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Yesteryear Archives: Commencement History

The selection of undergraduate commencement speakers has seen several trends in the 125 years of the University. In the first several decades, speakers were trustees, clergymen or agriculturalists. During the administration of Charles Beach (1908-1928), the focus shifted to academicians and college presidents. During the 27 years that Albert Jorgensen was president, a speaker from outside the university was rare. There was a shift to public policy makers and college presidents during the Babbidge years in the 1960s and into the 1970s. In the 1990s, entertainers such as Fred Rogers, Michael Bolton and Bill Cosby headlined the undergraduate ceremony.

Some commencement facts:

The first commencement was held in 1882, although there were no graduates after one year of academic offerings.

The ceremony served to close out the academic year. The first class to receive diplomas graduated in 1883.

There were no commencement ceremonies in 1911 and 1914, due to changes in the curriculum that made the "senior" class ineligible for graduation. (Also in 1914, a high school diploma became a requirement for admission.

The speaker at the first commencement with a graduating class in 1883 (the curriculum then was a two-year program), was J.M. Hubbard of Middletown, a member of the Board of Trustees from 1881 to 1896.

The ceremony was held in the old Storrs Congregation al Church, which was later demolished after the new church building was erected in the 1920s.

The first UConn president to speak at commencement was Albert N. Jorgensen, in 1936.

The most frequent commencement speaker was Albert Jorgensen, who spoke 21 times between 1936 and 1962.

The most frequent speaker other than Albert Jorgensen was William E. Simonds of Canton, a member of the Board of Trustees from 1886 to 1903, who spoke at four commencements: in 1885 (when he shared the podium with Gov. Henry B. Harrison), 1887 (with another trustee, E.H. Hyde), 1892 (as sole speaker), and 1896 (again as the only speaker).

The first Connecticut governor to speak at commencement was Gov. Thomas M. Waller, in 1884. The Rev. Henry Ward Beecher also delivered remarks that year, during the second commencement for Storrs Agricultural School.

The most recent Connecticut governor to deliver a commencement address was John N. Dempsey, in 1964.

The first UConn graduate to speak at commencement was Maj. Gen. John H. Hilding, U.S. assistant secretary of state, who spoke in 1946. He was a member of the Class of 1918.

Gov. John Dempsey, left, congratulates President Albert N. Jorgensen on the occasion of his last commencement address as president 1962. Jorgensen spoke at commencement 21 times during his 27 year tenure.

The first UConn faculty member to speak at commencement was Wilbur O. Atwater, first director of the Storrs Agricultural Experiment Station, who spoke in 1888, sharing the podium with Gov. Phineas C. Lounsbury.

The first member of the teaching faculty to speak at commencement was Richard E. Dodge, professor of geography, in 1917.

The first woman faculty member to speak at commencement, in 1992, was Cynthia H. Adams, professor of allied health and chair of the 100 Years of Women at UConn Committee.

The first U.S. vice president to speak was Alben W. Barkley, in 1950.

The first dual ceremony for undergraduates took place in 1950.

The first University Scholars, named at the 1953 commencement, were: in arts and sciences, Robert W. Blanchette, Geraldine Carlson, Phoebe Pappas, and Allan D. Randall; and in engineering: Charles H. Knapp. Blanchette spoke at Commencement in 1981, the first University Scholar to do so. At the time, he was the new head of the Federal Railroad Administration.

Mark J. Roy

Additional information about commencement speakers: