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History of Illinois Homecoming: Depression and Wartime

The Illini football fortunes faded after 1929. This “football depression,” coupled with the economic depression gripping the country, cast a shadow over the Homecomings of the 1930s. As early as 1930, The Daily Illini detected what it thought was a decline in Homecoming spirit.

“After almost two decades of continuous growth, each year on a larger scale,” the student newspaper asserted, “Homecoming appears to be back-sliding this year, not because of faulty management or any cause of the like, but seemingly because many students seem to think that all the frivolity and collegiate spirit connected with the weekend is more or less passé.”

The Hobo Parade was a casualty of the Depression era, canceled in 1934 because of a lack of interest. The parade had been a feature of Homecoming since the beginning.

While one Homecoming tradition died during the Depression, another was born. In 1936 Dolores Thomas Sims ’39 LAS was crowned the first UI Homecoming queen. Unfortunately, the Northwestern University band marred the pregame crowning ceremony, blaring forth just before the introductions were to be made. The bewildered Thomas and her maids of honor soon left the field without being heard, causing one observer to ask, “What happened to the Homecoming queen?”

The Depression decade concluded on a cheerful note for UI Homecomers. On Nov. 4, 1939, the Illini toppled a mighty Michigan team, stunning the football world. This victory would be the last major upset engineered by Bob Zuppke, who coached his last Homecoming game on Nov. 1, 1941 – a Homecoming marked by the dedication of the Illini Union – and retired later that month after 29 years at the helm of the Fighting Illini.

Shortly after the close of Zuppke’s last season, the Pearl Harbor attack occurred and the United States entered World War II. Transforming University life almost overnight, the war gave a more subdued tone to Homecoming. Ever since the teens and ’20s, members of the Greek fraternity and sorority system had festively decorated their houses for Homecoming, but, beginning in 1942, this tradition was put on hold because of wartime rationing. The red, white and blue of the American flag, the orange and blue of the University flag, and “the star-studded service flag indicating the number of members in that house in the armed services” replaced the usual garish decorations.

As the men went off to war, women took charge of campus affairs. “Sans gas, sans the usual decorations, but not sans the traditional Illini spirit,” the 34th Homecoming in 1943 was a largely women-run affair. That year’s pep rally kicked things off in the usual fashion except for one notable wartime innovation: Princess Illiniwek, portrayed by Idelle Stith Brooks ’44 MEDIA made her debut. The influence of the war could even be seen in the Homecoming Stunt Show of 1943, in which Allan Sherman ’45 (the campus comedian who later hit it big with the 1964 Grammy-winning song “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh”) poked fun at the 4F-ers like himself; periodically during the performance “plaid-shirted ‘hunters’” popped up on stage searching for a “draft-dodger.”
In 1944, 20 years after being dedicated to the Illini who perished in World War I, Memorial Stadium was rededicated on Homecoming Saturday to World War II’s Gold Star Illini (those who perished in war).

After the war, University enrollment boomed, thanks in large part to the GI Bill, and Homecoming roared back on a scale surpassing even that of the 1920s. During the 1946 Homecoming – “THE Homecoming the soldiers, sailors and marines had been dreaming of during those years in the foxholes, on board ship or in a bomber over Germany” – a crowd of 62,597 watched the fifth-ranked Illini come from behind in the fourth quarter to defeat Wisconsin by a score of 27-21.


Hobo Band Parade, 1926 Source: University of Illinois Archives
"Dolores Thomas Reigns as Queen of Homecoming," 1936 Article from the Daily Illini, October 25th 1936
Idelle Smith as "Princess" Illiniwek, 1943 Image from the Daily Illini, October 31st 1943.



John Franch, “History of Illinois Homecoming: Depression and Wartime,” ExploreCU, accessed June 30, 2022,