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Like its 1916 predecessor, the 1954 version of the Freshman Walkout was illuminated by homemade torches.

Monmouth College Freshman Walkout: Century-old Tradition Still Has Legs

With its origins more than a century old, the Walkout has a colorful history that parallels the history of popular culture, higher education and even world events. While its basic structure and purpose — a freshman march to promote class bonding and increase familiarity with new surroundings — has changed little, its continuing evolution makes for a fascinating study.

The precursor to the Walkout debuted in 1916. Known as the Torchlight Parade, it was organized by the campus’s YMCA chapter and included students from all classes marching four abreast through the streets of Monmouth, singing and yelling. Returning to campus, they were addressed by President T.H. McMichael before retiring to the back of campus for a bonfire and games until 10 p.m.

The Walkout became a solely freshman affair in September 1921, when 250 new students gathered in the evening in front of Wallace Hall and formed two lines — one for men and one for women. As the procession advanced, a signal would be given every few minutes, causing each of the men to move forward one spot and meet a new female partner, thus “preventing a stoppage of conversation for the new freshman, inexperienced in the gentle art of carrying on a ‘tete-tete’ with one of the opposite sex.”

In the first Walkout, the destination was a watermelon party near a meandering stream in the country east of town, where “Time was spent frolicking and gamboling about, in freshman fashion on the ‘green sward.’”

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Through much of the Walkout’s history, South Main Street was a key destination — vibrant even at night, as in this 1947 photo.

Although the rain hampered the Walkout in the next few years, by 1926 the destination had switched to downtown Monmouth, with the event sponsored by the YM and YWCA. The women gathered at Sunnyside dormitory (Austin Hall) while the men gathered at the Auditorium. When a pistol was shot, the two processions merged and headed up Broadway, visiting the movie theaters, cigar stores, restaurants and hotel, before returning to campus for a bonfire with marshmallows.

In 1928, the procession stopped first at the president’s house across from Wallace Hall, where the students regaled President McMichael with college yells and songs. New this year was the signal to move the men’s line forward — shots fired by a pistol. A snake dance was also added following the bonfire.

The gunfire must have been problematic, as the following year students were instead outfitted with horns and noisemakers. By 1933, a new tradition was begun, with students in the procession being issued all-day suckers. They also began touring fraternity houses on their way back to campus. (These did not exist in the first year of the Walkout, as the College’s ban against fraternities was not lifted until 1922.)

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Students wind their way through the Theta Chi house in 1954.

Not only had fraternities been banned, but a ban on dancing also continued into the 1930s. When President McMichael — a strict Presbyterian raised with Victorian mores — retired in 1936, the door was opened to a more liberal campus social life. Following the 1937 Walkout bonfire, students headed to Wallace Hall for an open house and dance, with the irrepressible piano professor Gracie Peterson providing the tunes.

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After its construction in 1938, the new Rivoli Theatre (pictured here in 1958) became key venue on the Walkout.

Another tradition was added in 1939. As the students paraded through the new Rivoli Theatre, the movie was stopped and the lights brought up so the audience could applaud the new students. Also new that year was a cautionary walk through the Warren County jail.

World War II threatened put a damper on the Walkout, as by 1943 most of the male students had entered the service and women were relocated to fraternity houses so that a Navy preflight school could be housed on campus. But that didn’t deter the women, who in 1944 staged a walkout from downtown to campus. They actually began at Bruen Hall, a women’s residence near downtown on Broadway, and made their way through the various fraternity houses occupied by women, until they reached Grier Hall on campus — home to the Navy cadets. Escorted by the cadets to a bonfire on the football field, they adjourned to the gymnasium for a dance, lasting until 9:30 — the cadets’ curfew.

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By 1966, the Walkout had become an afternoon event.

By the 1960s, some basic changes in the Walkout had occurred. No longer sponsored by the “Y” organizations, it was instead run by the Pep Club and M Club. That might have explained why instead of a walk it became a run — with students physically pulled down Broadway and rushing through town so fast that they had little time to take in their new surroundings or get to know new classmates. A watermelon bust and a dance on the tennis court were typically the post-Walkout activities. Another change, toward the middle of the decade, was moving the event from night to afternoon.

1971 marked the end of the Walkout — for a time. Freshmen had long endured soft hazing activities such as having to wear beanies, but by that year the procession was also bombarded with shaving cream and tomatoes. Upon becoming dean of students in 1971, Dan Behring instituted changes to make orientation more meaningful, academically and socially. The Walkout didn’t fit that model, and while alumni continued to hold fond memories of the annual event, new students didn’t miss it.

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Above: 1971 marked the last Freshman Walkout prior to a 24-year hiatus. Below: Surroundings change but the Walkout lives on. In 2015, students passed the same corner — considerably remodeled — shown in the 1971 photo..

Fast-forward a quarter of a century. Sue Huseman, Monmouth’s new president, who tasked herself with the mission of “Creating Community,” decided that celebrating tradition would be an effective way to promote a feeling of community among students, faculty, staff and alumni. Noting that the once vibrant bagpipe band had shriveled to a single piper, she made bagpipe lessons available to the campus community and instituted bagpipe scholarships. She also commissioned the creation of an official Monmouth tartan and worked to restore the office of college chaplain. Another initiative — a freshman convocation celebrating Monmouth heritage and traditions — brought an outpouring of nostalgic reminiscences from alumni about the Walkout.

Thus, in the fall of 1995, the Walkout was revived as an afternoon event, the day before the beginning of classes. Led by a police escort, as well as a piper and drummer, more than 300 students paraded from Wallace Hall through downtown Monmouth. Local merchants and professionals were solicited to welcome the students, and all competed to offer compelling welcome gifts — from slices of pizza to strawberries dipped in chocolate.

Now, nearly a century since it first debuted, a half century since it was discontinued and a quarter century since it was revived, the Walkout is one of Monmouth’s most beloved traditions.

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The Class of 2022 exits campus onto Broadway at the start of the 2018 Freshman Walkout.

Written by

Editor and historian for Monmouth College. Avid researcher of western Illinois history for 40 years. FB and Twitter. jrankin@monmouthcollege.edu

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