A Little Grit, A Little Glamour

May Day celebration was annual highlight


The 1970 rope pull is about to end as the freshman team heads into the Floyd River.

As the spring semester wound down and the temperatures warmed up, Northwestern students in the 1960s and ‘70s looked forward to May Day festivities.


Marvelle (Suess ’65) Hondorp is crowned May Day queen by Doug Schelhaas ’67 in 1965.

The event featured themes like “Roman Holiday,” “A Time for Us,” “Medieval Magic,” “Laughter in the Rain” and “Country Sunshine.” The weekend began with the crowning of the queen at a ceremony complete with escorts, a crown bearer and flower girl, and a song serenading the royalty.

The mood shifted for the rope pull pitting the freshmen men against their sophomore counterparts. Teams of 15—aided by “morale girls” offering nourishment from oranges, lemons and ice cubes—competed to see which one would be pulled into the Floyd River.

The 1963 Beacon offered this description: “After a grueling, 28-minute struggle—followed by a satisfying, resounding splash—the sophomore pull team rose victorious from their foxholes to watch their less fortunate freshman opponents flounder in the Floyd.”

Another popular activity at the Floyd River was the Granberg Regatta, a race of homemade rafts. The faculty often fielded a team, albeit without much success. The 1968 Beacon commented on “the annual failure of faculty engineering attempts.” And while the newspaper reported that the 1969 faculty team had their best time ever, they still finished seventh out of eight boats.

Students cleaned up and put on formals and dinner jackets for the banquet Saturday evening. In 1966, a Beacon letter to the editor scolded faculty for not dressing up for the event. “The banquet is the biggest social event of the year. It is the time when the girls don their loveliest formals and the guys all dress their sharpest. While everyone else is dressed in formal attire, our faculty comes dressed at best in ‘good’ clothes and at worst in ‘street’ clothes. The attire worn by the faculty destroyed the effect [that] could have been created by a completely formal affair.”

The previous year, the banquet’s musical entertainment was provided by a relatively unknown duo, Simon and Garfunkel. Dan Smith ’67 remembers being impressed by their musicianship but also sensing that their performance was not well received. “Their lyrics contained a social message, and I’m not sure that was what we wanted in our entertainment.” Just months later the group released its now-famous Sounds of Silence.

Other May Day activities over the years included the Stegenga Festival competition in music, oratory and drama between the freshmen and sophomore women, a talent show, style show, tennis tournament, movie, and theatre production.

In 1968, May Day broke new ground with the first college-sanctioned dance. A band played in the Auditorium, which was decorated like an oriental garden. The peaceful scene belied the controversy that preceded it, as some Northwestern constituents felt dancing wasn’t appropriate for a Christian college.

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