The ceremony surrounding the awarding of degrees was present from the beginning at Centre College. The Board of Trustees minutes for February 15, 1822, state that “There shall be two regular meetings of the Board in each year semiannually on the 3rd Monday in January and July, the latter being Commencement.” Centre’s first graduation was in 1824. What took place for those three students receiving degrees is uncertain, but by 1828 commencement had clearly become a ceremony. The July 14, 1828, issue of Danville’s Olive Branch includes a description of commencement for that year. “The commencement in this Institution was held on Thursday last… The audience was large and the exercises interesting.” The ceremony consisted of an opening prayer, student orations, a valedictory address, the awarding of A.B. degrees on graduating students, and the awarding of one A.M. and two D.D. honorary degrees. The orations touched on such subjects as the spirit of liberty, the advantages of a republic, the character of Lafayette, the influence of Christianity, and the beauties of creation. By 1839 music had been introduced, and for the remainder of the nineteenth century the format for commencement would remain the same: student orations interspersed with music, and at the end of the ceremony the awarding of degrees. The awarding of honorary degrees on distinguished persons was present, if not from the beginning, certainly from very early.
Commencement was a public event during the nineteenth century, a day to show off the college and its students, and a day of entertainment and enlightenment for the public. “Commencement day was a day long wished for and expected with bright anticipation of pleasure, by most persons in Danville and the vicinity,” wrote thirteen-year old Jane Clemens Reed in a school essay dated July 27, 1847. Exercises were held in the morning at the Presbyterian Church, and Jane notes that “I went quite early, knowing the church was generally crowded at such times; there was a number of persons there when I arrived, and a great many came afterward.” The exercises began. “The Brass Band played a very lively air, and after a prayer by President Young, the speaking commenced; all of the young gentlemen did very well, taking into consideration their bashfulness … and knowing that if they made a blunder how much it would be talked of.” Jane then commented on the various speeches: “The Valedictory was well delivered, and caused tears to flow from every feeling heart; I believe the face of nearly every person in that vast crowd was covered with tears.”
The program for the 1839 commencement includes comments on the speeches by an anonymous person. “Very good,” “passable,” and “indifferent” were some of these, indicating that not all the orations moved the audience to tears. The program notes that Septimus Caldwell gave an oration and the valedictory speech. While the orations were occasionally indifferent, in 1861 the faculty felt the need to order “... that no political or partisan sentiments be allowed in the commencement speeches,” certainly a sign of the times.
Music was a part of commencement, and seems to have been paid for by members of the Senior class. The June 14, 1876, minutes of the Trustees note that “An application was made on behalf of the Senior Class for aid in paying for the music on Commencement day. Under the peculiar circumstances, and necessarily heavy cost of the music to so small a class, the Board ordered the sum of $25 to be paid to this object, but on the express condition that it shall not be regarded as a precedent for the future.” In 1879 the minutes include “An application was made to the Board for an appropriation of not less than $50 to aid them in paying the expenses connected with commencement exercises. The Board directed the President to say to them in reply that for want of funds (there being now a large sum due the Professors, which the Board has no means of paying at the present time) & for the purpose of discovering the growing tendency to increase the expenses connected with the Commencement exercises, they are compelled respectfully to decline making the appropriations.”
Not all students enjoyed participating in commencement. In 1839 the trustees resolved that "the dispersion of the students of College before the regular close of the session, including the Commencement exercises, is in the opinion of the Board improper and disorderly, and that the Faculty be directed to take the proper steps for the due observance of this resolution.” By the late nineteenth century the number excused from participation had grown.
By 1879 commencement had grown to a multi-day affair. The June 25, 1879 Centre College Courant included the program for that year. “Commencement week: Monday night, Chamberlain speaking; Tuesday night, Deinologian speaking; Wednesday morning, Senior Class-Day, and at night, Alumni Address, and Hop at the Clemens; Thursday morning, Commencement, and at night, Promenade Concert at the College; Friday morning, party to young lady guests at Col. Jones’; Saturday, general stampede home.”
