As students have traded stagecoaches for rallywagons, elaborate pranks for Exeter Geek Day and private chefs for a favorite Common’s table, traditions at Phillips Academy have changed over the past 232 years. While some, like Andover-Exeter, have adapted old rituals, others like the Cane Rush, Secret Societies and Flaming “A” have faded entirely.
The 133 years of inter-scholastic sports competitions between Andover and Exeter have always featured a spirited rivalry, though rituals have adjusted to fit the times.
When Andover-Exeter competitions first began, the visiting team would ride in stagecoaches to the rival school, making each meeting a daylong trip.
Exeter athletes would also parade up Main Street after arriving to Andover for the competitions. As Andover students sometimes harassed the parading students, the encounters got physical.
These spirited encounters were first replaced by an annual Senior “prank” on Andover-Exeter weekend and, more recently, the Exeter Geek Day.
Unlike Andover-Exeter, the violent Cane Rush did not adapt over the years but ended entirely. Timothy Sprattler, School Archivist, said that the Cane Rush was a humorous but extremely physical confrontation between seniors and incoming juniors.
“It was an initiation, welcome to campus sort of thing. The entire senior class would rush, charge and attack the underclassmen,” said Spattler.
“It was like a rugby scrum, but a lot more physical. It would come up anytime, and part of it was the surprise. It was always well organized and the underclassmen would always show up.”
In 1985, Massachusetts passed a law that addressed hazing in secondary schools, ending the Cane Rush.
Hazing also ended as Secret Societies stopped during the 1940s. Five “major” societies used to exist on campus including Phi Lamda Delta (F.L.D.), Auctoritas, Unitas, Veritas (A.U.V.), Alpha Gamma Chi (A.G.C.), Kappa Omega Alpha (K.O.A.) and Phi Beta Chi (P.B.X.).
After the foundation of the first society, Kappa Omega Alpha, in 1874, the clubs gained momentum, buying property around campus and renting private dining halls. Students were given the option of living within one of the society’s headquarters, which included the present-day Alumni House, Benner House, Graham House and Newton House.
Students displeased with Academy food also began hiring private chefs to host their own dining halls.
The presence of secret societies continued until the secret societies’ “Kings”, or presidents, met with Headmaster John Mason Kemper. The “Kings” handed over their crowns, ending the practice after Commencement in 1949.
It marked the conclusion of almost a six-year campaign to end the secret societies on campus. Kemper and other administrators had felt secret societies were detrimental to school unity and harmful to student health.
The secret societies often had harsh initiation rituals for pledges.
“In [Kappa Omega Alpha] the ceremony involved visiting one of the local cemeteries at midnight, various kinds of tortures, running the gauntlet—though the novice was apparently punched rather than paddled, being baptized in a water tank, being hoisted in the air by a pulley, and finally being placed in a coffin, where he was cross-examined by the members,” wrote Fritz Allis in his book “Youth From Every Quarter.”
Other rituals required prospective society members to adhere to an eccentric set of rules.
According to one prospective entrant, initiates to Auctoritas, Unitas, Veritas were required to “not comb or brush their hair nor wash their face or hands, they should smoke nothing but a clay pipe with Lucky Strike tobacco and must not speak to anybody outside of A.U.V.”
Another tradition that ended was the practice of burning a large wooden “A” at the Midnight March, a pep rally for matriculating students.
In 2010, the Midnight March took place at 7:30 pm, two hours earlier than the matriculation pep rally three years ago. When it was first started, however, the Midnight March used to take place at 12 am.
The March also featured a flaming “A”, a practice that was stopped in 2002.
In 2005, Yoni Gruskin ’07 began a petition to reintroduce the “A” that garnered some student signatures. The practice was not reintroduced.
A commentary article from the Phillipian in 2005 read, “the A was a symbol of unity and pride. Superficial similarities …are not at all sufficient to justify the ending of this ceremony.”
Each winter as students anticipate the moment when Barbara Landis Chase, Head of School, wields her famous field hockey stick, few remember that ten years ago a lumpy sweater heralded this tradition, or that thirty years ago this tradition did not exist. Beyond Head of School Day, Winter Term also used to mark the beginning of annual ice-skating trips on Rabbit Pond and the Winter Carnival.
“Head of School Day’s actual beginnings are a little hard to fathom,” said Tim Sprattler, the School Archivist.
