Rites of Spring: The story behind ISU’s unbelievable rock festival
Ask graduates who attended Illinois State during the mid-1970s to share one indelible collegiate memory and the response will be nearly unanimous: Rites of Spring. For those who were on campus from 1972 to 1977, Rites of Spring (Rites) stands as the most unique and spectacular social event in the University’s history.
Referred to by students and administrators who endured that era of political unrest as Illinois State’s version of Woodstock, Rites was an all-day affair anchored by emerging musicians performing on a stage on the south end of the Quad. With no entrance fee and minimal police presence, Rites evolved over time into a celebration that included excessive drinking and the use of recreational drugs prevalent during the 1970s.
By 1977 Rites had become such a legendary event that it drew students from across the country. Nearly 20,000 attended that final year, eager to hear a line-up of groups that included REO Speedwagon and the Charlie Daniels Band. The cost was $30,000 in student fees—excluding clean-up and the expense of restoring the Quad, which was declared a health and safety hazard by the time the music died.
Bob Mis ’73 never envisioned such a finale when he led the effort to organize what became the first Rites of Spring in 1972. Mis was then a business administration major and chair of the Entertainment Board, which was responsible for bringing acts to Horton Field House.
Tired of mundane events, Mis made a connection with a Chicago booking agent. ISU consequently became a stop for groups as they traveled through Central Illinois between larger weekend venues. “Board members did a remarkable job of luring to campus acts that students enjoyed,” Mis said, remembering performances by rising stars such as George Carlin; Santana; and Earth, Wind, and Fire.
“The board got to be very well known because we did a lot of good concerts. We were picking up people just as they were coming up,” Mis said. Shows throughout the 1971-1972 academic year were so successful, board members had the problem of what to do with a sizable profit. Since the funds could not be rolled into the next year’s student entertainment budget, Mis and two board members pursued the idea of having several acts for a grand finale to the school year. They called it Rites of Spring.
“We decided that during the week of finals we were going to have this outdoor concert on the Quad. We did it because there was extra money,” Mis said. The idea of creating an annual festival so embraced by students that it would be lauded decades later was never the intent.
“The people who started it weren’t selfish or glory seekers,” Mis wrote in a letter to university officials after Rites was permanently canceled in 1977. In that document Mis stated the event was initiated for Illinois State students “as kind of a ‘thank you’ for their support of various university organizations. Also it was held toward the end of the school term so it was a way of sending people home to the summer months.
“Finals were also near and people were tense and tired of studying. The format and location of the event was ideal for letting people relax and enjoy and take their minds off things,” Mis wrote. The fact many students would be heading to Vietnam after graduation made the opportunity for frivolity that much more enticing.
And yet Mis admits some trepidation as that first concert date neared. With uncertainty as to which groups would be appearing, there was no promotion in advance of the event that was held on Friday, May 12, 1972.
“We didn’t have anything out about it until right before the actual concert,” Mis said, recalling he was “back stage and nervous as heck” as the music began at noon. “I didn’t know if there would be anybody there.”
By the event’s end at midnight his worries had shifted to controlling the crowd that stretched to the flag pole. Even though alcohol consumption was not expected to be a huge problem, as the Town of Normal was still dry in 1972, Mis was keenly aware of the need to avert any trouble. “I was just waiting for something to go wrong so the police or administrators could come in and shut it down,” he recalled.
An estimated 2,200 people attended Rites of Spring I, which was staged for $6,500 and exceeded all expectations.
“If ever anything better happened on our Quad, we can’t remember it,” a Vidette reporter wrote after the event. “This festival of peace, fun, and music was simply fantastic.” With such feedback from students the norm, there was no doubt Rites would be repeated the following spring.
“Because of the success of the first event, a similar ‘more grandiose’ event was planned for 1973. In fact financial commitments were included in the budgets of several university organizations. I believe the Student Fee Committee even reviewed funding for a special organization called ‘Rites of Spring Committee,’” Mis’ letter documents.
Related Article: As student enthusiasm grew with each Rites of Spring, so did administrative apprehension.
With a full day of music planned and an expanded organizational team, the focus for Rites II was crowd control. “The second Rites of Spring had such secrecy that only 24 people knew the exact date,” Mis said, “but we still had a lot of people just show up. It was very difficult to control it and keep it to just ISU students.”
Fraternity members served as watchdogs, a volunteer force of 250 students helped with clean-up and as stage crew, chain link fences were in place, and efforts to limit access through official entrances to the Quad were attempted. Still the crowd swelled.
“It was wall to wall people. We were able to contain it, but it was again bigger than we thought. The whole Quad was filled,” Mis said. The appeal was not just free admission, but “the fact that I don’t think anybody else in Illinois tried to do this.”
These unique elements combined to make Rites a short lived but treasured tradition over the next five years. It quickly became the most highly anticipated and celebrated day of the year for ISU students in the 1970s.
“For such an event to be staged on the Quad, well there was something different about it from the start,” said alumnus and Illinois State employee Jerry Abner ’75, M.S. ’92.
“The music filled the Quad and could be heard for blocks around campus. There was a sense of freedom that evolved during the event, a sense that the Quad had been transformed into a safe haven for at least some cautious expression,” Abner said, remembering the first Rites. He attended the event each year until his graduation.
“There was no standing in lines or camping out for tickets, it was free and open. There was no fear of authority. It was on our campus, and we thought somehow we had gained waiver from existing laws and ordinances,” Abner recalled. “In retrospect the Rites of Spring occurred as a part of the times and attitudes.”
Pat (Stone) Catanzaro ’77 agrees. Now co-owner of a bookkeeping consultant business in Morgan Hill, California, she attended ROS in 1974 and years following. While she supported its termination in 1977 when she was serving as the University’s student regent, Catanzaro understands why the event became legendary.
“There was a lot of drinking, a lot of dope, and a lot of good music. I don’t remember anybody worried about getting busted at all. Dope was easy to get and booze was legal for most of us,” Catanzaro said, noting the drinking age at the time was 19.
“Everybody went to Rites of Spring. It was a good thing. It was peaceful and mellow as everybody filled the Quad. There was no check-in or regulation. You just drug your stuff out there,” Catanzaro said, recalling how she and her roommates grabbed quilts off their dorm beds and settled in with their coolers.
Other graduates have similar fond memories of the event that gave students on what is typically a conservative Midwestern campus the opportunity to be something other than conservative Midwestern college kids.
Many alums who attended a Rites feel they experienced the best of times at Illinois State. Mis, who has now retired from Allstate Insurance Company and resides in Huntley, still gets comments from fellow graduates who tell him Rites of Spring was the best thing about their collegiate years.
“For those who were young and on campus, it was an unforgettable experience,” Abner said. “It was special. It made our campus special.”
Video: Lloyd Watkins talks about the Rites of Spring:
What a musical festival!
Rites of Spring began and ended as a day dedicated to showcasing impressive acts on an outdoor stage. Several groups that appeared on the Quad went on to record major hits.
Rites of Spring I
Friday, May 12, 1972
Spencer Davis Group
Nils Logfren’s band, Grin
Rites of Spring II
Saturday, May 19, 1973
Siegel-Schwall Blues Band
Rites of Spring III
Friday, May 3, 1974
Mighty Joe Young
Country Joe McDonald
Rites of Spring IV—Hancock Stadium
Monday, May 5, 1975
Joe Vitale’s Madmen
Professional comedian Jimmy Whig was emcee
Rites of Spring V
Friday, April 30, 1976
Creative Arts Ensemble
Rites of Spring VI
Saturday, April 30, 1977
The Undisputed Truth
Charlie Daniels Band