A Brief History Of Penn State Homecoming Royalty
Penn State Homecoming announced earlier this week it’s replacing the traditional king’s and queen’s court with a gender-neutral court, complete with two “Guide State Forward” honorees to be chosen in lieu of king and queen.
Supporters say it’s a step in the right direction for inclusivity on campus, but critics say it’s breaking a longstanding tradition. But Penn State’s Homecoming court is no stranger to controversy, from its beauty contest days to a decade-long stint with no royalty court at all.
Penn State’s first-ever Homecoming queen was crowned in 1940, then dubbed “Penn State’s Perfect Coed.” The tradition was suspended soon thereafter because of World War II, and did not return until 1952.
The Penn State Thespians took up the cause this time, seemingly adopting the Homecoming queen as a promotional tool for their production of “Don’t Stop Now.”
The 1952 contest was “chosen on the basis of ‘the girl you would most like to come home to'” and five finalists were named to the court. At this point, those named to the court were not required to be seniors.
Joan Hunter, a third-semester education major from Altoona, was crowned the 1952 Homecoming queen on opening night of “Don’t Stop Now.” She was “sponsored” in the contest by Alpha Sigma Phi fraternity. Photos of the 1952 Homecoming queen were sent to Penn Staters serving in the Korean War “to remind them of the girls back home,” according to university archivist Jackie Esposito.
The tradition of crowning a Homecoming queen continued similarly through much of the ’50s and ’60s, with the queen also honored at an annual alumni luncheon. The Daily Collegian published an opinion in 1957 criticizing the queen’s status, as she “passed by practically unnoticed by the majority of the student body and many returning alumni” with only a trophy and a kiss (from the president of the Alumni Association) as recognition. The article suggested the queen be honored in a short half-time ceremony.
The Collegian published another opinion in 1966 again criticizing the limited scope of the tradition, which compared Penn State’s Homecoming celebration to other institutions. It also indicated at that point the Homecoming queen was chosen from the five finalists by the football team.
“A glance to other campuses for Homecoming Weekend makes Penn State’s program look sick,” the article reads. “Their celebrations range from gigantic float parades before the traditional game to introducing the queen and having the football captain plant a big kiss on her rosy cheek at halftime.”
The 1966 Homecoming queen was crowned at a pep rally at the Pollock Courtyard, after a motorcade. This was obviously long before Penn State established what is now the largest student-run Homecoming parade in the nation.
Just two years later, the student body was voting for its Homecoming queen, who would be crowned at a pep rally and awards ceremony at Rec Hall. Instead of just a trophy and a kiss, the 1968 Homecoming queen also received a dozen long-stemmed roses, while her runners-up received flowers and engraved charms.
At the height of counterculture in 1969, feminist groups began to protest the “hypocrisy” of the Homecoming queen selection, which the Women’s Liberation Front described as the dress, appearance and personality standard set for all women by the selection of one as the ideal woman, according to The Daily Collegian.
“It’s Homecoming Week, and we could care less,” The Collegian said in an editorial the same week feminist groups began to speak out against the royal tradition. “The only saving grace is that a black girl has finally broken the unstructured but segregated walls of university tradition and is a finalist for Homecoming Queen.”
A letter to the Daily Collegian editor penned shortly after the 1969 Homecoming queen was crowned called the contest an example of the role women are conditioned to fill as a sex object.
“The very notion of having the university represented by a beauty queen denies the stated goals of an academic community, whose members pretend to themselves that PSU is dedicated to logical thought, free exchange of ideas, critical inquiry and rational challenge of human ideas and behavior,” Women’s Liberation chairman Cindy Rosenthal wrote, urging students to “accept the challenge of building a humanistic society.”
Then-head football coach Joe Paterno crowned the 1970 Homecoming queen, the same year a permanent crown was instituted as part of the tradition. The crown was made of silver with four blue semi-precious stones set in a branch-like design, created by local artist William Russell and meant to be worn by future Homecoming queens.
The Homecoming queen committee changed its rules in preparation for the 1971 crowning a year later, allowing men to apply for the honor and changing criteria to more closely mirror what we now think of as worthy of Homecoming royalty. Out of 28 applicants that year, 26 were women and two were men.