Theodore Sizer, Phillips Academy’s Headmaster from 1972 to 1981, began the tradition of giving students a spontaneous day off. Sizer would grant a day off during the Fall Term if Phillips Academy athletic teams were victorious during Fall Andover-Exeter Athletics.
In 1991, Don McNemar, Sizer’s successor, officially initiated a “Health Day,” in Winter Term after a flu strain incapacitated the majority of students and faculty on campus.
Marc Koolen, Instructor in Biology, said, “There wasn’t a head of school day 37 years ago [when I first came to PA]. I think it was McNemar’s ‘baby,’ if you will. …So many people were sick [in 1991] that it just made sense to shut the place down for the day and let people rest and recover. It wasn’t designed as a special holiday. It was a reflex in response to a situation.”
“[In the winter], it’s sort of beige everywhere. There are no leaves on the trees, the ground is either brown or dirty white. In Commons at the time, all the plates were kind of beige. We would get potatoes and some type of mystery meat [for meals], and everything was beige. Life was beige, and just to pick up morale a bit, it became a tradition,” said Koolen.
According to Koolen, it is unclear when the shift from announcing a day off as a reflex to sickness to making it a traditional expectation for students and the faculty occurred.
In 1994, when Chase succeeded McNemar, she adjusted the tradition by announcing it with her field hockey stick. Previously Sizer entered Commons holding a sweater knit by the entire student body for Meredith “Dickey” Thiras, then the school receptionist, to signify the day off.
Before Head of School Day, students would brighten the “beige” New England winters by attending the Winter Carnival and by ice-skating on the frozen-over Sanctuary ponds.
Christopher Shaw ‘78, Instructor in History and Social Science, remembered the Winter Carnival from his time as a student.
“[The carnival] was fashioned after the Dartmouth Carnival, which had been a long standing tradition, minus the [fraternity] parties. It was a day set aside much like Quad Day, but much more homegrown, very much grass roots. There were no rides coming in. It was just about making snow sculptures all over campus. They would be judged and clusters would compete,” said Shaw.
Shaw recalled a particularly intense carnival during the Blizzard of 1978.“I remember, I think it was kids from the West Quad, made an enormous castle that was like a two story castle with turrets and windows, which was just amazing. And there were of course always the quote ‘inappropriate sculptures’ with couples in flagrante, which were discouraged by the school,” said Shaw.
According to Shaw the Winter Carnival eventually stopped because there was not enough snow to work with.
Phillips Academy students also entertained themselves by ice-skating in Abbot Cluster. When the first hockey team on campus was formed in 1898, the team practiced every year by skating on the frozen Rabbit Pond. According to Sprattler, students frequently skated recreationally on Martin’s Pond, Rabbit Pond and Pomp’s Pond.
Shaw said, “In the winter, what is now this whole wooded area, was the ‘Abbot Skating Rink’. It was literally a pond that would freeze over in the winter and [maintenance] would keep it uncovered with snow.”
“The Abbot girls would skate there all the time and [as a student, my friends and I] actually skated there once or twice because I lived in the Abbot Cluster,” continued Shaw.
Student performers were also featured during Winter Term. In the late 1880’s The Banjo Quartette, Glee Club and Mandolin Club began holding annual winter concerts.
From Blue Key Head Selections to the bagpipes at Commencement, students, especially seniors, look forward to the traditions that come as the with Spring Term.
Every year Phillips Academy students watch as prospective Blue Key Heads strut, scream and do push-ups during Blue Key Head tryouts in the middle of Spring Term. Few students remember, however, that the Blue Keys were once orange, inspired by the Princeton “Orange” Keys.
According to an In-Depth feature in The Phillipian, in the 1950s the first iteration of Blue Key Heads, the Blue Key Society, was formed. Later during the 1970s the group merged with the Blue Key Heads to form the organization that exists today.
Commencement has always held some of the biggest tradition of the year, from the Seniors’ iconic Vista Walk with Mrs. Chase to the circle passing out diplomas on the Great Lawn.
Timothy Sprattler, School Archivist, said the Vista Walk it is one of the more recent traditions. Phillips Academy was only able to establish the Vista Walk after it merged with Abbot Academy and acquired plots of land across Main Street in 1973.
“I’m really looking forward to doing the Vista Walk with my fellow classmates, we have gone through a lot together, and I think [the Vista Walk] will be a great way to end the year,” said Alex Smachlo ’11.
