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Penn State History Lessons: Gentle Thursday

It seems spring has (finally) sprung at Penn State. The ground is no longer covered in ice, flowers are starting to grow, and Old Main Lawn has once again turned into Penn State’s personal beach. The university has survived yet another one of Centre County’s brutal winters, and its residents are celebrating with sundresses, salmon shorts, and impromptu frisbee games.

Back in the 70s, Penn State welcomed spring in quite a different way. For more than 10 years, the university held a spring festival of sorts called “Gentle Thursday.” The all-day event featured folk and rock music, kites, balloons, and bubblegum.

Though Penn State’s Gentle Thursdays were legendary, they weren’t the first to happen. The roots of Gentle Thursday trace back to the 1960s, at the University of California, Berkeley. From there, it spread. Northwestern University held its first “protest music festival” on May 1, 1967 in an attempt to remove the school’s ROTC chapter from campus.

At the time, using a concert as a protest made a lot of sense. After all, the 1960s were the golden era for student activism and protests. But Penn State’s first Gentle Thursday was created under very different circumstances: in a classroom.

That’s right. The original idea for Gentle Thursday came from a Speech 200 class. From what I could gather, Speech 200 appears to be similar to today’s CAS 100A. Three students, Jon Lange, Tom Sapper, and Susan Snyder organized the event. According to a May 11, 1971 Collegian article, the theme of the first Gentle Thursday was sharing. Sapper said that Gentle Thursday was created “to give things to people, whether it be a smile, a kiss, or a piece of bubble gum.”

The first Gentle Thursday started at 10:30 a.m. on May 20, 1971 at Old Main lawn. It featured thirteen musical acts, which played all day. Other than the music, Gentle Thursday consisted of four stations spread across the lawn. There, students distributed smile buttons, kazoos, kites, bubble gum, and balloons. All of those goodies were donated by local State College businesses, including People’s Nation and the Student Bookstore.

Gentle Thursday 1971 was truly a community effort. Downtown stores donated supplies, and students made paper flowers, designed posters, and held penny drives in the HUB. Each student that attended was encouraged to pack two lunches: one for themselves and one for a friend. Lange, Sapper, and Snyder wanted to make the event as friendly as possible. According to that same Collegian article, Lange said, “We must forget political ideologies, fields of interest, ages, colors of skin, religious beliefs, length of hair, and all other differences which tend to (III) us.”

According to a Collegian article written the following day, the first Gentle Thursday was a huge hit. Though it rained in the afternoon, Lange said it was “truly an atmosphere of sharing.” The event attracted more than just Penn State students. Students, high schoolers, professors, and kids exchanged oranges, peanuts, and candy at the event.

With the success of the first Gentle Thursday, planning began immediately for the next year’s “day of sharing.” It was scheduled for May 18, 1972, which was in the middle of a wave of anti-war protests at Penn State. But that didn’t bother Gentle Thursday’s founders. According to Lange in a May 17, 1972 Collegian Article, that year’s Gentle Thursday was “a reminder that there is always a time for levity, good cheer, and fun.”

That Gentle Thursday started out just like its predecessor: full of frisbees, balloons, and laughter. But the tone instantly shifted when a group of Vietnam war veterans took the stage. According to a May 19, 1972 Collegian article, the group of actors rushed the stage just as one musical act was finishing up. Actors playing Vietnamese farmers were chased onto the stage by American soldiers. Shots were fired, and a battle ensued. At the end, all of the Vietnamese men and women lay dead, while the soldiers walked off the lawn. A voice came over the loudspeaker, telling the somber crowd, “This was just a reminder that there are no Gentle Thursdays in Vietnam.”

Student demonstrators protest the Vietnam War in a “guerrilla theatre” piece. (Collegian Digital Archives)

1973’s Gentle Thursday did not include a somber anti-war demonstration. However, the weather was far less cooperative than it had been the previous two years. The event coordinators were forced to move the event indoors in the middle of the day. Around 2:30 p.m. Gentle Thursday relocated from Old Main’s Lawn to the HUB Ballroom. Despite the change of venue, Gentle Thursday drew quite the crowd that year. According to a May 11, 1973 article, more than 6,000 people attended that year.

