those involved.
Traditions at colleges are representative of its culture, said Kevlin Haire, assistant university archivist.
“[Tradition] just makes us feel part of a bigger whole,” Haire said. “As you get older, it connects you through nostalgia for a place or for people, for a certain time in your life.”
The origins of a tradition
Haire — along with University Archivist Tamar Chute and other staff members of the University Archives — find, sort and synthesize any information that is relevant to Ohio State’s history. One bit of this upkeep is documentation, first-hand accounts and artifacts from traditions.
The word “tradition” takes on many forms. Haire suggested this can include events and gatherings, but also songs like Ohio State’s alma mater “Carmen Ohio,” physical representations such as Ohio State’s first building, University Hall, or the football team’s long-standing rivalry with the University of Michigan.
The definition varies depending on the experience and the time period, but the central theme of a tradition is to connect students, alumni and the university.
Commencement is one example of a university-driven tradition, which also is one of the oldest and most consistent that students over the years have witnessed.
The first graduating class in 1878 came to a consensus that there must be an event where their achievements culminated into one moment. That year, five men graduated, Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College officially became Ohio State University and scarlet and gray were adopted as the school’s colors — their first choice of orange and black had already been taken by Princeton University.
Though commencement has continued throughout the years, other traditions have permeated campus. For most students, one tradition that has always existed are the chimes from the Orton Hall bell tower located at the heart of campus, The Oval.
A set of bells was first introduced by the class of 1915 as a means of reflection. Following a decade of student fundraising, Orton Hall was topped with the bells that rang to signify every class change. Today, students hear it strike every quarter of the hour and chime every hour in numerical accordance.
Another group-centric tradition began in 2005, when student organization Ohio Staters began to hold its annual Light Up the Lake. Members would spend the last week of classes during Autumn Semester and cover the trees around Mirror Lake with white lights.
The first lighting of the year would fall at the beginning of finals. For the rest of the term and into the next, students could walk through Mirror Lake Hollow led by the lights that streamed above. Once construction began on Mirror Lake in October 2016, the tradition was revised and held at the recently renovated North Campus.
On the other end, some traditions were introduced by one person, Brutus Buckeye being one of the most memorable.
Though the term “Buckeyes” had been affiliated with Ohio State athletics prior to 1965, an art student intrigued by athletics was the mastermind behind the mascot, with some help from Ohio Staters. A bulky costume made out of chicken wire, two-by-fours and papier-mâché was formed to showcase the embodiment of a Buckeye, the poisonous nut native to Ohio.
Fans took to the get-up, and Brutus has stayed with the university for more than 50 years, with some pretty major changes along the way.
There are many different ways a tradition can influence the culture of the university, Haire said, but each generally comes from a humble beginning.
“I guess what I like about the traditions is that they don’t start as people trying to make them a tradition or trying to make them something special,” Haire said.
For an interactive timeline, click here.
Naturally evolving traditions: Homecoming
When Connie Yin and Bryan Barrett heard their names called out as Ohio State’s 2017 Homecoming King and Queen, it was a surreal experience for both students.
Barrett recalls thinking, “Did I hear that right, or is that just what I wanted to hear?”
In its current form, 24 students are selected to be on Homecoming Court through an application process to compete and claim the annual title of king and queen. Being chosen for Court and winning the crowns takes academic excellence and on-campus success and achievements during a student’s time at Ohio State. Barrett and Yin, a fifth-year in industrial systems engineering and a fourth-year in health sciences, respectively, were chosen for Court in April 2017.
While on Court, members attend university events like Convocation, and Homecoming events like the Friday pep rally and parade, and the Saturday Skull Session of the Marching Band for the scheduled football game.
Six months after the initial introduction onto Court, Barrett and Yin were crowned at the Homecoming football game against the Maryland Terrapins on Oct. 14.
But it seems the tradition did not start this way.
In “The Ohio State University: An Illustrated History,” Homecoming has a varied path.
True to its name, the idea of Homecoming was an event created to bring alumni “home” to campus during commencement week in the 1880s, though it did not carry the same name. It first focused on alumni, then it added a football game for the former students to watch around the turn of the century. It grew to include rituals like lawn decorating in 1912, and by 1914, festivities were scheduled for the entire weekend.
Homecoming Court was introduced in 1922, but solely for females. The process first was very similar to a beauty pageant with competitions, but Court began to take its current appearance in 1976 when men were included.
Throughout the years, Homecoming has changed drastically, said Lauren Luffy, Homecoming adviser and manager of student engagement for Ohio State’s Alumni Association.
“I do feel like the Homecoming tradition is one that might be a little more exciting for older alums,” Luffy said. “Younger [alumni] don’t necessarily rally around that as much.”
Luffy, an alumna and member of the 2009 Homecoming Court, said she wasn’t sure what exactly led to Homecoming’s fading prominence, but mostly attributes it to the different class dynamic caused by the increase in class size.
