“Testudo” may sound like a minor character from a Shakespeare play, but as every University of Maryland alum knows, it’s the name of the big bronze turtle in front of McKeldin Library, the nose of which students rub for luck.
That, sadly, might be the only thing about the university’s history that every graduate knows. We Maryland grads (English literature, Class of 1984, thank you very much) tend to get in, get our business done and get out. Not for us the extended-pinkie, tea-sipping reveries of your Harvards (founded 1636), William & Marys (founded 1693) or St. John’ses (1696). When you date to only 1856 and started life as the Maryland Agricultural College, you don’t have any traditions.
Linda Martin and Margaret Hall were tired of hearing that. Linda went to the University of Maryland University College, then got her master’s from College Park in 1980. Margaret graduated from College Park in 1984. They work together in the university’s marketing department.
“We kept hearing that Maryland didn’t have any traditions,” Linda said.
Said Margaret: “We found out that it’s not true at all, that we were rich in tradition.”
And so the two collaborated on “University of Maryland Traditions,” a lavishly illustrated 72-page book that’s chock full of historical tidbits. It was published in the summer of 2011, and copies were given to every freshman entering school last fall.
Perhaps it was an effort to restart some traditions, for the book is mostly about traditions that no longer exist, which may be inevitable at a fast-growing university. (When I went, U-Md. was a cheap safety school. It gets a lot more respect now — and costs more.)
Maryland freshmen are no longer required to wear beanies, as they were until the 1960s. There’s no longer a tug-of-war contest between the freshman and sophomore classes. There’s no longer a May Day festival. But the Maryland Day open house does take over McKeldin Mall each spring, students still flock to the campus dairy to get fresh ice cream and they still rub Testudo’s nose.
The book says rubbing the terrapin’s schnoz helps the rubber do well on exams. I asked My Lovely Wife (Class of ’81) what she remembered of the tradition. She said that in her day, you rubbed it so you wouldn’t graduate a virgin. Ahem.
Linda said she’d heard that one, too. Or that if a virgin graduated from Maryland, the 1,000-pound sculpture would fly away.
Any truth to that, I asked. “So far he hasn’t flown away,” Linda said.
The Washington area is packed with colleges. Here are a few of their traditions.
George Washington University — Maryland has its turtle, GWU has its hippo. The statue, presented to the Class of 2000 by then-President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, is installed at the center of campus. Students rub his nose for good luck.
Gallaudet University — Incoming freshmen adopt rats, which are buried in elaborate funeral ceremonies when their first year is complete. Students once used real rats but now use stuffed ones. (Rat grave markers dot the campus.) There’s also a coffin-shaped door on the first floor of College Hall. Students are guaranteed success — if they remember not to walk through the door.
Georgetown University — A colorful mosaic of the university’s seal is outside the center entrance to Healy Hall. Superstition has it that if you step on the seal, you won’t graduate. School officials admit the tradition may have started to keep the mosaic from getting damaged by foot traffic.
Howard University — When students sing the alma mater, they cross hands: right over left, holding the hand of the people on both sides. At the last line — “Oh Howard, we sing of thee . . .” — people wave their programs in the air.
University of the District of Columbia — On the first day of class, the university’s Firebird mascot — a guy in a yellow bird costume — runs around the campus. Catch up to him and give him a high-five and you’ll have a good semester.
Catholic University — When it snows, students grab cafeteria trays and sled down St. Thomas Hill. In nicer weather, they enjoy “Movies on the Mall,” dragging couches from their rooms to the CUA Mall to watch films al fresco.
Trinity Washington University — In a tradition that dates back to the first graduating class in 1904, each class has its own color: red, blue, green or gold. When a class graduates, it passes its color on to the incoming freshman class.
American University — The day before classes begin, a pipe-and-drum corps walks through campus summoning new students to the Opening Convocation in Bender Arena. Four years later, graduating students are led back in similar fashion for the commencement procession.
For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.