As well as the first two Gentle Thursdays went, the coordinators took a more critical approach to the 1974 event. According to a May 2, 1974 Collegian article, littering was a huge problem at Gentle Thursday. Beer bottles and cans were thrown across the lawn, making Old Main more of a trashcan than a space for sharing. So in 1974, Gentle Thursday doubled the amount of trash cans available, and ensured they were emptied twice during the event.

Gentle Thursday 1974 was perhaps the festival’s last great year. That day included a 1,000 helium balloon release to signify to students that Gentle Thursday had begun. The activities, such as sharing candy and flowers, that had come to be Gentle Thursday staples were performed per usual.

 1974 Gentle Thursday (Penn State Archives)

In 1975, Gentle Thursday was once again forced inside the HUB ballroom due to bad weather. But that year, the entire event took place inside. Whether it was because of the storms or a lack of passion for the event, the mood on Gentle Thursday 1975 was reportedly much more subdued. According to a May 2, 1975 Collegian article, only a handful of students dressed up in the traditional festive garb.

Moving the event indoors also meant more restrictions on Gentle Thursday. For example, students were barred from drinking alcohol in the Ballroom.  Students proceeded to sneak drinks anyway, and the administration was not pleased. According to that same Collegian article, Gentle Thursday’s coordinators threatened to cut off electricity if the illegal drinking continued. That announcement pretty much broke up the crowd.

After that year, Gentle Thursday carried the same sort of reputation. It was basically a fun music festival, full of drinking and smoking. The event moved from Old Main lawn to the HUB lawn in order to fit the crowd. This kind of event, mind you, was quite different than the original Gentle Thursday. This tonal shift was one of the main reasons the university put an end to Gentle Thursday in 1981.

But it was not the only reason. According to an April 18, 1979 Collegian article, the event was especially popular for townie high schoolers. These kids would skip school for the day, and come on campus to enjoy the perks of college life. One year, a reported 400 high schoolers were absent on Gentle Thursday. This spike in youngsters forced officials to check student IDs at the event.

As I mentioned before, littering was also a huge problem at Gentle Thursday. Luckily, the event coordinators partnered with the student organization Eco-Action to combat the event’s trash production. Eco-Action ran a volunteer recycling program at the event for several years, but stopped after the 1980 Gentle Thursday due to a lack of crowd cooperation. According to Ray Boyle, the president of Eco-Action at the time, “Gentle Thursday was was getting away from its original idea. It was not sharing, not learning, not gaining. All people were gaining was a party.”

Eco-Action wasn’t the only organization frustrated with Gentle Thursday. Free University, one of the main sponsors of the event, pulled its support in 1980 as well. According to a January 3, 1981 Collegian article, Free U wanted a festival that was more than partying. The organization partnered with the newly formed University of Student Government (UPUA’s predecessor) to create a new event that encouraged progressive culture and expression.

The last Gentle Thursday occurred in 1981. The Gentle Thursday tradition spanned a decade, which is quite a long life for something that started as a class project. There were a ton of reasons for the end of the Gentle Thursday era, a few of which I listed above. But the death of Gentle Thursday has greater significance when looked at from a historical lens.

The event, which was born from a movement of social change in the 1960s, was an opportunity to preserve the ideals of that era. Gentle Thursday was that day, once a year, where everyone could be a hippie again. In times of war and social unrest, that day solely devoted to sharing and community was even more important. But by 1981, the world had changed, stabilized slightly. Gentle Thursday faded away, not because its cause wasn’t good, but because it was not as pressing as it once had been. So next time you’re enjoying a beautiful day on Old Main lawn, take a moment to remember what happened there so many years ago.

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About the Author

Anna Foley

Anna is a senior majoring in Communication Arts & Sciences and Spanish with a minor in Theatre. Yes, she went to Spain. Follow her half-funny thoughts @exfoleyator and send her chain emails at [email protected]

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