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. Soon, students, townspeople, faculty and security formed 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 wreak 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 class of 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.
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.
Kathy Zoner, chief of Cornell 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.
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-springbreak 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