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Backstory: They doff their beanies to tradition

Is there a good side of hazing? A mild – and ancient – form of humiliation makes a popular comeback at Wabash College.

By Michael RubinoContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / October 25, 2006


My college experience was like yours, except my homecoming queen probably had a lot more stubble. And, at my alma mater, if you didn't know the school song – one of the longest in the nation – someone gave you a friendly reminder by shaving a scarlet letter into your head. And, finally, there's this distinction: I wore a freshman beanie.

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Recently the club got a little more inclusive at all-male Wabash College. This fall, the beanie reappeared on freshman heads here, breathing life into a tradition dead for almost 40 years.

Whether the evolution of a mild form of hazing drawn from centuries-old rites can survive in today's politically correct climate remains a question, but what better proving ground? Wabash, one of the handful of men's colleges left in the nation, has always been ahead of the curve by keeping behind the times.

"Students here have this powerful sense of connection to the past of our college," explained Tom Bambree, dean of students and a 1968 Wabash graduate who doesn't think the pressure to wear beanies is hazing. "This is a manifestation of that – a way for students to do something as a whole class and take part in the richness of a school tradition."

Wabash, 45 miles northwest of Indianapolis, was founded in 1832. The liberal arts college sits on a wooded 60 acres, anchored by red-brick Georgian halls. The school wears its old-school charm like a letterman sweater on a crisp, autumn afternoon, making the freshman beanie appropriate attire.

The beanie – called a "pot" – is a miniature green cap with a scarlet visor and button. It dates back to 1920 when it was the visible centerpiece of "freshman indoctrination" that required freshmen to tip their pots to upperclassmen, among others. Freshmen wore the beanies until they were able to steal one that sat atop a greased utility pole in a class scrap – called "pole fight" – between freshmen seeking emancipation and sophomores eager to keep the status quo. The tradition ended in 1966 – the requirement to wear a beanie was dropped in 1968, though one fraternity, Phi Delta Theta, continued the tradition alone. At homecoming, earlier this month, a pair of pledges from that fraternity got a taste of Old Wabash as they spent their Saturday catering to the whims of upperclassmen and visiting parents and alums.

"As much as it kind of sometimes sucks wearing a pot, I'm glad to take part in this tradition," said Rob Harvey, a freshman from Sherborn, Mass. "I've had guys from the Class of '52 and what not come up to me today telling me about their pot and how great it is to see us wear ours. It makes me glad to know they went through the same thing we're going through right now. I think that's kind of cool."

Added Brandon Cornett, a freshman from Valparaiso, Ind.: "Wearing a pot is like being part of a family tree that branches out all over."

That sense of unity created by a shared tradition was being put to a tougher test by the other Wabash freshmen at half time, when the fairest among them competed in an annual queen-crowning contest that evoked an equator crossing, replete with Sons of Neptune cheering on reluctant polliwogs in drag.

The revival of the beanie was the inspiration of senior Ross Dillard, who, like many fellow students, had admired his school's past but felt removed from it. For the past two years Mr. Dillard worked in the Wabash archives reading up on old traditions and a campus that seemed more unified than today's, segregated by fraternities and clubs. The campus, he decided, needed a shared experience.