As a sophomore, Carolyn Carter, ’73, was driving around Raleigh looking for daisies for Class Day, to be held later that afternoon. Carter and her classmates found daisies in a field where Rex Hospital is now. Noticing these unusual visitors at such an early hour, a neighbor called the police and a deputy was dispatched to investigate.
“[He] was questioning us and we had to explain the daisy chain, which he didn’t quite get but he left us alone,” she remembers. “He got that we were harmless. That’s part of the history and legacy of our class.”
Explaining Meredith traditions can sound like a tall tale to those outside the Meredith community.
“I am a member of the White Iris Circle and therefore have to answer questions about Meredith’s many traditions frequently,” said Katie Murphy, ’18. “I find that explaining the traditions is fairly simple, but explaining why they mean as much to the students as they do is difficult.”
Emily Kelleher, ’17, feels similarly. “Since I didn’t understand [Cornhuskin’] until I got to see it, that’s the way I explain it to people,” she said. “You have to see it to understand it.”
Though they may seem unusual to some, for students, alumnae, faculty, and staff, these time-honored traditions bring the whole campus together. Making sure those new to Meredith understand these traditions is an important way to build our community.
In that pursuit, about 75 percent of freshmen students take the First Year Experience course, which teaches in part Meredith history and traditions.
“We try to help students figure out where they will find their niche,” explained Cheryl Jenkins, director of student leadership and service. “So we have a comprehensive class that helps them understand the history of the college, where the traditions began, and how they can get involved.”
Information sessions on Meredith traditions are offered during fall orientation for freshmen, and in both spring and fall for transfer students. Student advisors tell their freshmen about Cornhuskin’. The Student Government Association runs the first freshman class meeting each year and talks about the events they experience. Even parents can attend a fall session about Cornhuskin’.
Once new students have a basic understanding of these traditions, many students show interest in participating, which is something they often reminisce about later.
Carter enjoys the commonality she finds with other alumnae and says she is often recognized as a Meredith alumna by her class ring.
The ring, received during a student’s junior year, is one of the most recognizable signs of a Meredith tradition. Seeing others with their onyx reminds many about receiving a class ring during their junior year.
“When [an alumna] talks about Ring Dinner, I know how special it is to put that ring on,” said Hilary Allen, ’01, director of alumnae relations. “That is something that goes across the decades.”
While the class ring has had the same design since 1953, the Ring Dinner did not become a celebrated event until 1990 for the class of 1992. Vice President for College Programs Jean Jackson said, “I was at the first Ring Dinner as a young faculty member.”
While it was a very informal gathering of juniors with their dinner trays on a Friday night in Belk West, Jackson said, “That was the first inkling of tradition.”
Today, Ring Dinner is at the end of Ring Week, which consists of daily activities and a different costume ring to wear each day.
“Ring dinner definitely made me feel closer to my classmates, and the student body as a whole,” said Kelleher. “It also draws me closer to graduates of Meredith, because this is something that binds us all together.”
Like Ring Dinner, Cornhuskin’ is one of the most fondly remembered of Meredith traditions by alumnae for similar reasons.
Said Kathy Rhodes, ’84, “In those large moments, everyone was part of the crowd …. It was nice to have major bonding events occur so that we all shared some history.”
In fall 2015, friends Mandy Steele Johnson, ’96, and Ashley Parr Henderson, ’97, served together as Cornhuskin’ judges.
“Cornhuskin’ has changed a lot from 20 years ago,” said Johnson. “The most amazing thing, though, is that it is still exactly the same – excited young women who have worked so hard to achieve a common goal.”
That isn’t an unusual observation for alumnae who return years after graduation for Cornhuskin’.
“Every tradition to some degree has become more in depth,” said Jenkins. “There’s more to it or the students decided to enhance it in some huge way from the original tradition.”
Co-Director of First Year Experience Chrissie Bumgardner says there is a reason for this.
“I feel like every class wants to put their stamp on it,” she said. “If there’s already a lot in place … it continually moves things to the next level.”
Said Kristen Rivera, ’16, “We all have the ability to customize the traditions to our class, but the classes before us have all experienced the sense of sisterhood and belonging that we’re experiencing now …. I think the fact that so many students were in our shoes before us is energizing.”
While some traditions increase in scale, others change simply because interest in them wanes.
For instance, Palio, which started in 1935 and was later phased out, took place during the same day as Stunt, and had a parade and themes for each class. The main event that day was a horse race. Horses were made out of papier-mâché or horse heads on sticks.
More recently, Freshman Frolic was phased out, which was a field day-like event that ran from 1996-2004.
“All of these traditions made you think about what the students had to do,” said Archives Assistant Meredith Haynes. “They were stuck on campus and had some fun outside of academics. Students [bringing cars to campus] and [being] able to leave has changed things.”
As old traditions have died out, newer ones have started.
Charming Evening was created by the class of 2000 as a sophomore class event. Said Haynes, “Each student received a charm special to her class. It has ‘MC’ on the front and the graduation year on the back.”
