What makes for a great college fit? There are many intangibles. One such intangible is tradition. I love tradition. And Middlebury College is steeped in tradition. One such tradition has only been observed since it was re-established in 1995, but it commemorates the founding of the college in 1800. Each graduate receives a diploma of course, and also a native New England ash handcrafted (in Hinesburg, Vermont) replica of Gamaliel Painter’s cane from the president of the Alumni Association. Painter was the founder of the college and one of the founders of the town. (I graduated in 1986, so I never got a cane!)
A fancy cane in Painter’s day was a stately possession and status symbol of sorts. The original cane, which normally is kept in the president’s office, is passed around by freshmen at convocation, and it is carried around as a staff or “mace” at official college ceremonies.
The song “Gamaliel Painter’s Cane,” written by a student and professor and often accompanied by the percussive rapping of the replica canes, begins with the verse: “When Gamaliel Painter died, he was Middlebury’s pride, a sturdy pioneer without a stain; and he left his all by will to the college on the hill, and included in the codicil his cane.”
Painter was born in New Haven, Connecticut to Shubael and Elizabeth (Dunbar) Painter in 1742, He moved to Middlebury and began to make his mark. He married the sister of the first settler of the town. John Chipman. After helping to found the town, he served as sheriff, county judge, and member of the Vermont General Assembly. He supervised the construction of the courthouse, the Congregational Church, and the dormitory that bears his name. He bequeathed the bulk of his estate, including his cane, to the college.
President John McCardle, who had been my favorite history professor, restored the graduation tradition, which had ended in the 1960s.. Today, it’s a rare face that doesn’t light up with a smile upon the receipt of the cane. I might see if I can get one.