J. Marvin Rast 18C 29T earned his place among the 175 “Makers of Emory History” by composing the Emory Alma Mater in the spring of his senior year. The newly formed Glee Club gave the song its premiere at a concert at Covington High School, then road-tested it on tour to shake out any bugs before Commencement. It withstood the test, but a few bugs remained.
For one thing, within a few years the line “loyal sons and true” would leave out a sizeable number of “daughters.” The year before Rast’s creation, Eléonore Raoul had enrolled in the law school, the first female student in the university’s history and the harbinger of what would become a growing distaff proportion of the student body.
In fact by 1945 the line had become embarrassing, as women were graduating from every school of the university. That year the Commencement program for the college and the graduate school included the Alma Mater with the original line. Perhaps because of complaints from graduating female students, two weeks later, on June 16, the line had been changed for the Commencement ceremony for medical school grads and those finishing the Navy’s V-12 program. The line now read, “sons and daughters true”– allegedly by fiat from the university president, who was Goodrich White ’08.
Things became more complicated still. Later in life Rast, who became a Methodist minister after graduation, recounted that in 1960 he was seated at a conference with an Emory alumna who surprised him by questioning the first line of the Alma Mater. In the wake of the civil rights movement, she asked, would he begin the same –“in the heart of dear old Dixie”?
In 1976 (having thought about it a long time!), Rast wrote to the alumni secretary, Walt Davis 34C, to suggest a change in the first two lines. How about something less regional and more high-falutin’?
Rast suggested: Where thy classic halls of learning/ Gleam ’mid oak and pine. He also threw in an additional stanza.
Further correspondence ensued, and by 1981 the suggested changes had made their way to the University Committee on Academic Ceremonies. This august body was chaired by medieval historian George Peddy Cuttino, Oxonian, who, before retiring in 1984, left an indelible stamp on the ceremonies and heraldry of Emory. His committee rejected the proposed changes.
Commencement on June 2, 1977, was the last Commencement graced by the Alma Mater for more than a quarter of a century. In November 1977 James Laney was inaugurated as the university’s president, and, no fan of the Alma Mater, he had it deleted from Commencement programs during his presidency (1977-93).
“I didn’t think it was worthy of a great university,” Laney remarked to an Emory Wheel reporter decades later. “It was cliché.”
The song’s absence from Commencement continued for more than another decade after the end of Laney’s presidency. But in the meantime it would find a revival through the curiosity of a new a cappella group — No Strings Attached.
More about that revival next time.
Thanks to Melissa Cheung o4C o6PH, former senior editor of the “Emory Wheel,” whose article in the February 10, 2004, issue of the paper includes the quotation from Jim Laney and the story of Marvin Rast’s encounter at the Methodist conference.