Many universities across the country celebrate homecoming, a tradition uniting a college’s alumni and current students. At Cal Poly, this tradition dates back more than 100 years. This weekend marks the 103rd California Polytechnic State University homecoming.
Through the years, the spectacle has seen its share of changes, dating back to the first event in June 1907 — a banquet initiating new alumni. During the next 17 years, alumni continued to reunite annually until the first official “homecoming” celebration in 1924.
Football reigns supreme
In that first homecoming in 1924, the alumni reunion was brought together with a university football game, which is historically the center of homecoming traditions, Cal Poly Alumni Association president Tom Lebens said.
This year marks master of ceremonies for the Honored Alumni Awards Gilbert Stork’s 50th year since graduating from Cal Poly. While here, Stork was a student-athlete on the football team.
“(Homecoming) was always exciting,” Stork said. “When I was playing football, several former players would come and visit.”
Having players return gave the opportunity to hear their stories, Stork said.
The football tradition lives on today with the Mustangs facing off against Portland State on Saturday. In addition to the game, attendees will also see the crowning of this year’s homecoming king and queen.
A royal history
The first homecoming queen, El Corral Bookstore (now the University Store) employee and wife of a Cal Poly student, Nancy Schlegel, was crowned in 1951. It was not until five years later in 1956 that Cal Poly officially began readmitting women to the university. According to a 1957 edition of the El Rodeo yearbook, the university’s first “campus-grown royalty” was homecoming queen Barbara Foley.
Today, Cal Poly has a royal court dating back only a few years, according to agricultural science junior and Poly Rep alumni chair Jordan Albiani. Poly Reps, a voluntary, public relations organization aimed at promoting Cal Poly to prospective students, puts on the homecoming court.
“Each college is at their own discretion of how they choose their princes and princesses,” Albiani said.
The college council can choose royalty by voting, nominating or submitting an application. Poly Reps then develop the interview process and the nominees are interviewed by a panel of campus community members and past court members.
Tracee de Hahn, executive director of alumni relations and executive vice president of the Cal Poly Alumni Association (CPAA), said the royal court is another way for students to get themselves out there just as they would through leadership in clubs and varsity sports.
Events from back when
Despite the revamping of homecoming royalty, events dating back more than 50 years, such as the parade and float contest, are no longer part of the festivities.
In its heyday, members from the Crops Club and Mechanical Engineering Society would build a float for their organizations to enter in the homecoming parade. In addition to the parade, homecoming included a bonfire rally, a rodeo dating back to the ‘70s and a homecoming dance.
An “Ugly Man” contest was also held in which the ugliest man in the school’s attendance was chosen for a given year. In the 1955 edition of the El Rodeo yearbook, a man by the name of Wyneken won the title.
Today, homecoming provides the opportunity for students, parents and alumni to gather together and celebrate Cal Poly.
“Other than Open House, there’s not another event where the entire university (comes together) as a whole to be a part of Cal Poly,” Albiani said. “It’s what homecoming is, essentially.”
This year’s homecoming will feature a tailgate barbecue, CPAA wine tasting, the College of Liberal Art’s second annual Homecoming for the Mind, the Honored Alumni Awards and Dinner Reception and the football game against Portland State.
As little as three years ago, Cal Poly homecoming events such as these could not be seen on campus, after homecoming student activities went on a six-year hiatus starting in 2004.
According to Cal Poly Fund Director Chris McBride, there used to be a director or coordinator for homecoming who worked out of the alumni office. A lot of the student activities prior to 2004, including the parade, were all coordinated by that director.
“There was even a student committee that (the director) coordinated and worked with to manage those events,” McBride said.
Student activities during homecoming were brought back in 2010.
“Poly Reps, as a student alumni council representative, they really wanted to do something and be involved in homecoming,” McBride said. “They had some activities in 2010. What they decided to focus on was court and every year they want to bring back one activity.”
A time for students, parents and alumni
As in years past, homecoming is a time for students, parents and alumni to come together and celebrate what it means to be a Cal Poly student.
“Homecoming fundamentally is a chance to inspire a sense of tradition on campus and also to welcome our alumni back to campus,” de Hahn said. “You think of homecoming as literally alumni returning, coming home, that leaves off a really important piece — the students really being involved.”
Stork said the biggest change for him going from a student-athlete to an alumnus was a “great sense of appreciation.”
“As a student-athlete, you know going to college is just part of what we do growing up. I think at the time we don’t have a great sense of how powerful the privilege of having an education is,” Stork said. “It’s only until later that we’re able to reflect back to those years as a student and see the myriad of experience we had, the people we came in contact with.”
Like Stork, Lebens stressed the importance of a student’s reflection on their alma mater.
“You spend some very special years at Cal Poly,” Lebens said. “It’s part of all of our fiber.”