For over one hundred years, towns in the United States have been holding annual homecomings to welcome back former residents. However, the University of Illinois has long claimed to be the originator of the collegiate Homecoming—the annual alumni event centered on a football game. The first homecoming at the University of Illinois was held in 1910. Long before this, other schools were featuring annual alumni football games. For example, the annual Harvard-Yale game—a series that extends back to the 1870s—attracted large numbers of alumni. Beginning in 1897, the University of Michigan Student Athletic Association sponsored a yearly alumni game. But does an alumni game in itself constitute a homecoming?
Sources credit two men for the founding of the University of Illinois homecoming: seniors Clarence Foss Williams and W. Elmer Ekblaw. According to Williams’ recollection in 1930, the homecoming idea came to them early in 1910 while he and Ekblaw were sitting on the old YMCA steps discussing ways and means of contributing to their alma mater. They agreed that a football game should be the centerpiece of the celebration, serving as a “magnet” to attract the alumni (1).
Williams and Ekblaw fleshed out their homecoming plan and submitted it to the members of the senior honorary society Shield and Trident, who approved the idea. On Sunday, March 13, 1910, the two senior honorary societies—the Shield and Trident and the Phoenix—met in the basement of the YMCA and resolved to urge the Council of Administration, the University’s central body for student affairs and regulation, to sanction an annual homecoming. A committee of five, chaired by George Schoeffel, AB, 1910, was appointed to draft a petition to the council.
Even at this early stage, the homecoming plan had been developed in some detail. It was proposed that the first homecoming be held on October 15, 1910—when the Illini were scheduled to meet their great rival, the University of Chicago Maroons, coached by Amos Alonzo Stagg. Illinois had not beaten Chicago in seven years. But homecoming was not intended to be only about football. Important annual student traditions like the freshman-sophomore pushball game, fraternity initiations, class reunions, and the Hobo Band were also slated for homecoming weekend (2).
The Daily Illini, the University’s student newspaper, quickly got behind the homecoming idea. This was not surprising given the fact that Ekblaw happened to be the newspaper’s chief reporter. “Nothing could do more to attract the alumni and alumnae back to their Alma Mater than such a home-coming,” the Daily Illini asserted in a March 15th pro-homecoming editorial, the first of many. The newspaper argued that the traditional alumni reunions held during commencement week were “unsatisfactory” because “the underclassmen have gone home and so fail to meet the old Illinois men and women” and as for the seniors, they were too busy with graduation to take heed of visitors (3).
George Schoeffel’s committee had completed its work by April 12, 1910, when the homecoming petition was formally presented to the Council of Administration. The petition contained several resolutions, one of which spelled out the primary rationale for a homecoming:
"Whereas, it is the belief of your petitioner that the setting aside of such a day as a holiday would afford alumni and students the opportunity to come into closer touch with each other, and that a true conception of the real greatness of the University that would result would create a more active and sincere loyalty to the University" (4)
Thus, homecoming would serve as an advertisement for the University. The petition was referred to the Council’s Committee on Student Organizations and Activities, “with a special request that among other things they attempt to gain information as to the probability of the alumni participating in such a celebration” (5).
At least according to the Daily Illini, alumni interest in the proposed homecoming was high. Quoted in the student newspaper, The Illini Club Bulletin of Chicago, for example, pronounced homecoming “a commendable idea” and urged that the Council of Administration sanction. When this official approval seemed to be too slow in coming, the Bulletin asked: “What has become of the movement for the establishment of a Fall Homecoming? If the petition for this plan has been lost in the intricate labyrinths of University Senate committees and subcommittees let a rescuing party be sent after it before it is strangled in the tangled meshes of official red tape” (6).
Finally, on May 24, 1910, the Council of Administration approved October 14th as a homecoming day but “with the understanding that it will be determined later whether this shall be made an annual event.” For the Council, this first homecoming would be an experiment, the success or failure of which would decide its future. A jubilant Daily Illini predicted that homecoming would become “a particularly and distinctively Illinois institution which if successful will without doubt be followed by other Universities” (7).
Events now moved rapidly. In early summer, the senior honorary societies created a homecoming committee, with Ekblaw as chairman and Professor S. W. Parr and alumnus Charles Kiler as members. The Illini Union, headed by Bryant Bannister, was given the task of arranging the event. News of the homecoming was spread among the alumni, the participation of students and faculty was encouraged, and the assistance of businessmen, financial or otherwise, was sought (8).
