Raising Canes

What began as a bequest has become an endearing Middlebury tradition.

Gamaliel Painter was not an idle being. Born in New Haven, Connecticut, on May 22, 1742, he eventually migrated to Vermont and cofounded the town of Middlebury. Not content with this trifling accomplishment, Painter went on to serve as a member of the Constitutional Convention,
a judge of the County Court, sheriff of Addison County, and representative of Middlebury in the state legislature. Just when you start to feel inadequate, I should interject that he also cofounded our dear Middlebury College.

When Painter died in May 1819, he bequeathed $13,000 and his four-foot-long cane made of oak and ivory. With this gift, Painter not only saved the institution from financial ruin, but also left us with two centuries of cane-related customs.

Starting in the 1880s, the freshmen and sophomore classes sparred in the cane rush, an event so boisterous the College eventually instituted rules prohibiting slapping, pinning, punching, and the wearing of spiked shoes.

The May 1927 edition of the Middlebury College Newsletter tells of another custom in which “the President may carry [the cane] only after an athletic victory over Middlebury’s chief rival, the University of Vermont.”

But the tradition with which recent alumni are most familiar is the giving of canes to graduating seniors at Commencement. This occurred in fits and starts over the last century, and then became a consistently observed tradition after 1995. (Lest anyone who graduated prior to 1995 feel neglected, the College gave canes to alumni when they returned for reunion until 2000.)

With thousands of replicas dispersed throughout the world, I wondered: What do alumni do with their canes now? This inquiry flashed across my mind as I vacuumed the cobwebs from the canes my husband and I have stashed in the corner of our bedroom. Do alumni do as Kate Winslet has done with her Oscar and keep it in the bathroom? Or do they erect shrines in homage to our alma mater? I decided to find out.

Alumni like Namik Kirlic ’05, Mark Barber ’06, Hannah Washington ’08, and her spouse Elizabeth Gordon ’09 are in good company and stow their canes in their bedrooms.

Philip Picotte ’08 claims to be in possession of Painter’s original cane, which resides on his parents’ hearth with all the fireplace tools, including “the big puffer thing.” Elizabeth Robinson ’84 gives her grandmother Alla Fitzgerald Smith’s cane a less incendiary location. Bestowed in 1929, it has a silver top and ivory tip and hangs above Robinson’s mantel, out of reach of the conflagration.

Ollie, an otherwise charming canine who unfortunately mistook the memento for a chew toy, destroyed the cane Chris Dayton received in 1987. However, Levi, Mary Mendoza’s four-legged companion since childhood, hangs his own mortarboard upon her cane, having “graduated” from Middlebury on the same day, in May 2006.

Shawn Rae Passalacqua ’93 writes from California, “It’s hanging on one of the walls in my college counseling office. Hopefully, a symbol and inspiration for my college-bound high school students.”

Closer to home, Christian A. Johnson Professor of Music Peter Hamlin ’73 says, “It is watching over me in my office.” He pauses before adding, “It’s nice to think that one of the College’s founders so long ago is still remembered in this vivid, idiosyncratic, and very physical way.”

Hamlin’s closing thoughts remind us that while Painter’s cane may have lost its original utility, it has gained a position more befitting the history reflected in its cerulean ribbons.

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  1. Good day!
    My 20 year old daughter graduates from a liberal arts college in May with two degrees–one in Liberal Arts with an interdisciplinary concentration (science and international languages) and a Fitness Education minor; the other is in History with a German minor. We attended my sister’s graduation a couple of years ago and was intrigued by the tradition of receiving the cane. I am impressed by its history and wondered whether it would be an infringement of any sort if a similar tradition were begun using the cane as an emblem of enterprise, creativity, and perseverance?
    Do let me know…
    Thank you,
    Brigette Hinds

  2. My Gamaliel Painter’s Cane is now being used for its original purpose – to give me a sense of stability in my old age. I seldom leave home without it and expect to use it at our 70th reunion in a few weeks.

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