It was 1 p.m. the day before spring break, and campus seemed as silent as the steadily falling snow subtly frosting the arts quad. The bells of McGraw tower, glowing green the night before, began to peal, breaking the quiet concentration of the Cornell campus. Their song seemed a calling, as winter jacket, hat and scarf began to emerge from every building, path and corner in greater numbers. What brought these people together, to stand so patiently on a deserted day in the spring snow?
The answer was not long coming. From between Olin and Uris Libraries a crowd of people spilled out onto the undisturbed snow of the Quad. And they kept coming. And coming.
There was Pac-man being chased by a ghost, gorillas, a giant paper-mache head with a cigarette hanging from his mouth, a smattering of super heroes, followed by a large lawn gnome under a “Horticulture” banner, Hogwarts students, an ass, a Mr. Potato head, a walking clock tower and even a person dressed as a Wegman’s security camera. The comical and crazed costumes mingled with student, townsperson, faculty and security, forming a lively parade marching through campus.
Suddenly, a skeletal structure reared its head — here, whether on a clear spring day or in the midst of a winter weather watch — the infamous mascot of Cornell’s annual Dragon Day comes out of its cave in Rand Hall, to reek havoc every spring for the past hundred years. Dragon Day is a tradition dating back more than 100 years at Cornell. According to the University Archives, though the first date is not exactly known, the Dragon Day tradition was begun by the equally infamous Willard Straight ’1901, who himself was an architecture student.
“From his early [days] as a freshman, he developed a reputation as a prankster, leader and developer of class unity,” states the Archives.
Straight believed there should be a day set aside specifically for the architecture students, a “College of Architecture Day.” A man known for making ideas into reality, Straight chose St. Patrick’s Day. The very first celebration is described to have included orange (for Protestants) and green (for Catholics) banners, and shamrocks on Lincoln Hall, which then housed the College of Architecture. Later, are-enactment of St. Patrick’s legendary feat of driving all the snakes out of Ireland became part of the celebration. This snake eventually evolved into the dragon that characterizes the event in more contemporary times.
The Dragon Day tradition has developed into a bonding experience and rite of passage for first-year architecture students.
Daniel Quesada ’11 is one such student. He claimed to have spent approximately 17 hours per week on the project and 30 continuous hours in the two days previous to its unveiling.
“You really have to work together,” he said.
Evidence in a letter to Straight’s widow as early as 1920 shows the struggle between administration and students regarding the festivities. In the past it has forbidden Dragon Day for a variety of reasons, mainly safety-related. The conflict with the administration regarding the tradition, though, is not as prominent today.
As the dragon made its way through the quad to a taped-off area in front of Sibley, the parade spread out and gathered around, enveloping the beast. The structure stood impressively — it required over two dozen students, dressed in white jumpsuits, to maneuver its flexible parts by means of a structure of metal rods, which they held onto as they pushed the dragon along the parade route. The dragon itself was created entirely of bamboo and rope, bound together in a simple but impressive design. The length of the dragon’s body, arranged in this way, appeared to be bare bamboo bones, like the skeleton of an ancient Jurassic beast come to life and broken loose from a museum. Architecture students in fine array ran circles around the beast, which lay silent and steadfast, awaiting its fate.
Cries of “dragon, dragon!” and “give me a d!” permeated the otherwise quiet atmosphere, with the exception of beating drums that gave the experience a feel of tribal sacrifice. One almost felt sorry for the creature.
Representatives of the Cornell Police and Ithaca Fire Departments could be seen mingled amongst the students, much to the latter’s delight. Authorities were taunted throughout the process, but there was a general air of good humor.
Gwendolyn Dean, a Cornell staff member serving as part of the “Dragon Day Crewe,” said of her purpose, “We’re just trying to keep people safe, keep traffic moving smoothly and keep people away from the burn area.”
Dean, like other members of the “crewe,” was dressed in bright clothing despite the bleak weather and wore a cowboy hat decorated by flames.
“This is my third [Dragon Day],” she said. “It’s a lot of fun, everyone’s happy and the dragon is always wonderful to see. I like to see students whooping about.”
Captain Kathy Zoner of Campus Police has overseen the festivities for many years. She explained that the process that goes into the event is not the work of one day but many weeks of planning, working closely with the architecture students to ensure overall safety. She described the day as a success, due to a lack of injuries.
“If there were any, they were self-inflicted,” she laughed.
She emphasized that a safe atmosphere is to the greatest benefit of all.
Meghan Dowd ’09 said her reason for attending dragon day was a little different.
“[I’m here] because the dragon’s gonna burn,” she said.
And burn it did, though there was some skepticism expressed about the flammability of bamboo and the persistence of wet weather. Architecture students placed large pieces of cardboard beneath the structure and lit them afire. This was very effective, creating a large orange wall of flame. Cheers went up as bamboo poles fell and charred.
Dowd also enlightened onlookers as to part of the tradition’s history.
“In the ’60s they cancelled it,” she said. “Too Catholic. It was too much fun, so they made it non-denominational.”
True to the history of the tradition is a rivalry between the architecture and engineering students, though, according to the University Archives, it is unclear also as to when this specifically began. In past years, rival engineering students have made everything from a large Viking ship in the 80s, a phoenix, a penguin and a large egg, the “love-child” of the phoenix and the dragon, in recent years.
Onlookers began trickling away as firemen put the hose to the blackened remains of the once-great beast. Perhaps they went to warm up and regain feeling in their frozen extremities, or perhaps they went to get started on further beginning-of-spring-break celebrations. Regardless, it was clear as smoke furled into the gray sky that the spirit of the dragon, and of this campus, cannot be quenched, and some traditions, like Dragon Day, never die.
This story was originally published on www.cornellsun.com.