Commencement regalia origins have KU connection

Posted on May 17, 2019 in News

Commencement regalia origins have KU connection

The University of Kansas has a long history of traditions at Commencement, but one tradition with a Jayhawk connection is celebrated at graduations everywhere.

The regalia that graduates wear for their official conferral of degrees looks much the same no matter what college or university you visit. The origins of the regalia can be traced to John McCook.

McCook is known in KU history as the benefactor of McCook Field, KU’s first football field before Memorial Stadium’s construction in 1921. (One of the construction workers on Memorial Stadium was none other than John Wooden, but that’s a story for another day.)

McCook, a lieutenant colonel in the Civil War (along with his father, eight brothers and five cousins—all Civil War officers, known as the “Fighting McCooks”), graduated from Kenyon College and Harvard Law.

As general counsel and director of the Santa Fe Railroad, McCook worked with Kansas Regent Charles Gleed, who was employed in the legal department under McCook. Recognizing that KU needed money for an athletic field and faced with the fact that the state had none to give, Regent Gleed recommended that KU invite McCook to speak at Commencement.

In 1890, McCook gave the Commencement address and received an honorary degree from the University. The former colonel made a $1,500 donation to launch the construction of McCook Field in 1892.

John McCook also chaired a committee at Princeton on the standardization of academic regalia, with the goal being “the adoption of a uniform academic costume.” At the time, graduates’ attire often varied by university. Unlike European universities, which practiced a complex system of academic dress with varying colors and patterns based on the occasion, McCook and the committee emphasized the uniformity you see today.

In 1895, McCook and the committee introduced their recommendations as the Intercollegiate Code of Academic Costume. KU was one of the first colleges to participate, and the first class wore caps and gowns in 1897. KU faculty followed suit in 1908.

To learn more about Commencement, including the history of class banners, honorary degrees, and the special experience for Big and Baby Jays, read our full feature, The Walk.

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