On June 14, 1884, less than a year after The University of Texas opened its doors, students and faculty gathered at Millett Opera House (now the Austin Club) for UT’s first commencement. The president of Tulane University delivered the “commencement oration,” and 13 students, all from the law school and all men, graduated that day. The student body then consisted of just more than 200 young men and women, who were taught by eight professors and four assistants. The campus was one building around which cattle grazed.
From those modest beginnings, the university has grown and diversified, and its university-wide commencement ceremony has too. What started as a perfunctory gathering has evolved into a theatrical spectacle of music, light, speakers, and fireworks that combine to inspire more than 5,000 graduates and 20,000 family members, friends, and members of the university community. For graduates, it is the start of a new chapter in life. For UT Austin and for Texas, it’s an annual celebration of the university at its best.
UT Austin has more than 40 processional maces that are carried at ceremonial occasions such as Commencement and Honors Day. These were crafted by Professor Carl Eckhart (see also “Lighting the Tower”), carved from lumber salvaged from the original Old Main Building. The UT maces were used for the first time at Commencement on June 2, 1956. Custodial Services proudly maintains them and keeps them in a display case in the Perry-Castañeda Library.
Why is the Tower Orange?
Few people left a greater legacy of traditions that Carl J. Eckhardt Jr. With two engineering degrees and a faculty post, Eckhardt became head of the Physical Plant in 1931. That positioned him to supervise construction of the campus’ new landmark — the Main Building and Tower. Eckhardt devised a lighting system to take advantage of its commanding architecture to announce university achievements. The Tower was completed in 1937, and Eckhardt’s orange lights flooded it the very same year. In 1947, he helped create guidelines for using the orange lights. An all-orange Tower with the number “1” on all sides signals a national championship. The full Tower glowing orange alone represents Commencement or other occasions the president deems appropriate. The Tower top bathed in orange symbolizes other victories, a conference title in any intercollegiate sport, or academic achievements. The Tower is also darkened for solemn occasions.
Not every university sends its graduates off like UT Austin. Fireworks were introduced as a standard finale to the ceremony in 1994. They are launched from numerous platforms, both on top of the Main Building below the Tower, and from the observation deck at the top of the Tower. Whether seated on the Main Mall or watching from a distant part of the city, the effect is one that will stay with you for a lifetime.