Student culture has its own traditions and customs—some lost to time, others alive and well. Here is a look at just a few of the more notable.
Keep Off the Lawn
“Every college has a campus, but only the University of Virginia has the Lawn. It is a part of the Virginia spirit. The maintenance of this tradition is dependent upon the cooperation of students and authorities to stop the beating of paths across corners and the throwing of waste on the grass; to keep it well watered and well fertilized. Are there any who will declare themselves outlaws from the Virginia spirit?” —College Topics, October 13, 1917
For many decades, it was customary each fall to warn students, first-year men especially, not to walk on the Lawn. The tradition began in the years following the Civil War, when tremendous efforts were made to refurbish the University’s buildings and Grounds. In 1870, two rows of aging locust trees that had been planted on the Lawn in the 1820s were removed and replaced with hearty maple and ash trees.
A wire enclosure was also installed to prevent wayward cows from grazing on the Lawn. New gas lamps offered some visibility in the evenings, but students complained that they frequently stumbled in the dark and fell into the wire fence. Needless to say, the fence was often torn down and unsightly paths continued to be etched across the Lawn.
“Sad havoc is being played with our beautiful Lawn by thoughtless trespassers,” one student observed in the pages of the College Magazine in February 1887. “Everybody takes a short cut because everybody else takes a short cut. At all the corners are reminders in the shape of wires stretched across. Can we not heed those reminders and save the Lawn?”
Despite new concrete sidewalks that crossed the Lawn in places, the grass was further threatened in the 1880s and ’90s as football and baseball became increasingly popular pastimes among the students. A student admonished his peers in March of 1891, “This practice of ball playing on the Lawn still continuing, notwithstanding the Chairman’s request to the contrary, should be abandoned at once. The Lawn is the pride of the University and everyone deserves to have its beauty preserved. The effects of ball playing are very marked. Large spots here and there, marring the beauty of the whole Lawn.”
In the winter of 1900, a posting on the University’s “Official Bulletin Board” warned students to “Keep off the grass on the Lawn.” This was followed in successive years by actual signs placed about the Grounds.
An April 1950 editorial in the Cavalier Daily concluded, “Spring is Spring and grass is grass—and the former is the time when the latter should be kept off of.” While “Keep Off the Grass” warnings no longer have the status of a student tradition, it is not uncommon to find white stakes roped together marking the boundaries of the Lawn in the springtime, especially before Final Exercises.
Photos by Ed Roseberry (left) and Dan Addison (right)
Coats and Ties
In a 1967 talk with students, professor Thaddeus Braxton Woody commented that it was distressing to see great traditions passing away: “The tradition of gentlemanly dress is slowly dying.” Woody, who had first come to the University as a student in 1919, spoke for many alumni and faculty. Shock and dismay were not uncommon reactions to the blue jeans and T-shirts that had begun to make regular appearances around Grounds in the 1960s.
Opposition to the traditional coats and ties actually began after World War II. As one student wrote to the editor of College Topics in 1946: “I agree that the wearing of coats and ties gives a much better appearance than the mode of dressing to be found on most campuses. But please do not try to indoctrinate us with the theory that the mere wearing of a coat and tie will effect a magical change on those of us who are not gentlemen by virtue of our actions, or that the lack of those articles of apparel will in any way change a gentleman from what he is.”
Though most students continued to wear coats and ties after the war and throughout the 1950s, the styles could certainly be considered more casual than they had once been. By the time the ’60s rolled around, socks had become optional, and some students considered a wrinkled sports coat with a repp tie loosened at the collar tradition enough.
By about 1970 the transformation was a fait accompli—coats and ties had become the exception and not the rule. To the delight of some alumni, however, the tradition continued in the stands at home football games.
In September of 2003, new head coach Al Groh asked Cavalier fans to wear orange at Scott Stadium in an effort to create more excitement at football games and enhance home-field advantage. Groh’s “Sea of Orange” caused many traditionalists to cry foul. But the vast majority of fans have appeared happy to help the team in this way. Orange coats and ties have become one notable compromise for those with “Orange Fever.”
