Page 379 of the 1922 La Vie yearbook reads like a dream from any Penn State fan’s mind. The yearbook, given then to graduating seniors as a commemoration of their junior year, detailed the achievements of the 1920 football season.
“Following in the footsteps of the 1919 team, this year’s football eleven added more fame to State’s gridiron prestige, by going through the season without defeat,” it reads. “The last two games, however, ended in tie scores, but several notable victories were accomplished and at the conclusion of the year, the team was rated as one of the best in the east.”
An unbeaten season is memorable, but that fall was unique for another reason. Flip to page 442 and you’ll see why in bold, Old English text: “Alumni Day.”
The first ever “Alumni Home-coming Day” saw the return of over 1,100 alumni to State College for the third game of the season against Dartmouth, which Penn State won 14-7 in front of “the largest crowd that ever witnessed a game on New Beaver Field.” October 9, 1920 and the rest of that weekend, enhanced by old acquaintances, camaraderie, and a “smoker” in the old Armory, “was so great a success it promised to become one of the biggest events on the college calendar.”
Decades after that first Homecoming Day, it was evident that this statement remained true. By the 1950s and 1960s, Homecoming weekends were packed with activities like an alumni golf tournament, a Homecoming ball, and a Nickelodeon movie night.
The programs were as exciting for new students as they were for alumni. After she was elected Homecoming Queen in 1967, then-freshman Susan Politylo gushed to the The Daily Collegian, “This is my first Homecoming and I think it is just tremendous.”
It was clear this was a ritual for everyone to enjoy, remember and celebrate. Still, the Homecoming crew felt it necessary to remind the community of the reason behind that first, momentous event — a day so filled with fellowship that “the town was filled to overflowing” — the alumni. A 1987 Homecoming “View of Trends and Traditions” newspaper featured a letter from Homecoming Overall Chairperson Steve Kasinetz that did just that:
Hiking 3000 miles up to Beaver Stadium…tailgating…getting marshmallows stuck in your hair…passing the lion over your head…paying $8.00 for a small coke — all traditions at Penn State football games. Yet this game is a little different. It’s a little more special — it’s Homecoming 1967.
Homecoming is a time to welcome back alumni. A time to say thanks for making Penn State the great school that it is today. Homecoming means different things to many people. For freshmen it means fraternity parties are more crowded, to seniors, it means the Skeller is more crowded. But Homecoming is for the alumni. It’s a chance to reminisce upon their college days, It’s a time to remember the all-nighters, stickies at the Diner, Fridays at the Skeller, blowing off class, and more importantly the times they had and friends they made.
Now, as Penn State prepares for its 97th Homecoming weekend, Homecoming Alumni Relations Director Emily Heere says her committee seeks to carry out Homecoming’s original core mission.
“…Homecoming offers the perfect opportunity for alumni to head back to Happy Valley and embrace not only the tradition and things that shaped them into the person they are today, but also the new changes and generations of people that have followed in their foot steps,” she said. “I think the only thing that has changed about Homecoming in terms of connecting with alumni is the fact that there are so many more opportunities now than there were in the past for Alumni to connect and stay in touch with Penn State.”
But alumni will no longer get marshmallows stuck in their hair. There are no alumni golf tournaments, no semi-formal Homecoming balls, no cider parties. Pride Events Director Matt Monaghan recognizes the shift in event focus as a way to include more students in the festivities.
“While alumni are highly encouraged to attend all Homecoming events, the events now focus on creating memories now that students can look back on when they visit Homecoming events as alumni,” he said.
For Executive Director Jillian Susi, who began planning for this year’s events as soon as last year’s Homecoming ended, leading the team that puts Homecoming into action is just as special as being in it.
“My favorite memory from working on Homecoming was last year when I was on the Homecoming Executive Committee float in the parade. There was a moment when the float turned down College Avenue and I saw so many people lined up along the road,” she said. “It was such an impactful moment to see that many people enjoying something so many people worked for a year to plan.”
The senior is moving forward in her final year at Penn State, but she knows that the key to successful Homecomings in the future is to look to the past for inspiration.
“History serves as a lesson for us all as to how we can improve and move forward in the future. Homecoming itself learns from its history as an honored event through time by remembering why we put all this work into planning Homecoming,” she said. “I think history can remind us of why we do what we do.”
As for the people behind Penn State’s first Homecoming, Susi thinks they’d be proud of how far it’s come.
“I think the alumni from the very first Homecoming would love Homecoming as it is today,” she said. “I really think they would enjoy seeing how it has changed and grown since they started it years ago.”
All documents and other primary source materials consulted in the making of this post were provided by the Eberly Family Special Collections Library and the Online La Vie project.