At the close of Commencement, graduating seniors will be invited to sing Washington University in St. Louis’ “Alma Mater,” a song they likely heard only once before — when they sang it four years earlier at Freshman Convocation.
Fortunately, the words are printed on the back of the Commencement program.
In three years, it will be rising sophomore Michael Byrne’s turn to graduate, and he intends for the university’s “Alma Mater” to fully resonate with his classmates.
The song undoubtedly will be much more familiar by then. Due to Byrne’s successful lobbying efforts, the Graham Chapel bell tower now plays the “Alma Mater” at noon on weekdays. For this to happen, the “Alma Mater,” originally adapted from a traditional German song, had to be converted into a two-minute bell version.
Byrne, who grew up in Madison, Wis., near the University of Wisconsin, believes that Washington University lacks the strong sense of tradition found at other high-caliber schools. As a newly elected Student Union senator at WUSTL this past fall, Byrne decided to focus efforts on improving tradition.
The bell change, which is just the first step in his plan, took place in late April. “This is new for the university,” Byrne says. “While most of our peer institutions play their alma maters at noon, we played the (Westminster) noon-time chimes.”
Conjuring emotions and memories
At UW-Madison, a member of the Big Ten Conference with NCAA Division I football, the alma mater is known “not only by those attending the university, but most Madisonians as well,” Byrne says, noting that the home of the Badgers incorporates the song into many events.
Byrne also has spent a lot of time at the University of Notre Dame, as his father and sister are alumni. “There, the song is a huge part of campus tradition and a unifying factor for students and alumni.
“It was strange to me when I came to Washington University and learned that we would only hear the song twice — once when we enter the university at Convocation and then at Commencement, when we graduate,” he says.
In his proposal to the WUSTL Student Union Senate, Byrne wrote: “It is the goal of this project that when the Class of 2015 sings the ‘Alma Mater’ for the final time, it will conjure emotions and memories, as well as be close to the heart of every student.”
Byrne, a political science major in Arts & Sciences, spent the fall semester researching tradition at other colleges, meeting with various WUSTL administrators to gain approval and figuring out the logistics.
“I’m proud to attend a university where the administration is so receptive to student input,” Byrne says, crediting the helpfulness of Jill Carnaghi, PhD, associate vice chancellor for students and dean of campus life, and Paul Pollard, the multimedia specialist in Danforth University Center who programs the software that operates the bells.
Another key contact was Jim Burmeister, director of Commencement, who has been inextricably linked to the university for more than 50 years.
Byrne met with Burmeister to gain a better understanding of how WUSTL has celebrated tradition over time. “He (Jim) had outstanding insight, and provided a lot of inspiration for me,” Byrne says.
One of the bigger challenges was composing the song in bell version. Through Student Union connections, Byrne found Michael Feinstein, a rising senior business major who enjoys producing electronic music as a hobby. After some modifications and testing, the “Alma Mater” in bell version became a part of everyday campus life.
To avoid potential disturbances, the bells are not played on the weekends when weddings or other events may be occurring, and condensed versions are played during testing weeks.
Just the first step
“Playing the alma mater over the bells was a great, non-invasive way to introduce the student body to our school song,” Byrne says. “We’ll be deciding where we want to go next, as far as improving tradition, over this summer.”
Byrne is hoping the “Alma Mater” soon will be played at sporting events and at large university-sponsored gatherings. He is considering advocating that the lyrics be placed in the official student planner and on T-shirts, as part of a spirit initiative.
“Michael is a true go-getter and I think we will see other old traditions that may have been lost returned to the student arena,” Burmeister says.
To see the “Alma Mater” lyrics, visit library.wustl.edu/units/spec/archives/facts/songs.html.