The first graduation of significance to the University of Virginia actually took place at the College of William and Mary. Exactly 250 years ago, Thomas Jefferson graduated with honors before spending five years reading law as a clerk in George Wythe’s law office.

University President Colgate W. Darden Jr. walks the Lawn with officers of the graduating class of 1954. Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia
At UVA, the tradition of walking the Lawn, now a highlight of the undergraduate experience and the focal point of Final Exercises, was not among the founder’s plans. Degrees and diplomas were not awarded until students, eager to improve their employment opportunities, petitioned the Board of Visitors. The board directed in 1827 that a “public day” be held so that the names of degree recipients could be read aloud. The first commencement was held in 1829 in the Rotunda; ceremonies were later moved to the Annex, then to Old Cabell Hall.

Things really changed after the inauguration of the University’s first president, Edwin Alderman, in 1904.

“Until Alderman, the exercises took place entirely inside and took the form of endless speechmaking,” says Alexander “Sandy” Gilliam Jr. (Col ’55), who serves as UVA’s protocol and history officer. “Students wore tail coats, not regalia.”

According to a UVA history website, “Lamenting the lack of pomp and circumstance, Alderman directed that graduating students and faculty members—wearing academic regalia—process from the newly rebuilt Rotunda down the Lawn to Cabell Hall.”

Dean B.F.D. Runk with the University mace
By 1922, Finals had migrated to McIntire Amphitheatre, and 31 years later UVA President Colgate Darden Jr. moved them to the south end of the Lawn, where they continue today.

As at all academic processions, the grand marshal leads the way carrying the University mace. Made by Patek Philippe of Geneva, Switzerland, it was presented to the University by the Seven Society on April 13, 1961. It bears pictures of the Rotunda, the serpentine walls, a colonnaded walkway on the Lawn and other scenes and emblems unique to UVA.

At last year’s Final Exercises, 6,248 degrees were conferred under partly cloudy skies with temperatures pushing toward the 80s. Weather forecasts are monitored closely in the hours leading up to the ceremony, although only the most inclement weather—thunder, lightning, high winds—would force officials to alter plans for this beloved rite of passage.