A tradition 59 years in the making
Athletic teams, student groups and memories keep Penn alums coming home
November 4, 2011, 12:45 am·
Penn graduate and former Penn Band member Chas Carol pulled off his grandest homecoming presentation during the halftime performance in 2003.
Down on one knee, ring in hand, he asked Penn graduate Amanda Shiffman, “Will you marry me?”
She would and she did.
Somewhere in the stands stood Carol’s parents — a couple that also met at Penn as undergraduates — proudly recording the entire proposal.
Carol has missed all but one homecoming since graduating in 1999.
“Coming home each year keeps me feeling connected,” Carol said. “A lot of us [Penn Band alumni] will end up sitting in our respective band sections and play along during the game. The band has a really good alumni showing.”
A history of homecoming
Among these alums is Don Graf, a 1955 Engineering graduate.
When Graf enrolled at Penn in 1951, the University was a “big-time football power” and Franklin Field was “a roaring place” filled to its maximum capacity at almost every single home game.
Back then, Penn football was in the top 10 and played schools like Notre Dame and Penn State.
In 1952, Penn signed all the preliminary agreements to enter the Ivy League. With that, however, it also signed away its athletic scholarships.
Soon, Penn lost its footing on Franklin Field as its ranking began to slip. What used to be a sold-out stadium of 65,000 spectators from all over Delaware and New Jersey dwindled to a crowd of several thousands.
To compensate for this, Penn began the homecoming tradition.
While ticket sales did not improve significantly, the tradition caught on and has since grown “exponentially” both in terms of programming and attendance, University Archives and Records Center Director Mark Frazier Lloyd said.
Expanding the tradition
This year, a record-breaking 1,868 alumni preregistered for homecoming events, according to Elise Betz, executive director of Alumni Relations and Penn Traditions. And with the pending forecast of fair weather, Betz expects a record-breaking attendance to match.
“A lot of people make their decision on the day of based on the weather,” Betz said, adding that day-of registration numbers are usually in the thousands.
Last year, 7,483 people registered and attended homecoming events, excluding the football game.
While the football game is still the centerpiece and most highly attended event of the weekend, Alumni Relations has spent the last three years responding to alumni feedback and revamping the homecoming agenda so that it would be more inclusive for those who don’t come for football alone.
“The tradition of homecoming has evolved over the years and has made it so that the student experience is no longer defined by football,” Betz said. “It’s oriented around cultural things a lot more now.”
A toast to dear old Penn
The University’s increasing engagement with homecoming has played a significant role in shaping Penn’s traditions over the years.
The Penn Glee Club, which used to put on a mini-concert by the Button before the homecoming football game, has lost its venue due to the popularity of Quakerfest, a tailgate pregame party hosted by the University on College Green.
“Sometimes, alumni will come back and ask me, ‘What time are you guys singing at the Button?’ and I’ll have to answer that we don’t anymore,” said Erik Nordsgen, 1992 doctoral graduate, post-doctoral researcher and current director of the Glee Club. “It’s not a big deal, but I suppose for some alums, when you leave, you assume things will always be the way they were when you left.”
It’s not hard to imagine that for Nordsgren — who proposed to his wife Sarvelia while she was a senior at Penn through the Glee Club’s tradition of Singing Valentines — traditions can be important.
But traditions are man-made.
“All it takes is for one person to start it and the rest to follow,” Penn Band Director Greer Cheeseman said.
Greer would know, since he was the one who brought the Toast Throw to Penn football games as an Engineering senior in 1977.
Inspired by a moment in The Rocky Horror Picture Show when the audience throws toast, Greer and some friends began chucking toasted bread onto the track after the third quarter during the traditional song “Drink a Highball,” following the line, “Here’s a toast to dear old Penn.”
He also witnessed the beginning and end of the tradition of tearing down goalposts after a football game victory.
The tradition began in a spontaneous moment of jubilance when Penn clinched its second Ivy Championship title in 1982.
Greer had forbidden band members from participating in band uniform, but one band member, 2000 Engineering graduate Matt Robusto, was so caught up in the victory that after one game, he ripped off his band uniform in order to be part of the crowd.
Administrators once tried to stop the raucousness by having security surround the goalpost only to be outwitted by students who ran in the opposite direction and uprooted the opposite goalpost instead. They then carried it past the Franklin Field gates to South Street Bridge and eventually tossed it into the Schuylkill River.
Returning alumni don’t always register with the University for homecoming events. Instead, for many, it’s the private events hosted by their fraternities, athletic teams or performing arts groups that draw them back to campus.
It is about knowing that there is a physical space and a group of similar-minded people for them to return to. These allegiances can pay off financially as well.
The Penn Band, with one of the most enthusiastic alumni networks, has received an average of $26,500 in annual alumni donations since 2009.
Approximately 20 percent of the Band’s alumni contributed, making it the highest alumni-participation rate for an athletic group. Penn football, which came in second, has a participation rate of 7.6 percent.
For other alums, their bonds to Penn are rekindled when their children receive their acceptance letters and enroll as students.
Allen and Cheryl Gorski, both 1982 College graduates, met during their freshman year in the Class of 1928 dorm in the Quad. They both held executive positions on the Social Planning and Events Committee — then known as a division of the Penn Union Council.
Their son Sam is currently a College junior and coincidentally, a concert director for SPEC as well. Allen and Cheryl came back for homecoming during Sam’s freshman year, just in time to see Penn football clinch another Ivy title.
Among the most involved Penn alumni and Penn parents are Allan and Dale Bell.
The couple met in 1977 as freshmen in the College and married soon after they had both completed their graduate degrees.
“There is something about Penn,” Allan said, recalling that even by his second day on campus as a freshman, he could feel a special connection. This bond is evidenced by the couple’s now multi-faceted alumni involvement.
Dale and Allan currently serve as president and vice president of their class, respectively. In addition, Allan serves as president emeritus of the Alumni Class Leadership Council as well as on the Penn Fund Executive Board. He is also a trustee of his fraternity, Zeta Beta Tau.
For the Bells, there is “no institution more important” or dearer to them than Penn.
“It’s hard to explain this tremendous love affair,” Allan said. “It’s the people, the place. It’s the intangibles, but to me, it’s the Penn-tangibles.”
Picking up where he left off
Perhaps 78-year-old Graf shares this sentiment. He also met his wife at Penn, back in 1951 when the University still had a separate women’s college.
And despite his wife being the one who had multi-generational ties to Penn — her father and grandfather were both alumni — Graf is the one who has been diligently returning for homecoming.
This weekend, Graf will come back for Penn’s 59th homecoming celebration.
He will don a Penn tie, a white shirt, a blazer and perhaps even a Penn sweater, depending on the weather.
By definition, Graf is an Old Guard, a distinction given to those who have graduated over 50 years ago. But instead of attending the Old Guard brunch at Houston Hall’s Hall of Flags and enjoying the entertainment as a guest, he will be a part of it. Graf will be picking up his trumpet and playing alongside the current generation of Penn Band musicians.
He still speaks fondly of when he first came to Penn.
“I was a small farm boy from southern New Jersey, and the Navy sent me to Penn on the NROTC scholarship. I thought, ‘Wow, to be able to go to Penn, how super is that?’”
This article has been updated from its original version to reflect that Penn won its second Ivy Championship title in 1982. It previously stated that Penn first clinched the title in 1983.