Law School Legends and Lore

Cane Toss

It’s a longstanding — but legal — ploy to predict the future when soon-to-be lawyers attempt to throw canes over a Camp Randall goalpost and imagine winning their first cases.

One of Homecoming’s biggest spectacles doesn’t involve the marching band or the football team. It’s hundreds of third-year law students with canes charging down the field toward Camp Randall Stadium’s south end zone before kickoff. Some of the future attorneys sprint like running backs going for a touchdown. Others stroll or strut, swinging their canes, to savor the moment and avoid the crush.

When they arrive in the shadow of the Field House, students toss their canes over the goalpost. It’s a decades-long tradition that holds that catching their canes means they’ll win their first cases after graduation. Drop them and they lose.

When the concept of law students carrying canes first appeared at the UW is in question. One report indicates it originated at Harvard University and showed up here in 1910. The tradition is also strongly linked to law professor William Herbert Page, who claimed it started in 1917 when he came to Madison from Ohio State. In 1921, the Capital Times reported that senior law students voted to carry canes on campus. But even then, there seemed to be some confusion as to why.

“Is it to tap on the girls’ windows, or is it to fight the engineers?” the article asked. “There must be some reason for anyone who has to carry those big heavy books to want to carry something else besides.” The writer concludes that the cane is “not meant as an article of exterior adornment, but as a symbol.”

It wasn’t all pomp and circumstance in those early days. Law students would sit outside the Law Building and pound their canes on the stairs “in fulsome appreciation” if an attractive co-ed was walking up Bascom Hill. Today, law students only carry canes on the day of the Homecoming game, walking to Camp Randall en masse for their big moment.

Wardrobe has changed over the years, too, with sweatshirts and jeans replacing ties and overcoats.

If there are any rules, they are unwritten. And some have admitted to knocking down classmates to make the catch — insert lawyer joke here.

Cane Toss Origins

The origins of Cane Toss seem lost in the mists of time. Most believe that the tradition was begun with the arrival of the legendary Professor William Herbert "Herbie" 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!

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