Painting Beta Bridge
Though a bridge was erected in the early 1850s over the Chesapeake & Ohio train tracks in the location of Beta Bridge, it is not the same bridge as the one so often painted today. The current bridge was built in late 1923 and opened to traffic in early 1924—the product of a citywide street paving and improvement project to prepare area roads for automobiles. Known initially as the Rugby Road Bridge, it took the now-familiar name when the Beta Theta Pi fraternity built a house nearby in 1927 (now the home of Delta Upsilon).
The first documented painting of the bridge occurred in late fall 1926, when the College Topics reported that a group of students had “splashed bright green paint over the new bridge on Rugby Road.” For many years, students painted celebratory sports scores on the bridge, just as their predecessors had adorned the train trestle at the Corner since it had been erected in 1901.
Photo by Emily Miller
Sports scores remained the most prevalent subject painted on the bridge by students until St. Patrick’s Day 1967, when the now-popular tradition of emblazoning Beta Bridge with messages, slogans and graffiti seemed to take off.
Fans of the Irish holiday painted the bridge a festive green. But rival supporters of the English throne painted over their work in red and wrote “God Save the Queen” in big, white letters. The Irish patriots retaliated by replacing “Queen” with “Green.”
Painting Beta Bridge was not always the risk-free activity it is today. The bridge is city property, after all, and Charlottesville authorities in the late 1960s and early ’70s did not take kindly to having their bridge marred by University students. On the night of March 27, 1971, five members of the Pi Lambda Phi fraternity were arrested by city police for painting the bridge purple and gold.
Over the years, the city has gradually acquiesced to students’ artistic talents, allowing the painting of Beta Bridge to take its place as a genuine U.Va. tradition.
Cartoon from a 1963 Alumni News
Streaking the Lawn
Time magazine introduced the world to America’s newest cultural curiosity in December 1973 when it described streaking as a “growing Los Angeles-area fad.” The strange phenomenon came into the nation’s living rooms on April 2, 1974, when 33-year-old advertising executive Robert Opel streaked past actor David Niven during the Oscars.
But even before Opel ditched his blue jumpsuit backstage at the Oscars, streaking was alive and well at the University of Virginia. In February 1974, the Cavalier Daily reported that naked students had been seen running on the Lawn and in Alderman Library. On one memorable evening that same month, first-year students even staged a “mass streak” in the McCormick Road dormitory area, which included the University’s first documented female streaker. The students failed in their attempt to set a world streaking record. But three people did manage to get arrested for disorderly conduct.
The tradition of streaking the Lawn has since gained a toehold among students at the University. Custom has it that before one takes a degree from the University, he or she is to run naked from the steps of the Rotunda down the 740-foot Lawn, kiss the statue of Homer, and streak back up the Lawn. One version says that streakers must then peer through the keyhole of the Rotunda toward the Galt statue of Thomas Jefferson before donning their clothes.
For many, this tradition is a harmless, youthful lark. For others it is a shameful display not worthy of Mr. Jefferson’s University. Either way, streaking is not exactly new at the University. The first recorded act of streaking at the University of Virginia comes from the pages of the College Topics, October 1937:
“At the Lewis boarding house last Thursday night some of the first-year men got terribly thirsty. So they all went down to the Corner in their pajamas. This was around two a.m. Evidently they had been thirsty earlier in the night, but this is beside the point. When the over-jolly crowd got back to the Lewis’ a couple of them forsook their pajamas and rushed pell-mell, Adam and Eve fashion up to their rooms. And to think that a nudist colony is in the making at Virginia. That’s Jeffersonian Democracy for you.”
The wearing of first-year hats is a once-strong tradition that has been lost to time. Unlike the beanies seen on other university campuses throughout much of the 20th century, first years at Virginia were encouraged to wear stylish felt or straw hats. Though it was often referred to as an “unwritten rule,” this custom was clearly spelled out in the pages of the student newspaper each fall and again the following spring, when first-years had a tendency to “forget” their hats in warm weather.
This excerpt from the October 4, 1921, edition of College Topics explains the custom: “From ancient times, First Year men at the University of Virginia have been expected to wear their hats outdoors consistently throughout their first year. You don’t have to do it; absolute freedom of thought and action is one of the boasts of this institution. But you are expected to do it, and it is well to enter into the spirit of any school you attend.”
