Torchlight Procession Changes Route; Taylor Lake Excluded

Rebekah Ward

The torchlight ceremony is one of Colgate’s oldest traditions. At the beginning of its first year at Colgate, each incoming class is led up the hill by torch-bearing mem­bers of Konosioni, Colgate’s senior honor society. Four years later, on the night before commencement, the senior class is together one final time as it floods down the hill in its robes, this time each member is carrying torches.

The ceremony traditionally ended with the senior class singing the Alma Mater and circling Taylor Lake before bringing its torches to Whitnall Field, but as of this past spring, the ceremo­ny has been changed. Now, seniors descend instead straight to the field, the route taken by Alumni during re­unions, where they toss their torches into a giant bonfire.

As the University website ex­plains, the Taylor Lake tradition was started “in 1930 by Frank M. Williams, Class of 1895 and presi­dent of the alumni corporation, and Bernard P. Taylor, Class of 1924 and Secretary of the College.”

Originally, tradition held that se­niors should toss their torches into the lake after singing the Alma Mater. Some years ago, this practice had to be changed for environmental concerns, and a bonfire was constructed instead on Whitnall Field.

“Even though we are there tell­ing people to go throw their torches into the bonfire, we have still had anywhere between 200 and 300 torches which people throw into Taylor Lake every year,” Interim Vice President and Dean of the College Scott C. Brown said.

And the problems with the route didn’t stop there.

“Many [issues] were campus safety-related and some were environ­mental. There were safety issues with torch heads falling off and people car­rying them across Route 12B. Also, huge amounts of torches were being thrown in the lake and spreading large amounts of fuel oil in the lake that was very visible on Sunday morning. Taylor Lake is part of a class C trout stream system and this is a big prob­lem with the Department of Environ­mental Conservation, not to mention the environment in general,” Associate Director of Facilities and Manager of Lands and Grounds Mike Jasper said.

According to the administration, these issues make it an impossible tradition to continue.

The fact that the tradition was to be changed for last year’s graduation was not formally communicated to the Class of 2011. Some rumors went around about environmental concerns and lack of control over the students. Student reactions to the situation varied.

“I thought it was ceremonial and the fact that we did not do it was disappointing. We hear all the stories about how pretty it is with all the torches around the lake, but it didn’t happen and we were not given any explanation,” Kendra Brim ’11 said.

“I do remember there being rumors about us not being able to circle around Taylor Lake during torchlight, but hon­estly, the more worrisome rumor at the time…was that [due to weather concerns] we wouldn’t be able to have torchlight at all,” Elizabeth Tone ’11 said. “I can’t re­ally imagine a Grad weekend without torchlight! I was a little bit disappoint­ed that the ceremony changed because I had watched my three older siblings circle around Taylor Lake at past gradu­ations, but mostly I was just happy that my class was able to participate in the torchlight tradition!”

The fact that the tradition is extinct came only partly as a surprise to some recent alumni.

“My favorite part of Torchlight Cer­emony was circling Taylor Lake with my class, because it felt like one last event we could all take part in together before Commencement. Without that last circle, we would have just been walking down the hill as separate groups of friends, not as a class. Taylor Lake is such a campus icon, it felt appropriate to end our careers re­flecting over its waters, literally and meta­phorically,” Katie Garman ’10 said. “But after seeing how many torches ended up in the water, I can understand any safety and environmental concerns there may be.”

As fondly as it is remembered, accord­ing to Dean Brown, the circling of the lake never goes as smoothly as intended. People stop along the way and the Alma Mater is very hard to hear, not to mention the fact that the live flames are hard to control even by the large supervising staff.

“The reality is that no matter what you’re doing with a torch, it will even­tually burn through and fall off. We’ve tried to keep people moving, and to keep non-graduates away from the roof of fire created by the torches, but it never com­pletely works. People are coming down and it’s just a canopy of flame,” Dean Brown said.

The change, though disappointing to many, was an environmental and safety success. For the first time, no torches ended up in the lake and there were no uncontrolled fires. Now students looking for remnants of the 80-year tradition will turn to the memories of those who gradu­ated before them, including Richard J. Kehoe ’32, whose poem about the circling of Taylor Lake can still be found on the Colgate website.

Contact Rebekah Ward at [email protected]