University of Kansas' Class Of 1970 Never Got To Walk Down The Hill — Now COVID-19 Has Canceled Its Make-Up Walk
After waiting 50 years, some members of KU's class of 1970 planned to make the traditional walk with 2020's graduating seniors.
Seniors at the University of Kansas who lost their graduation ceremony to the coronavirus aren't the only class that's been deprived of the traditional walk through the World War II Memorial Campanile and down the hill into Memorial Stadium on a path flanked by faculty members.
The class of 1970 has lost the privilege — twice.
That year was plagued by racial tension, anti-war protests and riots. Four dozen fires were set in Lawrence that spring, the costliest causing $2 million in damage to the Kansas Union on April 20, according to the Associated Press. Across the country, 227 campuses canceled the remainder of the school year.
“Strikes and demonstrations curtailed classes at hundreds of others,” according to The Lawrence Journal-World.
“We didn’t know what was going to happen next,” says Russell Sifers.
He’s now the retired fourth-generation owner of Sifers Valomilk in Merriam, Kansas, but in 1970, he was president of Phi Kappa Sigma fraternity and a business major.
On May 8, 1970, University of Kansas Chancellor Laurence Chalmers called an all-campus meeting at Memorial Stadium.
Sifers and about 13,000 other Jayhawks attended.
That day, the university worked out a plan: Students could leave campus if they felt unsafe and choose credit or no credit based on their classwork up to that date; keep the letter grade they’d already earned; stay and take the final exam to try to improve a grade; or take an incomplete and finish the coursework later.
Those who attended the meeting voted that campus would remain open — minus the students who elected to leave — and graduation would go on as planned.
Sifers chose to stay. His grandmother would be in town to see him walk down the hill, and he says it was important for him to complete the classes he'd paid for.
However, on graduation day, heavy thunderstorms rolled over Douglas County and the ceremony was moved to Allen Fieldhouse.
For one of only three times in the university’s 155-year history, the commencement ceremony did not include that walk — the classes of 1972 and 1981 were also moved indoors due to storms.
More than 4,000 students were eligible to graduate in 1970, the Journal-World reported. But, because many had already returned to their home states, the ceremony at the fieldhouse was lightly attended.
In the years since, the university has made every effort to postpone the ceremony until skies are clear rather than move indoors, says Michelle Lang, director of alumni programs.
Her office has not forgotten about the class of 1970.
“Over the years, a few people have reached out to us and said, ‘We missed our walk. It would be cool if we could make it up,’” Lang says.
And this was to be their year.
For its 50th reunion, the alumni association invited the class of 1970 to walk with the class of 2020 in addition to three days' worth of activities like a campus tour, meeting with students, and various social gatherings.
Sifers RSVPed quickly. He says he thought the invitation was fantastic.
"I’d already purchased my cap and gown, and I thought: this is going to be really funny to see young students and all these old people, wondering 'What is this about?'"
By the time the university canceled everything in mid-March to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, Lang says, 30 people from that class had already signed up to walk and 100 had registered for activities.
“I’m very disappointed,” says Mary Loveland, an English major from the class of 1970. “They’ve cancelled that luncheon and everything. That would have been a chance to see people I actually took classes with.”
In 1970, Loveland had stayed on campus to take one final exam and graduate. She says she comforts herself, thinking that “fate would not have staged a worldwide pandemic just to keep me from losing my second chance at walking down the hill.”
Lang says the alumni who'd planned to return have been very understanding of circumstances.
“But it doesn’t make it any less disappointing for them,” Lang says. “We will get them down the hill at some point."
Lang says the university has not set a new date for this year’s festivities, but she thinks they’ll be rescheduled for late summer or early fall.
It can't happen soon enough for Sifers.
Everyone in his family has made the walk; his daughter did it for two different degrees.
It’s like “Charlie Brown and Lucy and the football,” says Sifers, joking.
He even had his outfit ready to go. He’d decided to replicate what he wore beneath his gown in Allen Fieldhouse 50 years ago: a tie-dyed T-shirt, cut-off jeans and sandals.
He’d just purchased some comfortable new black Birkenstocks from a store on Lawrence's Massachusetts Street.
“They’d look so good with a black gown," he says. "I’d be dressed nicely.”
Follow KCUR contributor Anne Kniggendorf on Twitter, @AnneKniggendorf.