There are people who will tell you that campus traditions say a lot about a school. Fight songs, mascots, and landmarks, they explain, are keys to the personality of a university. What, then, do a boulder, an armadillo, and marshmallows say about Northwestern?
The Rock is one of Northwestern's best-known landmarks, a huge chunk of stone set in a plaza in the middle of campus. Painting the Rock with colorful (in both senses of the word) slogans is perhaps Northwestern's best-known tradition. But even before the first permanent coat of pigment was slapped on in 1957, the campus landmark was more than a lopsided block of stone. The purple-and-white quartzite boulder dates from hundreds of millions of years ago and was transplanted from Devil's Lake, Wisconsin as a gift of the class of 1902. Now, students must "guard" the Rock for 24 hours before they have the privilege of painting it. View the Rock for yourself via the Rock WildCam.
Football and band traditions are some of the oldest at the University. Northwestern's first band, The University Concert Band, was organized in 1887 and first performed the fight song "Go! U Northwestern" 25 years later. When "Royal Purple" become the official school color in 1892, the football team became the Northwestern Purple. (The team was also known as the "Fighting Methodists" for a time in reference to the religious denomination of the University's founders.)
The football team didn't become the Wildcats until the 1930s, when they adopted that name from a newspaper article that ran a decade earlier. A Chicago Tribune reporter had written in 1924 that even in a loss to the University of Chicago Maroons, the Northwestern football players looked like "Wildcats [that] had come down from Evanston." The team's first mascot was not Willie the Wildcat (as the current mascot is known), but a live, caged bear cub from the Lincoln Park Zoo name Furpaw. In fall 1923, Furpaw was driven to the playing field to greet fans before each game. However, after a losing season, the team decided Furpaw was the harbinger of bad luck and banished him from campus.
Victories by the football team are celebrated by lighting the face of the clock tower on south campus in Northwestern purple. Occasionally, the feats of other University athletic squads are recognized with the same honor. When the women's lacrosse team captured its third consecutive national championship in 2007, the clock tower glowed purple for an entire week.
Mayfest and Dillo Day
The roots of Northwestern's end-of-the-year celebration, Mayfest, reach back to the 1890s, when students would celebrate the "renunciation of the May Queen of the temporal world for a spiritual one," according to a 1951 history of the event. Although little is known about the early days, May Day, or May Fete, was originally a celebration of the women of Northwestern. The crowning of the May Queen was the central event, and the pomp included a Maypole dance and cotillion. May Day expanded to May Week in 1946 to accommodate a women's sing, men's sing, and an honors ceremony.
Nowadays, Mayfest is a weeklong celebration capped by a more recent tradition, Armadillo Day. In 1972, Northwestern students from Texas held a small celebration in honor of the armadillo. More than 25 years later, 'Dillo Day is the culmination of Mayfest and an all-day Saturday event on the lakefront with bands, games, and vendors.
The roots of several more recent traditions are something of a mystery. No one knows what started Primal Scream, the thrice-yearly tradition of students screaming bloody murder at 9 p.m. the Sunday before finals week. The howl emanating from campus housing before students dive into the most stressful week of the quarter can be heard all over campus.
Whether or not their roots can be traced, Northwestern traditions reflect the history of the school and no doubt frame the future.