The first graduation of significance to the University of Virginia actually took place at the College of William and Mary. Exactly 250 years ago, Thomas Jefferson graduated with honors before spending five years reading law as a clerk in George Wythe’s law office.
Things really changed after the inauguration of the University’s first president, Edwin Alderman, in 1904.
“Until Alderman, the exercises took place entirely inside and took the form of endless speechmaking,” says Alexander “Sandy” Gilliam Jr. (Col ’55), who serves as UVA’s protocol and history officer. “Students wore tail coats, not regalia.”
According to a UVA history website, “Lamenting the lack of pomp and circumstance, Alderman directed that graduating students and faculty members—wearing academic regalia—process from the newly rebuilt Rotunda down the Lawn to Cabell Hall.”
As at all academic processions, the grand marshal leads the way carrying the University mace. Made by Patek Philippe of Geneva, Switzerland, it was presented to the University by the Seven Society on April 13, 1961. It bears pictures of the Rotunda, the serpentine walls, a colonnaded walkway on the Lawn and other scenes and emblems unique to UVA.
At last year’s Final Exercises, 6,248 degrees were conferred under partly cloudy skies with temperatures pushing toward the 80s. Weather forecasts are monitored closely in the hours leading up to the ceremony, although only the most inclement weather—thunder, lightning, high winds—would force officials to alter plans for this beloved rite of passage.