History of Illinois Homecoming: 1950s-1960s

The decade of the 1950s opened with the crowning of two noteworthy Homecoming queens. In 1950 Mildred Fogel ’52 wore the “Miss Illinois” crown; in later years, “Millie” starred in the “Mission Impossible” TV series and would be better known by her stage name – Barbara Bain. The following year students selected Clarice Davis Presnell ’52 LAS, an African-American senior in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, to be “Miss Illinois” in “the biggest vote for Homecoming queen in the history of the University.” According to the Chicago Defender, Davis was the first African-American to hold the Homecoming queen title at a major American university.

Homecomings in the 1950s were characterized by large attendances and memorable football games. In 1951, on a field fringed in snow, the undefeated Illini slaughtered Iowa 40-13. Two years later, halfback J.C. Caroline ’56 shattered Red Grange’s Big Ten rushing record in a 19-3 rout over Michigan. In 1957 an Illini team “hobbled and hampered by injuries and inconsistency” throttled a powerful Minnesota squad, subjecting the proud Gopher defense to “a beating the likes of which they never dreamed possible.”

The University marked the golden anniversary of Homecoming on Oct. 7-8, 1960, with several new features. A gallery of color portraits of the recipients of the University of Illinois Alumni Achievement Award, located in the east wing of the Illini Union, was dedicated on Homecoming Saturday. The Homecoming queen and her Big Ten Court were moved from the north wall of the stadium and introduced from the football field – “where they could be seen better.” And, during halftime, the Marching Illini maneuvered to spell out “Ek” and “Dab” in honor of the co-founders of the UI Homecoming and re-created a pushball contest. For the finale, Block I joined the act, depicting “a white-bearded Old Grad, then a brash young Illini” while the band formed “1910.”

As late as 1965, Homecoming remained an important student ritual. The Daily Illini called that year’s Homecoming “one of the all time best,” but the times were “a-changin’,” to quote singer Bob Dylan, and growing numbers of students began to question the relevance of Homecoming as the tumultuous 1960s drew to a close.

The 1968 Homecoming Stunt Show captured the spirit of the times. Many of the skits were politically charged, portraying Vietnam, war and peace, and student power. The Stunt Show, a “barometer of student sentiment” for nearly 50 years, would never be staged again.

The following year’s Homecoming took place on Halloween weekend and proved a disaster. Its theme, “Hexascopic Hell’s a Topic,” brought to mind a spell from an imaginary witch, and indeed, the events seemed cursed. The 1969 Homecoming featured lousy weather; a canceled parade, pep rally, and magic show; credible complaints from “Miss Illinois”; and, last but not least, a rout of the Illini by Purdue. The Illini Union Board’s Homecoming Committee registered a $2,000 net loss. “In my estimation, there will be no Homecoming next year,” the IUB Homecoming Committee’s chairman declared after the 1969 debacle.

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