Each year the weekend on which Homecoming occurs includes a 50-year class reunion on the Sunday after the football game. Because Ohio State enrollment has steadily grown in the past 50 years, class cohesion has weakened solely because of numbers.
The Court itself has changed. For Luffy, the increasing show of diversity was one of her favorite things to witness while on Court.
“The unique thing about Homecoming Court is you have a very diverse group from all across campus, very different backgrounds, places they grew up, but also majors, things they’re involved in and places they’re going to go next,” Luffy said. “It’s just kind of a very unique cross section of people.”
Barrett and Yin said the chance to reflect on each of their contributions at Ohio State was one of their most rewarding aspects of this modern version of tradition.
Man-made changes to traditions: Cane Rush and Mirror Lake jump
Some traditions stay around and some fall naturally. Others stop by choice.
May Week and the Mirror Lake jump were two traditions that were intentionally brought to an end.
Originally designed in the early 20th Century as May Fete, a dance for women who move around a large pole with large bannisters, May Week later became a carnival esque mix of competitions. This included tug of war over Mirror Lake between classes, chasing oiled pigs and eating contests. It signified the introduction of spring and the end to the academic year.
May Week fell apart on its own during the 1970s — more than likely due to a swell in the student body population — but there was an attempt to revive it in 2003. However, the university’s transition from quarters to semesters officially ended all May Week activities indefinitely, due to Spring Semester ending in early May compared to late April.
On the other hand, a tradition that current students are more familiar with is the Mirror Lake Jump.
The specific origins are unknown, but sometime around 1991, students began jumping into Mirror Lake one night during the week before the Michigan football game. It is said that the jump would bring back the spirit of former Ohio State football head coach Woody Hayes, which would give the team good luck for its upcoming match.
In time, it evolved into a wild display of debauchery. Students would enter the water with little to no clothing at the end of a cold November night and it often ended in trips to the hospital for pneumonia, sprained ankles or cuts to students’ feet.
Over the next 20 years, this tradition amassed thousands of participating students.
In 2015, its final year, students jumped over a one-night period on the Tuesday prior to Thanksgiving.
This jump resulted in tragedy when Austin Singletary, a second-year in business, died. According to his friends, Singletary was unaware of the shallow depth of the water and fatally injured himself when he dove in.
With the tragedy came the end of the jump.
In the few years prior, Ohio State began taking more control over the event, even though it continually claimed that the jump was “not sanctioned” by the university. This initiative included wristbands for population control, fences to deter masses of people and contain the flow of students, and an increase in police presence.
The jump has not occurred since due to construction on the lake and nearby Pomerene Hall that began October 2016. The university has never directly stated the construction was a means to ending the jump, but rather a side-effect to a sustainability project.
Ohio State spokesman Dave Isaacs said the well-being of its students is a “top priority” of the university, and the university does not want to see any “tradition” or “activity” jeopardize that.
“I think over the years, we have seen some activities that the university has worked to discourage based on protecting health and safety,” he said.
Traditions connecting to the future
The Cane Rush was able to continue through students’ stubbornness, the support of then-University President William Oxley Thompson and sheer luck, but like other traditions of its time, it also came to an end. Once World War II was over and class sizes grew to a point where class unity was minimal, the Cane Rush became a memory.
Without alumni, persistent traditions like the Cane Rush wouldn’t have been able to continue for as long as they did. Traditions were passed down between classes, and this connected current students to recent graduates.
Craig Little, director of alumni societies for the Alumni Association, said traditions might change over time, but their purpose of connecting past, present and future students will always hold true.
“I think for the bottom line, I want [the students] to know that [a tradition] is a common thread that connects us all,” Little said.
Traditions can be one of the many modes that connect students to alumni and vice versa, Luffy said. Sometimes when the Alumni Association gets students and alumni together for dinner, the first talking point starts with looking back at traditions during their time in college.
“We often start with what’s your favorite Ohio State tradition question because we know that there’s moments that transcend when you were here and what you do now that everyone can connect to,” Luffy said. “I think that’s what makes a tradition a tradition, something that if you mention it, others will know about it.”
There are many ways that alumni and students try to foster that connection. Little believes traditions, along with academics, extracurriculars and other aspects of student life, are what make alumni interested in giving back to the university and its students.
Some of this has led to a “Pay it Forward” mentality through the form of scholarships and endowments. Other ways that students can connect with alumni are through programs such as Dinner for 12 Buckeyes and Buck-I-Serv, where alumni groups can meet with student volunteers outside the state of Ohio.
And yet, traditions, new and old, still persist. Ohio State is home to more than 50,000 students each year and it still has the capability to foster traditions and connections between its students.
“I’m glad we haven’t gotten so big or so focused on our own thing that students can’t come together and experience something in common with each other,” Haire said.
“Whether it’s something that’s related to a small group or something that’s related to a bigger part of the population,” as Haire said, traditions continue to have a home at Ohio State.