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BLUFFTON — Bluffton University has long held a May Day celebration, steeped in tradition.

But just how did this get started?

The College Record, published in May 1910, gives the first glimpses.

“May 24 is to be a notable day in the history of Central Mennonite College. A new feature is to be introduced. … In order to present the higher ideals of education to the public and what ought to be done by the people in general to stimulate higher ideals, the College has arranged for an Educational May Day. If this day is a success it is to be made an annual feature. The success of the day will be determined by the interest manifested by the people of Bluffton and vicinity.”

May Day was to begin at 2 p.m. that day outside on the campus. The plans included three main speeches: John W. Zeller, commissioner of schools, on “The Present Trend in Education and what People Ought to do to Stimulate It”; Professor John Davison, superintendent of Lima schools, on “Culture and Character”; and Professor James E. Begg, superintendent of Columbus Grove schools on “The Future of the Rural Schools.”

The day also included a presentation by the Citizens’ Band, a concert by choir students, a tennis tournament, and a meeting of the Lowell Literacy Society. The educational extravaganza lasted all day.

“A special invitation is extended to all schools of the county and surrounding counties to participate in this educational meeting. Come and spend a pleasant and profitable afternoon on the campus. Bring your lunch with you and remain for the evening,” according to the item in The College Record.

This focus was much like a Chautauqua, with an educational bent versus light entertainment. The next year also took the same tone.

The third May Day celebration, held in 1914, was a reinvention of the theme.

“Without doubt one of the most memorable days to the students of Bluffton College as well as to the residents of Bluffton was May Day, observed May 29,” according to a story in The Witmarsum, a student newspaper published June 1914.

The story explained the day: the students gathered on the lawn to sing the alma mater and the queen and her procession entered.

“After a few selections by the attendants to the Queen of May, the May Pole Girls, upon courtesying to the Queen, very prettily gave the winding and the unwinding of the May Pole,” it reported.

After that was finished, there were several sports events — including a baseball game and tug of war over Riley Creek. In the evening, there was a parade through Bluffton and another dance around the pole. The oratory class began “Hiawatha,” only to be rained out.

This was a format that would gel on and around campus.

“Everybody is looking forward to May Day,” The Witmarsum reported in 1915. “It is one of the most important features of school life. Without it a school year would be incomplete. Everybody is going to attend it and give it their hearty support. May is the month of flowers. It is the time when nature bursts forth in its wondrous beauty and glory. … To us it means the crowning of a May Queen and the celebration with songs and dances.”

The Witmarsum, May-June 1917, edition further explains:

“The fourth annual May Day was held Tuesday, May 29th, as one of the big features of Commencement week. … At 3 o’clock, the May Day procession formed and approached the beautifully decorated throne, erected on the campus just east of College Hall. … Following this the indispensable winding of the May Pole was beautifully carried out by the fair co-eds. … After adjournment the crowd again gathered at the High School auditorium to witness the artistic performance of ‘Mid Summer Night’s Dream’ by the dramatics class.”

Exactly why this tradition began is lost to history. There are two legends: a president’s wife believed it a progressive “European” idea at the time of its beginnings, or a professor had seen such an event at a previous college and started it here, said Carrie Phillips, archives and special collections librarian at Bluffton University.

But what is known is May Day has become a beloved part of campus.

Mary Pannabecker Steiner, adult and graduate studies representative, participated in 1962. She was a flower girl at age 6. Her father, Richard, was a biology professor, and the flower girls that year were all faculty kids, she remembers. Her “job” was to carry a basket of flower petals, coming into the event in a procession with the queen and the graduating seniors. The seniors were announced at that time.

“What I remember most from that from when I was a kid is May Day was a big deal,” she said. “May Day was a thing that you just went to. … I remember sitting up front so we could watch the May pole dancers.”

The ceremony was in the morning, followed by lunch. Afternoons were spent with class reunions. This format continues today.

“I think it’s just a part of the university. Tradition is important, and we kind of stick to traditions,” Pannabecker Steiner said. “It’s a small school, so I think it’s important — there are enough people here who realize the importance of tradition.”

May Day is always held the first Saturday of May, unless that Saturday is May 1, said Joyce Schumacher, alumni events coordinator. She keeps the costumes in order and teaches the May pole dance to eight female and eight male students. She enjoys the dance because the dancers weave together the ribbon around the pole, symbolizing to her the weaving together of generations of alumni.

“You know there are a lot of traditions that come and go. I’m there and I’m watching and I’m seeing the spirit of the day … there is just something special whether people want to admit it or not in that it just makes people smile,” Schumacher said. “There’s just something special about the feeling of that day … I think it’s the expectation of the day. Everything about that day is a celebration.

“For me, the reason I feel honored to be part of the planning is just the fun of seeing people come back and enjoying their day and remembering their days at Bluffton.”

May Day, 1915
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