In September, Bannister, Ekblaw, and representatives of the two senior societies named the members of seven homecoming committees: advertising; accommodations; program; finance; souvenir; enthusiasm; and steering. These committees gave the homecoming plans “definite form,” in Ekblaw’s words, and carried the ball to the goal line. To realize this end, money was raised from the sale of cardboard homecoming tags and from the subscriptions of merchants. It was decided to inundate the campus in a sea of orange and blue on homecoming weekend—from the orange and blue “Loyalty” hats to the orange and blue bunting hanging from the University buildings. The Athletic Association also did its part, furnishing five thousand extra seats for the football game (9).
By early October, the homecoming program had been settled. On the afternoon of Friday the 14th, three events were scheduled: a match between the Illinois baseball team—nicknamed the Illinois 1000 Per Cent Team because of its perfect record in 1910—and the Alumni All Stars, a squad composed of ex-Illini; the annual pushball contest pitting the sophomores against the freshman; and performances of the Hobo Band. For Friday evening, a band reunion, a mass meeting, and various initiations and banquets were planned. The following morning, the annual interclass track meet would be held. And then, at 2:30 p.m., the centerpiece of the entire event--the Illinois-Chicago football game--would kick off (10).
On October 12, 1910, the Council of Administration declared a campus holiday for the 14th, beginning at noon, and for all of the 15th. As expected, the highlight of homecoming proved to be the Illinois-Chicago game, “one of the hardest football battles ever held on Illinois field” (11). An estimated 12,000 persons—a record crowd--witnessed a 3-0 Illinois victory secured by an Otto Seiler field goal. A reporter was impressed with the sights on Illinois Field that day. “A description of the crowd would be beyond words,” the journalist wrote. “Under the blue skies of a perfect October day there was a great mountain of humanity in the grand stands on either side of the field” (12).
The Daily Illini was quick to declare homecoming an unqualified success and touted the University as the originator of the event:
"The echoes of the events of this great Home-coming will be heard as long as the University endures, for it is now almost a certainty that it will be adopted as a permanent annual institution the like of which no other University can boast. Illinois may well pride itself on being the originator of the plan for drawing home the alumni, a plan which will undoubtedly be adopted generally."
Writing in the Western Intercollegiate Magazine, W. Elmer Ekblaw also predicted that “a similar home-coming” would be adopted by “other western universities which desire to bring their alumni into closer touch with their university interests” (13).
Though President Edmund James himself praised the homecoming, the Council of Administration apparently never sanctioned the event as a permanent institution. Indeed, a Council committee appointed in 1911 to consider the homecoming question decided to defer the issue. Nonetheless, homecomings have been held on the University of Illinois campus in every year since 1910, with the important exception of 1918—when the event was canceled because of World War I (14).
The homecoming movement spread like wildfire in the years after 1910. Within the next several years, many other universities—Wisconsin and Missouri in 1911, Arizona in 1914, to name a few—launched their own homecomings. Writing in 1930, C. F. Williams noted that “virtually every college in the land has since become vitally interested in Homecomings of one kind or another.” Williams described the homecoming idea as having been “contagious” (15).
Certainly, the University of Illinois promoters of homecoming believed that they were the first to invent the event. This mistaken notion persisted in part because of the efforts of C. F. Williams himself. Throughout his long life (he died in 1971), the onetime journalist touted his role as the supposed originator of Homecoming. This claim, probably never seriously examined, soon attained the status of “fact” through its frequent repetition in the columns of the Illinois Alumni News and other University of Illinois publications. Later in life, Williams often visited the UI campus and was invariably hailed as the co-founder of Homecoming. He was a zealous defender of his reputation, and indeed, in his own obituary (which he wrote for the Phi Kappa Psi newsletter!) referred to himself as the originator of “the first college Homecoming in the United States” (16).
So, what can be said about the University of Illinois and the origins of homecoming? One can define homecoming as a well-planned, University-sponsored annual alumni event centering on an intercollegiate football game. Michigan, Northern Illinois University, and Indiana University held homecoming-like events prior to 1910, but these events did not have the degree of planning associated with the first Illinois homecoming of 1910, nor did they employ the defining title of “Homecoming.” The University of Texas at Austin may or may not have called its 1908 event a homecoming. Baylor University, on the other hand, did hold a well-planned alumni event specifically called “Home-Coming” in 1909--one year before Illinois’s first homecoming. The Texas school, though, had not started a tradition: The next Baylor homecoming was not held until 1915.
