It’s graduation weekend at Eastern Oregon University! That gives us the perfect opportunity to write the long awaited and much requested Evensong post – the beloved commencement week tradition so many of you mentioned when we asked for your Grand Staircase memories.
Evensong 1947 – photo courtesy of Sibyl Bolkan
Evensong began in the early 1930’s and was discontinued in 1971. The ceremony, “a pageant of song”, was open to the public and took place on the stairway as the sun was setting. It was symbolic of the graduating seniors going out into the world to spread the light of knowledge.
In the beginning, Evensong was composed of virtually the entire student body. The 1932 Eugene Register Guard article below describes the event and reports that 1500 townspeople were in the crowd that night – an impressive number given that La Grande’s population in 1930 was just 8050.
Seating for the audience was on chairs set up on Ninth Street. The photo below (courtesy of the EOU Pierce Library) is from 1954 or 55. We love the dog and children on the grass.
The event was presided over by the “Queen of Knowledge” and her court of six courtiers. To be selected for the honor of being a member of the court a woman had to have at least a 3.0 GPA and to have been active in campus life throughout her college career.
Queen Merlene Baldwin presided over 1952’s Evensong – photo courtesy EOU Pierce Library
The program began at dusk, heralded by the sound of trumpets. The graduating seniors, in their caps and gowns, gathered at the top on the View Terrace. The underclassman, in white shirts and pastel dresses, lined the steps. The band assembled on the lower landing. The Queen of Knowledge and her court were escorted to their place of honor on the middle landing.
1968 – Evensong trumpet practice – the actual sound of trumpets was provided by the band – photo courtesy EOU Pierce Library
Many reading this post will remember Dr. Lynn Bishop, the university’s music department chair from 1948 to 1976, directing the musical part of the program – songs celebrating “the countryside and the college”. One of you recently wrote us that “Standing on the steps singing Day is dying in the West as the sun was going down” is a special memory for you.
At the end of the evening, The Queen would summon the seniors to light their candles from her flaming torch (the rather imposing object to the left of the Queen in the 1952 photo above) and speak these words.
“May you ever keep your purpose strong, your courage high, your loyalty true, and ever bear aloft the torch of learning.”
The seniors would then descend from the staircase and go out into the world to live their lives and share their knowledge. The undergraduates would climb back up the stairs to the halls of learning to continue their education.
1970 Evensong – photo courtesy EOU Pierce Library
Following the program was the Evensong Ball. 1953 Evensong court member and current EOU Foundation trustee Arlene Anderson Young recalls inviting a boy named Jerry to escort her. So began their story – they were married two years later! After receiving his PhD, Jerry Young became a faculty member at EOU. He taught chemistry and mathematics, was the division head of the science department, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, and served as president of the EOU Foundation. Additionally, he was also in charge of the Evensong Ceremony for several years!
In the photo below from the 1953 Evensong Ball Arlene is the third court member in line.
Photo courtesy of EOU Pierce Library
A restored Grand Staircase might or might not mean the return of the Evensong tradition, but it would certainly open the stairway up as a venue for EOU and community music, theater, art and other events.
To read more about the staircase and why it needs saving go to our About page here.
If you have any questions or have Grand Staircase memories, stories, or photos you would like to share please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.