“It is no longer a beauty contest, but is based on contributions to the university and the community,” committee co-chair Cathy Fridley said. Her counterpart Tom Scheeren added, “She is not going to be the perfect woman. We have no way of deciding what a perfect woman is. We just want to honor someone who has contributed to the university.
A letter to the Daily Collegian editor from two Women’s Liberation members encouraged students who objected to the tradition of Homecoming queen to clip the letter, add their own comments, and mail it to the two committee chairs.
The Undergraduate Student Government’s Executive Council passed a resolution the following year opposing the Homecoming queen tradition, standing by the Association of Women Students president, who called the contest “a big joke.” Under pressure, the 1972 Homecoming committee decided to eliminate the queen crowning in favor of honoring five women on the court with no “winner” among them.
A Daily Collegian editorial the next day suggested crowning both a Homecoming king and queen to provide the called-for equality between the sexes.
The Association for Women Students chose to stand by its critiques in 1972, but chose not to file any formal grievances with the Homecoming committee. As with any campus controversy, some students just didn’t understand the big hullabaloo.
“In a further attack, [AWS President Joyce] Bratich states that the Homecoming queen contest is an ‘unnecessary tradition,'” student Robert Paul McCormick wrote to the Daily Collegian editor in 1972. “Is a tradition ever necessary? A tradition has meaning only to the individual. Why must those who find no meaning in a Homecoming queen attempt to destroy it when there are alumni, participants, and others who obviously enjoy the contest?”
Not all critiques on either side were quite so diplomatic, either. A woman from Mansfield State College wrote the Daily Collegian editor to say Bratich was “falling off the deep end.”
A male student filed a formal complaint in late October 1972 against the discrimination of the Homecoming queen contest, as he was not allowed to enter.
The 1973 Homecoming committee didn’t help its own cause, running the ad below in The Daily Collegian to promote that year’s queen contest.
A Daily Collegian editorial agreed with the Association of Women Students that the tradition should be scrapped, writing that “by continuing the sexist contest, the committee has debased the larger tradition of Homecoming.” Undergraduate Student Government President Mark Jinks also called the contest a “meat market.”
Male student Peter Key took up the cause that year, too, running for 1973 Homecoming queen with the support of Focus Magazine and the Association of Women Students.
Again, no controversy is without the apathetic. Student Frederick Jerant wrote to the Daily Collegian editor criticizing the paper for its extensive coverage of the Homecoming queen issue.
“Personally, I don’t give a damn whether we have a Homecoming Queen or not,” Jerant wrote. “…Surely there are more important topics worth covering in the Collegian. Will we ever see any of them? Or will be beaten over the head with one or two trivial themes until we are insensible?”
The 1973 Homecoming queen contest turned out to be one for the books, as the Undergraduate Student Government Supreme Court ruled unanimously to terminate all related activities. Parliamentarian Kevin Smith said the only possible compromise would be selecting a neutral award like “Outstanding Penn Stater.” Little did he know his suggestion would eventually come true, but not until 45 years later.
After the decision was announced, The Daily Collegian ran a full spread on the Homecoming tradition.
After a decade hiatus Homecoming’s 1983 overall committee decided to bring back the tradition of Homecoming royalty, this time with both a king and queen to reign over the annual celebration. Voting was held by placing nickels in cans in the HUB and by filling out ballots published in The Daily Collegian.
Homecoming chose four finalists each for king and queen in 1983, reinstating the tradition with an announcement ceremony in the HUB Ballroom.
Through present day, Homecoming’s royalty courts continued without much sharp criticism, save for a push to get more non-Greek students involved in the annual celebration and the specific king and queen tradition. Kings and queens were crowned for years at pep rallies at the Old Main steps or bonfires on the south side of Beaver Stadium.
Homecoming has also taken up various other courts in the past dozen years or so, from a “university” court of faculty and staff to a freshman court, but none seem to take on the same fervor of the student court. Alex Shockley and Cayla Castells were crowned the last Penn State Homecoming king and queen in 2017, thanks to a new structure in place for Homecoming 2018.
Rather than the traditional king’s and queen’s crowning and courts, Homecoming will now feature a gender-neutral court with two “Guide State Forward” award winners, using the Homecoming 2018 theme as a namesake.