Henderson, a children’s pastor in Raleigh, draws upon her experience at Tea for Two, a sophomore class event previously called the Mother Daughter Tea. It was started in 1991 by the class of 1993. At the event to be held this year at her church, Meredith student and Miss North Carolina Kate Peacock will be the speaker.
Participating in events like Tea for Two and Cornhuskin’ helped Henderson gain experience to rely on later.
“I was a pretty strong leader before coming to Meredith but Cornhuskin’ taught me so many life lessons,” said Henderson. “I remember being right out of college and being able to think about things for work like they were Cornhuskin’.”
This comes as no surprise to the Student Leadership and Service office.
“These students who are involved in these traditions learn so many skills,” said Jenkins. “Cornhuskin’ co-chairs … show organizational skills, creativity, interpersonal skills, written communication skills.”
Murphy agrees that being in a leadership role for Cornhuskin’ does prepare students for the future.
“[It] requires discipline and dedication. It teaches accountability,” she said. “Your classmates are counting on you to show up and deliver. It reinforces time management techniques, because schoolwork always comes first, but everyone wants to participate in their class activities.”
For Rivera, her role in Cornhuskin’ as a script writer for her class skit gives her experience she’ll draw upon later.
“I want to go into video production, and learning how to write a clever script in conjunction with ‘client’ guidelines helped me problem solve and think outside the box in my personal creative endeavors,” she explained.
It’s both experiencing Meredith traditions in the moment as well as reflecting on them later with fellow alumnae that resonate.
In 1997, Carter delivered the commencement speech, and said, “I was certainly aware of this closeness while I was at Meredith, but as the years have gone by, I am increasingly aware of how strong this bond is.”
After watching students experience Meredith traditions for over 20 years, Bumgardner observed, “The longer a tradition has been in place, the more meaningful it becomes. It helps Meredith become their home.”
Meredith College Traditions
Corn Huskin’ Bee – 1945-present (name changed to Cornhuskin’ in 1961)
Stunt – 1916-present
Palio – 1935-1951
Play Day – 1940-1969
Crook Hunt – 1906-present
Alice in Wonderland – 1924-present
Class Day – early 1900s-present
Class Dolls – 1936-present
Big Sis/Lil’ Sis – 1919-present
Bathtub Ring – 1968 (by the class of 1970)
Freshman Frolic – 1996-2004
Guardian Angel Dance – 1991-present (formerly the Father-Daughter Dance)
Tea for Two – 1991-present (formerly the Mother-Daughter Tea)
Charming Evening – 1998-present (by the class of 2000)
Ring Dinner – 1990-present (by the class of 1992)
Alice in Wonderland – A Special Faculty/Staff-Led Tradition
In January 2016, Meredith College faculty and staff performed Alice in Wonderland, a play put on once every four years (once per college generation) since 1924. This performance was particularly notable since 2015 was the 150th anniversary of the publication of Lewis Carroll’s famous work.
“The faculty decided to do something for the students,” explained College Archivist Meredith Haynes. “They had such a close connection, and that continues …. A lot of faculty members keep their roles for as long as they’re here and the rest of Alice is a mystery until you go see it.”
Said Kathy Rhodes, ‘84, who saw the play in her senior year, “Watching that was amazing and hilarious. Seeing our professors in a totally different light gave us another level on which to interact with them. Alice was, and continues to be, a seminal event in Meredith life even though students aren’t the primary players.”
Carolyn Carter remembers seeing the performance during her junior year, 1972.
“We had all heard about Alice in Wonderland and knew that it was special,” she said. “I remember which professors were which characters. Alice was the quintessential of all things that are neat at Meredith.”
Vice President for College Programs Jean Jackson also saw Alice for the first time in 1972, her freshman year.
“I knew some faculty by sight and very few by voice,” she remembered. “Most of the people on the stage were a mystery to me.”
In 1983 Jackson came back to Meredith to join the faculty. In 1984 she performed one of eight or 10 dancing cards. Now, so many faculty and staff members participate that, she said, “We are close to a full deck of cards.”
Jackson has had a speaking role since 1988 and began directing the play in 1992.
Alumnae Director Hilary Allen says that part of what makes the performance so special is that it’s the only tradition that doesn’t involve student participation.
“For [students] to be able to see their faculty members in a totally different setting is fun for them …. It’s the best surprise party you’ve ever attended.”
The play is a little different each time it’s performed.
“I think one of the reasons it has continued to be popular is that it has evolved with the times just as the College has,” said Jackson.
If a faculty or staff member has a special interest, like inline skating, baton twirling or belly dancing, sometimes that gets incorporated into the play. Sometimes special roles are created. References to current literature and events often wind up in the script.
Once a faculty member accepts a role, he or she almost always keeps performing it until their retirement.
“We are attuned to popular culture and try to remain relevant,” said Jackson. “I think Alice puts us in touch with our younger selves and shows spirit in the face of all obstacles.”
Alice is a story that remains timeless and entertaining. The Meredith translation of the play continues to resonate with a Meredith audience.
Said Jackson, “A bold, adventurous girl who made her way [is a] metaphor for anyone confronting new and familiar experiences (when making one’s way) through the world. Most students who come to Meredith are successful in making their way to graduation and to successful lives.”