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A Look Back at Commencements Al Fresco

Today’s Commencement is Maryland’s First Outdoor Graduation Since the 1950s

By Anne S.K. Turkos

1950 outdoor commencement on McKeldin Mall

Photos courtesy of University Archives

A commencement ceremony held circa 1950 took place on McKeldin Mall. Later in the decade, they would move indoors and stay there for generations; today's outdoor ceremony at Maryland Stadium will be the first open-air commencement in 66 years.

The following is adapted from Terrapin Tales, the University of Maryland Archives’ blog.

The easing of pandemic-related restrictions has allowed the University of Maryland to schedule in-person commencement ceremonies today at Maryland Stadium. But the occasion is also special in that it’s the first such outside celebration in 66 years at UMD.

Documentation of the location of UMD’s commencement ceremonies is somewhat spotty, particularly in its earliest years, but it is likely that the first ones for Maryland Agricultural College graduates, beginning in 1862, took place outdoors. By 1890, the ceremony had moved indoors to the College Chapel or College Hall, both located in the Barracks building, which burned to the ground in the Great Fire of 1912.

Subsequent ceremonies were once again held outdoors. With the dedication of the Skinner Building, then known as Agriculture Hall, in 1918, the college finally had sufficient space once again to host this occasion indoors. Ceremonies were once again held outside on Morrill Quad to accommodate large crowds in the 1920s and early 1930s, notably on June 10, 1922, when World War I hero Gen. John J. Pershing (below, at right) was the featured speaker.

Gen. John J. Pershing speaks at UMD commencement

The completion of Ritchie Coliseum in 1932 allowed for the expansion of commencement ceremonies to include graduates of both the College Park and Baltimore campuses.

Commencement in Ritchie Coliseum in 1933

Single commencement ceremonies were held each spring until the World War II years, when the desire to send graduates off quickly into combat led to three commencement ceremonies in 1943, four in 1944 and two in 1945.

Following the war, the university returned to a single ceremony from 1947 to 1954, but locations varied between indoors (Ritchie Coliseum and the Fifth Regiment Armory in Baltimore) and an outdoor area called the Quadrangle (known today as McKeldin Mall) to accommodate growth in enrollment. The lower half of McKeldin Mall was filled with graduates and their families, out in the hot late spring/early summer sun, as seen in this image from the June 10, 1950, ceremony.

1950 commencement on McKeldin Mall

Ceremonies returned indoors following the completion of Cole Field House in 1955.  Graduates from the professional schools on the Baltimore campus continued to come to College Park for commencement until 1969, the year before the establishment of the five-campus University of Maryland System and the institution of the May-December graduation pattern that remains today.

Ceremonies remained indoors, eliminating worries about the weather, even after Cole was decommissioned following the athletics department’s move to the Xfinity Center in 2002. Many famous names have been featured at the celebrations in Xfinity over the last 20 years, including Dorothy Irene Height, Al Gore, Cal Ripken Jr., Carl Bernstein and Elijah E. Cummings.

Fingers crossed that Mother Nature cooperates and Commencement al fresco can proceed without a hitch today! Congratulations, Classes of 2020 and 2021!

Anne S.K. Turkos is the University Archivist Emerita for the University of Maryland.

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