Another relatively recent addition to the Commencement festivities are the bagpipes and musical accompaniment of the Clan MacPherson.
“I know when Coolidge came here for commencement, there wasn’t bagpipes and that was in 1920,” said Sprattler.
“Also, there is the circle where [the seniors] pass the diplomas around. This tradition may have come up from the Abbot Campus,” continued Sprattler.
As school winds to a close, students have typically used Spring Term to indulge in a little pranking.
“There have been student pranks since the 1850’s. There was at least one then, and it was actually at the graduation,” said Sprattler.
Now, a “Senior Prank” takes place on a random date in Spring Term. In 2006, Seniors ran into the Garver Room of the Library screaming. The Class of 2010 hired a full mariachi band to play across campus.
Another annual prank was Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride. Seth Bardo, Instructor in English for almost thirty years, said that the girls of Paul Revere would bombard other dorms with water balloons after sign-in on the anniversary of the Revere’s famous midnight ride, April 19.
“[It takes] place on the anniversary of this famous historical occurrence. I think it is a harmless, fun tradition” said Bardo.
According to an In-Depth article from 2008, students also emulated history by hosting intra-scholastic competitions between “teams” of Romans, Greeks, Saxons and Gauls. This tradition was the predecessor of the cluster system and cluster sports competitions.
Prior to the merger, Abbot Academy also hosted a similar intra-scholastic competition with teams of “Gargoyles and Griffins”.
The article reported that after Phillips Academy became co-education, it “reconfigured the traditions of Phillips to be more inclusive after the leveling influence of female presence.”
In contrast to the molting red fall leaves, Phillips Academy traditionally goes “true blue” with Andover-Exeter rituals, pranks and athletics.
Exeter Geek Day is typically celebrated as a highlight of Fall Term. Every year, students dress up in their nerdiest attire, wearing all red in an effort to mock Exeter students.
This tradition never had a definite beginning. “I can’t find a true beginning, but the [Andover-Exeter] pranks have always been there,” said Tim Sprattler, School Archivist.
In the past, when there was no Exeter Geek Day, Andover-Exeter spirit was still intense. Every year the senior class typically was in charge of one major prank against Exeter.
Christopher Shaw, Instructor in History, recalled a prank that Phillips Academy students played on Exeter while he was a student. “We released, I don’t know how many, tiny white mice in the Exeter library that had been spray painted blue,” he said.
One of the most legendary pranks played on Exeter was the infamous “blue oil-paint prank.” After heading up to Exeter for a sports game, a group of Phillips Academy athletes painted the stadium blue. Unfortunately for Exeter, the students had used an oil-based paint, which was incredibly difficult to get off.
“The pranks were often not terribly clever and while the students enjoyed them, in retrospect, they weren’t up to the Andover standard,” said Shaw.
Thomas McGraw, Instructor in English, remembers Andover-Exeter traditions from when he came to teach at Andover in 1983. Although Exeter Geek Day had still not started, McGraw recalled The Phillipian’s “Exonian” newspaper supplements.
“They called it ‘The Exonian.’ It was a parody of the school newspaper…The editors of The Phillipian would publish an Exeter newspaper mocking Exeter,” said McGraw.
In 1983, John Kim, an alumnus of Phillips Academy, remembers his Andover-Exeter Day as a student. “Although I don’t exactly remember his name, a guy in my class showed up in a gorilla suit to a game and it just stuck,” Kim said.
Allegedly in 1985, Gunga was introduced to the school by two class presidents at the school’s first All-School Meeting.
During every pep rally before the Andover-Exeter games, a big wooden “A” sign was brought to the scene. Students would gather around a bonfire and burn the A. The tradition was eventually taken away for safety reasons.
Kathleen Pryde, Instructor in Physics, remembers one of the last years when burning the ‘A’ was permitted. “One time it was in the Knoll, it was pretty exciting,” said Pryde.
Athletics have traditionally emerged in different forms throughout Phillips Academy’s past. Every Fall prior to the 1973 Phillips Academy-Abbot Academy merger, Abbot Academy girls could take walks around Andover campus as their sport. Phillips Academy boys also could trek through the yellowing Sanctuary, to frequent the birdhouse that held peacocks, hens and other fowl or swim in Pomp’s Pond.