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Finding truth in a world of lies: A brief history of Willamette’s traditions

Bjorn Domst

Copy Editor

Photo Grace Shiffrin

Rumors fly from one ear to the next like gusts of wind on a particularly breezy day. Once the spark catches, it can take a long time for the ensuing flames to die down. A detail is lost here or there in the muffle of the moving air, but the talk moves swiftly nonetheless.

Incoming first years at Willamette are likely to hear a barrage of myths regarding the history of traditions at Willamette. Many of these legends have become distorted over the years: the longest imaginable game of telephone does no favors to stories that already blur the line between fact and fiction. Certainly some traditions will find themselves altered after just the first few days on campus by overeager students desperate to impress.

All this being said, it’s important to get the facts straight, at least for the most significant student events and urban myths. Remain attentive and you will be rewarded with a trove of knowledge to draw from as you work to survive your first year on campus.

As Matriculation will begin your Willamette experience, the event deserves to be mentioned first. Simply put, it is the official ceremony that marks the beginning of your journey at Willamette. While that may sound rather boring, the night itself is certainly not. The most beautiful and memorable part of the event is the sending off of candles down the Mill Stream, a symbol for the different paths each student will take at the school. It is also designed to mirror a student’s graduation four years down the road, complete with a march and bagpipes.

A tradition to keep in mind at all times when crossing the Jackson Plaza in front of the library is the bronze seal of Willamette, which sits in the square’s center. The official legend states that any student who steps on the seal will be cursed to fail a class. Accounts vary on timing, so don’t be overly confident because you made it out of your first semester after taking a wrong step early on. The jinx might follow you into later years, striking when you least expect it. It is possible to nip this curse in the bud, although the true method of doing so gets a little hazy. In a short time—anywhere from 5 to 10 seconds—one must run either to the Chicken Fountain or the Mill Stream and jump directly in the water. Some versions also state that you must then run back and touch the seal again. Either way, this must be a split second decision, requiring you to drop everything and go.

Taking an unplanned swim in the Mill Stream is also a core aspect of another Willamette tradition: birthdays. Your personal annual holiday may actually provide a reason to avoid your closest friends because the law of the land states that they must try their hardest to throw you in, willing or not.

Finally, on a quest for true love? Look no further than the Star Trees, which sit adjacent to the Capitol Building. If two students share a kiss beneath these trees, allegedly their futures will be locked together in a fated marriage. The only way to break this curse—should it become one—is to spend a solemn moment together at the “breakup bench,” which lies near to, but facing away from the Star Trees.

These traditions will only become as special as you choose to make them. Ultimately, your Willamette experience is truly up to you. Just as the rumor buzz can sweep through unexpectedly, however, don’t act so surprised if you get caught up in the myths and legends that came before you. Maybe you will even write a few stories of your own before you graduate.

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