An addendum to the tradition held that first-years were always to tip or even remove their hats when passing a professor (always referred to as “Mr.” and never “Dr.,” unless he held a medical degree). “These two old customs are characteristic of the University of Virginia,” Topics continued; “They are two unwritten laws which in these days of change and innovation should not become dead letters.”
Despite the efforts of upperclassmen, the first-year hat tradition began to ebb in the late 1930s. By February 12, 1941, a reporter for the student newspaper observed: “Each year we note with alarm that fewer and fewer First-Year men comply with this custom. This year the number of offenders, judging from the scarcity of hats to be seen on the Grounds, is greater than ever before.”
As new students, among them many veterans, returned to the University following World War II, the custom was put to rest. “Tradition should be flexible,” one student reasoned in 1946. “It should adjust to changing conditions. The hat convention should be abandoned graciously, without hysteria.” And so it was.
Photo by Ed Roseberry
On the long list of athletic traditions at the University of Virginia, collegiate boxing ranks near the top. Though the gloves have long since been set aside, boxing enjoyed an illustrious run at Virginia and was, at one time, known as “the major sport in Charlottesville.”
Boxing began informally among students in the years before the Civil War. In 1891, William Lambeth joined the University as superintendent of buildings and grounds and director of athletics. Among his initial duties was overseeing boxing matches in one of U.Va.’s first gyms, a round wooden building at the south end of the Lawn.
In late winter 1895, shortly after Fayerweather Gymnasium was opened, students founded a boxing club to organize Saturday-night bouts and sparring rounds. In 1904, John LaRowe, a former Marine who had learned to box in the service and had coached the sport at VMI and Washington & Lee, moved to Charlottesville to open a billiard parlor at the Corner. When the students learned of LaRowe’s boxing background, he was quickly enlisted as coach. Under LaRowe’s leadership, Cavalier boxing became a national powerhouse.
The University’s General Athletic Association (forerunner to today’s Department of Athletics) made boxing an official varsity sport in 1927, just in time to host matches in the new Memorial Gymnasium. As many as 5,000 fans would crowd into the gym to watch the bouts. The Cavaliers went undefeated from 1932 through 1937, winning a string of Southern Conference Championships.
Boxing as a major college sport eventually succumbed to the growing criticism that it was too dangerous and even deadly for student athletes. (A 1950 Look magazine article described the sport as “legalized murder.”). U.Va. eliminated boxing as a varsity sport in 1955, and the NCAA refused to sanction the sport after 1960.
It was one of those February nights that the crowd began rambling into the stands of the Memorial Gymnasium. The boxing ring stood quiet and foreboding in the center of the large room. Its white canvas mat was splotched here and there with the dark stains of previous contests. Managers were industriously tightening the turnbuckles in the corners so the ropes would have enough spring. The gym was bathed in clear brightness by the wire-covered lights high up in the steel rafters. The first steady rush of students began to fill up the large end section of seats marked “unreserved.” There was a steady babble as excited young voices discussed the night’s prospects. Occasionally a high-pitched feminine shriek made itself heard above the steady hum. Tobacco smoke began rising towards the rafters, raising a hazy curtain over the crowd. Later the reserved seats began to be filled as those lucky people began to amble in, self-consciously. A young redheaded boy caught the amused glances of the impatient excited crowd as he expertly threw ice-cream bars way up to the stands into the waiting hands of customers. The balcony was overflowing as the band began feverishly tuning up. This music attracted the crowd’s fleeting attention and held it as it played several selections. A rousing “Beer Barrel Polka” elevated the throng into an even higher state of excitement as the holiday spirit ran wild. Suddenly a deafening roar goes up from the crowd. All eyes are turned to the narrow entrance on the side of the center stands—the University’s boxing squad all clad in orange and blue. They resolutely file past and take their positions standing before the ring. The applause—a mass of yelling, hoarse voices, wild soaring whistles, stamping feet—continues and reaches a thunderous peak as the bright lights snap on and the overhead lights go off.”
—College Topics, May 6, 1940, from an article by Charles Doughtie, published the day after the death of boxing coach John LaRowe