Chapel Sing Tradition is Alive and Wellby Susan Cantrell • September 15, 2005
Wabash traditions are alive and well. Being alive, the Wabash tradition of Chapel Sing, one of the College’s finest, is always changing. The great Wabash College fight song, "Old Wabash," remains as robust as the day it was written in 1899 by Senior Ted Robinson ’00 and Sophomore Carroll Ragan ’02, but this year the performance procedure will be somewhat altered.
At the Chapel Thursday morning, Wabash junior and Sphinx Club president Doug Berry ’07 told the crowd, including many freshmen sitting together in pledge or dorm group, the long history of "Old Wabash," not the least of which was that the two students joined together to write the piece of music in order to win the $50 prize money being offered for the best fight song.
On the Thursday before Homecoming, Wabash freshmen have gathered to show their loyalty and support of their college by demonstrating their knowledge of all the words in all the verses of "Old Wabash" and "Alma Mater."
For many years, according to Berry, freshmen were judged individually by upperclassmen. If students were not able to sing each correctly within 60 seconds to demonstrate their loyalty, it was demonstrated for them when a big letter "W" was shaved into the top of their heads. By 1964 the students who could not sing the songs in public were invited into the Chapel to try again in a quieter atmosphere, but the penalty for disloyalty remained the big "W" in the hair.
In 1967, a year when traditions were being demolished at every level of American life, six freshmen refused to participate in Chapel Sing, and some thought the great tradition was through. Not so. It continued with gusto and by 1982 the Sphinx Club had taken over the event from the then-defunct Senior Council. Freshmen were still judged individually on their performances, and the penalty was still a big "W," but by that time, it was Wabash scarlet and it was painted on.
By the 1990s pledge classes were performing as a whole, with matching shirts, caps, bare chests, jeans and, sometimes, war paint. The melody of "Old Wabash" was lost amid the screams of the words and laryngitis became a sort of badge of honor to the competitors.
Next week at Chapel Sing the song will be sung because, as Berry pointed out, "The importance of knowing the words never changes. Think of the practices as an honor, not a burden."
"Remember," Berry told the freshmen, "when you sing "Old Wabash, you are representing not only your living unit, but all Wabash, past, present, and future."
Jake Koeneman ’06 then took the microphone to explain the next procedures for this year. There will be very strict spatial guidelines, so each group of freshmen can be judged in full advantage. Another change is the clothes they wear: a clean white tee shirt and shoes. If, given every opportunity to demonstrate his allegiance to Wabash in song, a student still cannot offer some rendition of "Old Wabash," a big, red "W" will be spray painted on his clean white T-shirt.
Still, as Koeneman admonished the students: The importance of the words never changes. They define our College and have for over a hundred years. Remember, Wabash College loves traditions and you are beginning the newest one next week."
The audience then rose and sang "Old Wabash."