Each Homecoming, thousands of football fans watch in mystified amusement as a herd of students rushes across the football field carrying canes.
The mystery deepens when the group reaches the north goalposts and the canes are thrown into the air.
Some of the fans may have heard an announcement that the students are Law School seniors and that tradition holds that, if they catch their canes, they will win their first cases. But even those fans have little or no idea of the origin of this somewhat unusual tradition.
In fact, the origin seems lost in the mists of time. Most believe that the
tradition was begun with the arrival of the legendary Professor William Herbert
Page from Ohio State University Law School during World War I.
Some research suggests that a cane parade tradition may have existed at Ohio and was simply transplanted here. In a centennial history of the School written in 1968 by Scott Van Alstyne (68 WLR 329), Page is quoted as denying that he had anything to do with the origination of the parade. He suggested that it already existed here when he arrived.
Regardless, the cane parade and Herbie Page became inseparably linked during the 1930's. During these early years, the entire Law faculty accompanied the senior class and the parade actually took place between halves of the game. According to a story in a 1953 issue of the Daily Cardinal, with the reduced size of classes during the Depression, the faculty soon outnumbered the seniors, and the senior member of the faculty took over the responsibility of leading the parade. Exactly when Herbie Page became "senior" may be debated, but he relished the duty and led the parades through 1951.
In the Law Review article noted above, Page claims that he volunteered to lead the parade at a faculty meeting when "problem[s]" associated with the parade were being discussed.
In 1952, Professor Page was hospitalized with a broken leg. Without a leader, the Class of 1953 nevertheless found the north goalposts. Professor Walter Raushenbush, Class of 1953, remembers his own cane parade but also remembers participating in the Homecoming activities in the fall of 1951, as a second-year student. In that year, while the seniors were parading, the second-year students were doing a sideline skit satirizing the Engineering students as "plumbers." [see the Law School Legends and Lore article "The Gargoyle" for more information on the Law-Engineering rivalry]
After Professor Page's death, Professor Ray Brown assumed the duty of leader. In 1953, the Student Bar Association found a Model T with which to deliver Professor Brown to Camp Randall.
By the time George Young became dean in 1958, custom dictated that the Dean should lead the parade. This was a duty right up George's alley. George approached his role with great spirit. One of George's prized possessions was his own cane emblazoned with a small brass plaque for each of the twenty-two years he led the parade. Even after he stepped down as dean in 1968, subsequent deans gladly shared their responsibility with George.
For a period in the 1960-80's, the parade was joined by one or
two strange characters, wearing gorilla masks and long black coats.
These interlopers would slowly trail the senior class and then
disappear into the crowd.
Each dean has established his own ground rules for the parade. Dean Bernstine was fond of saying that he was first through the gate to the field, then headed straight for the sidelines to avoid being crushed by the mob that followed. Professor Cliff Thompson also enjoyed the parade. When asked to comment for this article, he indicated that he "hasn't missed one since coming here in 1983." Those who know Professor Thompson may be skeptical: after leaving the deanship, he taught as a visitor in several other states and spent five years in Indonesia. Cliff suggested, however, that he flew back for each Homecoming and that he often appeared "in costume," perhaps explaining those gorilla masks. Cliff also may have been responsible for a modification of the old tradition: it is now said that, if the cane hangs up on the crossbar, the senior's first case will be settled to the satisfaction of both sides!