Introduced that year, Class Day was probably student inspired, and included orations, some with a degree of humor, by the class salutatorian, historian, orator, prophet, poet, grumbler, and giftorian. The same Centre College Courant article mentions that C.E. Edwards, Grumbler, “... grumbled at the Faculty; he grumbled at the walks; he grumbled because people did not appreciate the talent of ’79, and especially did he complain because the right had been denied the class to indulge in the innocent fun of throwing overshoes.” W.S. Elkin, the Giftorian, gave each member of the class a present while pointing out some distinguishing characteristic. “The taciturn (?) Keller was given a bottle of oil that his tongue might, if possible, work more easily ... a pair of well-laced gaiters reminded Darnall that a young ladies vis-à-vis does not always mean ‘Please tie my shoe.’”
By 1905 Commencement was a four-day affair, with the Baccalaureate sermon on Sunday, an oratorical contest on Monday, Class Day and Senior banquet on Tuesday, and the commencement exercises on Wednesday. The 1906 commencement festivities also included two baseball games with the “Nebraska Indians” and an alumni banquet. The 1907 Commencement seems to have been the first that included a commencement speaker, Dr. Joseph Wilson Cochran of Philadelphia. It was also the first commencement that did not include student orations. They were never to return. By 1914 the Carnival play and dance had become part of commencement. The 1916 commencement “week” included Baccalaureate services on Sunday; the Carnival play on Monday; an oratorical contest, Carnival parade, baseball game, and “gala night” on Tuesday; Class Day, a track meet, and Carnival dance on Wednesday; and a breakfast given by the Freshman Class followed by Commencement on Thursday. The 1919 Class Day program lists an “automobile ride” as part of the activities. The 1929 commencement reached a new level of elaborateness: Friday was Senior Day (Centre Class Day, Woman’s Department Class Day, Sock and Buskin play, Senior ball); Saturday was Alumni Day (alumnae luncheon, baseball game between seniors and alumni, tea dance, alumni dinner); Sunday was Baccalaureate; Sunday: Commencement (Commencement, golf tournament for alumni, Carnival. The commencement also included several class reunions.
Soon the growth of commencement festivities began to lessen. By 1934 Class Day had ended. In 1935 commencement week included the Centre College Players play and Junior prom on Friday, alumnae luncheon and alumni dinner on Saturday, Baccalaureate on Sunday, and Commencement and Carnival on Monday. By 1950 both Baccalaureate and Commencement were on Sunday. While still stretched over multiple days, in the 1950s Carnival and the Carnival dance were on Thursday, Friday included various meetings, the alumni banquet was on Saturday, and Baccalaureate and Commencement on Sunday. By the early 1960s many of the alumni activities, formerly held during Commencement, had been moved to Homecoming. The 1964 Commencement was reduced to a weekend: the President’s reception and Alumni Association dinner for seniors and families on Saturday, with Baccalaureate and Commencement on Sunday. Commencement soon assumed its modern shape, an event focusing on the conferring of degrees on the graduating senior class, held in conjunction with Baccalaureate on Sunday.
Commencement has been held in various locations. Originally in the First Presbyterian Church, after the construction of Old Main, it was held in the college chapel. For several years Commencement was held at the Second Presbyterian Church. In the 1950s and early 1960s the football stadium served as the site, and following the construction of the Norton Center, Commencement has been held in that location.
Two Commencement traditions, caps and gowns and the procession, are difficult to pin down. The first mention of caps and gowns is from the Trustee minutes of June 8, 1897: “On motion the Faculty and graduating class were directed to appear on Commencement day during the exercises in cap and gown with display of College colors thereon.” Whether this is the first time caps and gowns were required is unclear. The 1919 Commencement program is the first mention of a procession, but the tradition may date from earlier years. In 1926 the procession formed at Carnegie Library and marched to the college chapel in Old Main. In 1940 the procession formed at Old Centre and proceeded to the Second Presbyterian Church, a march of some seven blocks. Today the procession is from Old Center to the Norton Center.