Let the Old Traditions Fail

I’ve spent most of my time since early fall in Rauner Special Collections Library. Here I do my thesis research. I’m writing about institutional shifts in culture when Dartmouth became coed in 1972.  Specifically, I am interested in Dartmouth’s school song, which changed from “Men of Dartmouth” to “the Alma Mater” in 1988 to reflect the presence of women on campus. I have special permission by the Rauner staff to view original copies of both versions of the song. Two weeks ago, I made a historic discovery

As I stepped into Rauner, the warmth of the building gave me sanctuary from the frigid January air. I spotted an open chair, plopped down my jacket and backpack, and got right to work. When holding “Men of Dartmouth” in my hands, I felt humbled and surrounded by the gravity of the College’s history. Reading through it, I paused at the beginning of the second stanza: “Dear old Dartmouth, set a watch\ lest the old traditions fail.” Something was off.

The letters e-s-t in lest were too close together, and the s was more of a blotchy line then an intentional figure. I squinted at the faint, 120-year-old letters. That was not an s. I was certain – whether it was a stain or some sort or splotched ink from Richard Hovey’s 1890s fountain pen I didn’t know, but it was not an s. I showed it to the librarian, who agreed. The Rauner staff submitted the document for chemical testing.

I received the results of my tests just yesterday. It was determined that, by the technicians at the Rauner Special Colletions library that the “s” in the Alma Mater is a tea stain.

The 1988 alma mater says “lest” the oldtraditions fails, but the original "Men of Dartmouth" clearly wanted us to let them fail.

Only history to decide what to make of this. Perhaps Hovey wanted Dartmouth to be adaptable to changing times for centuries to come, and thought old traditions might handicap progress. Maybe he just hated tradition, or was dissatisfied with his time here and wanted the school to change. Maybe the 1988 writers thought the ink stain in Hovey’s original poem was actually an s. Maybe they conspired to include an s as a way to ensure Dartmouth students would value the rich history of an outstanding school amidst a turbulent social environment. Maybe they were regressive individuals with a disdain for progress and a fear that a coed Dartmouth would mean their irrelevancy. Most likely, though, they just thought it was an "s."