Thanks to the 1918 hiatus, the Illinois homecoming tradition cannot be said to have been continuous since 1910. At the very least, Illinois can claim to have had the longest tradition called “Homecoming,” and to have self-consciously created the event with the intention of it being a precedent that would be adopted by other institutions (17).
(1) C. F. Williams, “How It All Came About,” Twenty-First Annual Homecoming Program (October 18, 1930), 7; Daily Illini, October 29, 1927, p. 25, col. 2.
(2) “Home-coming Program” Daily Illini, March 14, 1910, p. 1, col. 3.
(3) Daily Illini, March 15, 1.910, p. 4, cols. 1-3.
(4) Daily Illini, April 13, 1910, p. 1, col. 2.
(5) Council of Administration Minutes, April 12, 1910, Record Series 3/1/1, University of Illinois Archives.
(6) Daily Illini, April 3, 1910, p. 4, cols. 1-3; ibid, June 5, 1910, p. 4, cols. 1-3.
(7) Council of Administration Minutes, May 24, 1910; Daily Illini, May 29, 1910, p. 1, col. 3.
(8) Ibid, August 2, 1910, p. 1, col. 2; ibid, September 20, 1910, p. 1, col. 1; W. Elmer Ekblaw, “University of Illinois Fall Home-coming,” The Western Intercollegiate Magazine 2:2 (November 1910), 22.
(10) Daily Illini, October 5, 1910, p. 1, col. 3.
(11) Ibid, October 29, 1927, p. 25, col. 2.
(12) “Illinois Field’s Greatest Crowd,” ca. October 16, 1910, unidentified newspaper, found in Edmund James Scrapbooks, Record Series 2/5/10, University of Illinois Archives.
(13) Daily Illini, October 18, 1910, p. 1, col. 4; Ekblaw, 21.
(14) Daily Illini, October 20, 1910, p. 1, col. 5; Council of Administration Minutes, May 12, 1911; Daily Illini, Oct. 24, 1918, p. 1, col. 3. This DI article, headlined “This Week Would Have Seen Homecoming and Everything; If War Hadn’t—But It Rained,” explicitly says that the 1918 Homecoming was canceled because of the war: “Banners flying, fraternities frantically cleaning house, gardeners making the campus spick (sic) and span, old graduates gazing fondly at University Hall tower, a score of husky football men practicing for the big game—such would be the scene in the University community this week, were it not for the war.” Fred Turner Oral History, Fred Turner Papers, Box 1, Record Series 41/1/20, University of Illinois Archives. In an oral history, Turner said that Homecoming was not held his freshman year, 1918. “In fact, they played the game that was supposed to be the Homecoming game with no one present, because the flu epidemic was in progress and they played it with locked gates,” Turner recalled. “The game was played on Illinois field without anyone there. I watched it through the gates.” The University of Illinois Archives has a “Homecoming Register” with alumni signatures for the years 1913-1922, including entries for 1918. However, the register was not only used for Homecoming. Alumni could sign this register whenever they returned to campus. Besides, the register lacks dates for specific days in 1918 on which the football homecoming could have been held.
(15) Williams, 7.
(16) C. F. Williams Morgue File, Record Series 26/4/1, University of Illinois Archives. In 1957, when a column in the Detroit Free Press referred to another Illinois man as the founder of Homecoming, Williams sent off a letter to the columnist: “In 1956, I was honored as one of the founders at the Illinois-Minnesota homecoming game. I was introduced to the crowd with Dr. Lloyd Mowry (sic), president of the University. I was honored at a pep rally the day previous to the game, and was a guest on television and radio, with surviving brothers of Dr. Ekblaw. For a quarter of a century and longer I have been introduced in Champaign and Urbana and at alumni meetings here and there as a co-founder with Elmer Ekblaw.” Ibid.
(17) In November 1953, Williams re-created the moment when he and W. Elmer Ekblaw supposedly sat on the steps of the old YMCA and conceived the Homecoming idea. Ekblaw had died in 1949, so Williams posed for the cameras with Elmer’s brother, George. A photo of this staged event appeared in the Illinois Alumni News. Somewhat ironically, the photo caption writer seems to have gotten it about right when he or she wrote, “Illinois was the first university to hold annual reunions under this (Homecoming) title.” Ibid.