What are Illinois State’s traditions? That’s a complicated question.
There are easy responses like Homecoming and Founders Day. But every Redbird knows the Illinois State experience is more than just a few annual events.
A cross-campus team undertook an extensive exploration of Illinois State’s traditions, answering the question by identifying a range of events, people and places that make ISU unique. The work was completed in the fall semester and is showcased on Traditions.IllinoisState.edu. The website offers facts, photos, videos, and stories that help cement the core traditions of Illinois State’s culture.
The website is part of a larger plan to increase the visibility and value of traditions at Illinois State, according to Doris Groves ’81. The executive director of Alumni Relations, Groves partnered with Lora Wey, director of ISU’s Annual Giving, in debunking the notion Illinois State lacks traditions when compared to other historic campuses.
“What we discovered is that there are a whole lot of traditions at Illinois State,” Groves said. “We just haven’t been intentional in talking about them or promoting them.”
The team’s work started with longstanding events such as Homecoming. The mascot and ISU Fight Song made the list of traditions without debate. The work became difficult as conversation moved beyond all that is readily identified as meaningful to Redbirds. It quickly became clear that the idea of what stands as a tradition is hard to define.
Can a tradition be a place? Can it exist off campus? Can a tradition just be on Fridays? The team answered with a resounding yes when making the decision about what to deem worthy of inclusion. The Quad, for example, made the list.
“The Quad was more difficult to define because it’s a place, but it becomes a tradition to a lot of people because of the variety of activities that take place there,” Groves said. The center of campus means something different to alumni across generations depending on their years of attendance.
For some of ISU’s oldest graduates, the Quad is meaningful because it’s where they walked at commencement. For others, it’s where Rites of Spring took place. Many who attended during the 1970s still recall the music festival as some of their best ISU memories. Today’s students will remember the Quad as a social hub where Frisbees fly and hammocks hang.
Wey and Groves recognize that graduates from across generations will undoubtedly respond differently when asked to identify ISU’s traditions. They worked to define the idea in such a way that alums and current students will equally embrace the list that includes people, events and places, Wey said, regardless of when they attended the University. One of the newest traditions is Wear Red on Fridays, which was initiated in 2002.
Work on introducing the traditions to current and prospective students has begun. The website, which is easily accessed on mobile devices, was the first step. A printed traditions book is planned. Students will hear more about traditions at future Preview orientations and Welcome Week convocations. A “traditions room” may even pop up on campus.
Why is it important to understand campus traditions? If today’s students have a stronger sense of pride and ownership in ISU, they’re more likely to be engaged alumni—maybe even become financial supporters.
“That all starts with tradition. We all win on a campus that has very entrenched traditions,” Wey said. “I’d feel like we succeeded if, five years from now, we stopped a student on the Quad and asked them, ‘What are the traditions at Illinois State?’ If they rattled off the same traditions that our team identified back in 2015, I think that would be success.”
Alma Mater and Motto
The alma mater was composed in 1926 by faculty members Wanda Neiswanger and Jennie Whitten.
Glory hast thou, might and power;
proud the halls of ISU.
Deeds that live in song and story,
loyal sons and daughters true.
So shalt thou in years increasing send
they grads of honest worth,
forth to bear with zeal unceasing
wisdom’s torch throughout the earth.
The original motto traces to Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th century Canterbury Tales. The motto was changed in 1992 to “Gladly we learn and teach.”
The bronze sculpture was unveiled in 2000. Each coach and student-athlete touches the battle bird prior to every home game.
A statue honoring ISU basketball great Doug Collins ’73 and his coach, Will Robinson, was unveiled in 2009. The
work was sculpted by Lou Cella ’85 and donated by the Don Franke family.
The ceremonial awarding of degrees is Illinois State’s oldest tradition. The first event was held in Old Main in 1860.
Created as an event to welcome students to campus, Festival ISU began in 1989. It is held annually on the Quad every fall and now includes nearly 400 booths.
The song was penned in 1932 by alum Kenyon S. Fletcher, who was also an industrial technology professor and the school’s band director.
Go you Redbirds onto battle!
Fight for ISU.
Raise the banner, red, and white;
to this emblem we’ll be true.
So let us cheer the Redbirds on
to victory! Every voice proclaim:
‘We’ve got the fight! We’ve got
the might! Let’s win this game.’
Founders Day and Old Main
Old Main was the first building constructed on campus. It opened in 1860 and cost $200,000 to complete. Demolition occurred in 1958.
Founders Day ceremonies merged with convocation during the Depression and World War II. The day was restored as a full-fledged campus birthday celebration in 1955.
Gamma Phi Circus
The University’s circus dates back to 1926, making Gamma Phi the oldest collegiate circus in the United States. It is one of only two still in existence.
Beyond commencement, the Homecoming parade is Illinois State’s oldest tradition. A precursor event was organized in June 1919 to recognize the service of ISNU students and alumni in WWI. The first official Homecoming was held in November 1921. The celebration became an annual tradition with a downtown Normal hobo parade in 1923.
Illinois State Normal University
The University’s first name was chosen because the school was established to prepare teachers. The name was changed to Illinois State University in 1964 to reflect the broadening scope of learning and teaching.
Jesse Fell and Abraham Lincoln
Jesse Fell and Abraham Lincoln shared a mutual interest in education. Fell, considered founder of the Town of Normal and the University, asked Lincoln to represent the board proposing the school. Lincoln agreed, drawing up the bond and bill of sale documents for property that became the campus.
The Quad has been a focal point of campus since the University’s founding. Jesse Fell obtained $3,000 from the state legislature for campus landscaping in 1867. He hired William Saunders—known for his design of the Gettysburg National Cemetery—to create a campus grid. Fell planted nearly 1,900 trees in two years.
Athletics Director Clifford E. “Pop” Horton and Daily Pantagraph sports editor Fred Young collaborated in 1923 to change the University’s unofficial nickname away from Fighting Teachers. Horton wanted Cardinals. Young instead changed the nickname to Red Birds to avoid confusion with the St. Louis baseball team. Over the next decade Red Birds morphed into Redbirds.
On the sidelines at Hancock Stadium since the 1964 football season, the bell came from an old Navy ship and was procured by an ISU cheerleader. It was rung the first time at Homecoming in 1965. Today the bell leads the team onto the field prior to kickoff, is rung after every Illinois State touchdown, and is a mainstay of the annual Homecoming Parade.
Wear Red on Fridays
Showing pride by donning red every Friday is one of ISU’s newest traditions. The idea was introduced by the Redbird Pride Committee—a group of campus staff, faculty and Bloomington-Normal community leaders.
Some of what has been identified as a tradition at Illinois State is expected, while other entries may come as a surprise. Do you have a tradition to suggest? Submit your idea at Traditions.IllinoisState.edu or by calling Alumni Relations at (309) 438-2586.