In the Merry Month of May
In the Merry Month of May
From the beginning, the 150 young ladies of the State Normal and Industrial School at Harrisonburg reflected their rural roots with May Day celebrations.
For any agricultural population, seasonal changes serve as important markers. Spring brought May, and May brought hope and renewal - and merry celebrations thereof. At a May Breakfast feasting on early strawberries under the apple blossoms in the school orchard, "The girls blossomed out too, with their bright new spring dresses," said Mary Buck Rowe ('14).
By 1913, when senior class president Elizabeth Kelley was crowned as the first Queen of May, the days' exercises had an established pattern. According to Raymond Dingledine's history, "On this occasion members of the senior class and students carrying garlands of green marched from Dormitory No. 1 to the May pole. Underclassmen formed a circle around the pole, while the seniors gave a May pole dance using ribbons in their class colors of green and white. After the singing of May Day songs, the queen was crowned, the class song sung, and all marched to the gym for games until time to march to the dining hall for supper."
The hill overlooking the Quad above what is now Alumnae Hall became known as May Pole Hill until May 15, 1931, when Wilson Hall was dedicated and May Day moved to the back campus. From 1913 through 1923, every senior class president enjoyed a brief reign as Queen of May. Then came change. In 1924, Mary Sturtevant became the first queen elected by the student body, now numbering 640 - a record high.
And 1935 instituted more change. An official May Day dance followed the daylight activities, in keeping with earlier ones sponsored by classes. Those dances reflected social customs of each changing era. Dingledine tells how the 1930s initiated "the girl-break dance" that would become a characteristic of Harrisonburg dances. dances "at which many a boy had his first acquaintance with feminine 'stags' lining the walls, and from which many a young man emerged nearly breathless as his date tried to give him a 'rush' by having all of her acquaintances dance with him."
But the mid to late 1940s saw dance partners more interested in staying together for the entire evening - perhaps the result of separations enforced by World War II. The May Day dances had become so popular that two were held: one for upperclassmen in Reed and one for freshmen in Ashby orchestras performed at both, except in 1945 when wartime dictated cutting back to a Victrola and loudspeaker. The war years featured patriotic themes, as well. In 1943, Queen Jean Bell of Norfolk carried red, white and blue carnations, and the ceremony honored the Allied Nations.
Social graces instilled along with book knowledge "polished" the girls on Bluestone Hill. Mary Bryant Cox, May Queen in 1937 as well as student body president and Apple Blossom princess, felt such social training served her well later. She became the first lady of Nepal when her husband, Paul Rose, headed the Four-Point Farm Program there. She raised five daughters in a household in which celebrities like broadcaster Lowell Thomas and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt were commonplace.
Parents, hometown friends and residents of Harrisonburg had long gathered to watch the festivities on the Quad. In 1953, Alumni Homecoming was moved from March to May Day to add to the celebration that included a parade through downtown with student floats. May Day in 1955 expanded to an all-day affair with caroling before breakfast, music between classes and the festooned fronts of dorms and sorority houses vying for decorating honors along with the other activities.
The May days of the '50s were probably the pinnacle of such traditions. The election of a queen and her court continued into the next decade, but with the infusion of men on campus, it seemed more an outmoded vestige of the all-girls' school than a reflection of the 1960s. When Ronald Carrier became president in 1971, the tradition ended, leaving behind a romantic memory.
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