Glee. The very word conjures fond memories and high emotion — over winning, losing, paying off a Blue Monday bet or, after Feb. 22, whether the University’s longest tradition will make a lasting comeback.
Comb through the University archives and you’ll find enough material on Glee, or Freshman Glee as it was originally known, to fill a large walk-in closet. Programs and tickets and song sheets are all preserved for future generations. It was to these archives that Matt Alex ’08 turned when he decided to spearhead an effort to revive Glee.
“As I sat on the Quad during Matriculation,” Alex recalls, “I was struck when Dean Hawkinson said that we would only be together as a class twice during our four years here — that evening, and again at Commencement. I just didn’t think that was right.”
So the energetic Alex spent the summer after his freshman year researching the tradition, and when fall semester started up, he started talking up the tradition of Glee — the competition of song and dance, the class and school spirit the event inspired. Rumors spread across campus and rippled through the alumni ranks. Determined to move forward, Alex approached student government and President Lee Pelton for funding. Rewarded for his efforts, Alex along with Stacy Michaelson ’08 and Dana Shaw ’07 served as overall managers and began organizing and rounding up candidates to manage each class. Those elected were Paul Eldred and Hannah Leland for the Class of ’10, Tyler Thompson and Lauren Saxton for the Class of ’09, Trevor Essmeier and Rebekah Gullberg for the Class of ’08, and Jared Rieger and Maggie Hake for the Class of ’07. Then the date was set and the competition held, 98 years after the very first Freshman Glee competition — and 10 years after the last one.
“Glee ended in 1997 because not all classes had participants,” recalls Laila Cook Umpleby ’98, who serves on the Alumni Association Board of Directors. “Holding Glee with only three classes did not seem like a viable option, so with a heavy heart the managers voted not to continue with Glee. Students left the room crying. It was very emotional. There was a sense of letting down the history of the school and so many alumni.”
With the revived version of Glee, students sought to bring back tradition but with a modern twist, allowing for dance performances rather than marching.
The criteria for judging those performances, however, were more in keeping with Glee’s early years. Wallace Long, director of choral activities at Willamette, joined alumni panelists Volney Sigmund ’57, Kearsty Dunlap Schneider ’92, Kirsten Murray ’93, Kim Duncan ’69 and David Audley ’93, director of alumni relations, to judge the performances. Students were judged on the creativity, school spirit and technique of their dancing, as well as the creativity, quality of lyrics and adaptation of their theme to the identity of Willamette.
The event opened with the singing of the alma mater, “Ode to Willamette: An Old Historic Temple,” which was written for one of the earliest Glee competitions. More than 100 students filled the bleachers, and after much taunting and pre-performance escapades, the teams got down to business. The freshman class attempted to rise and march in unison, and the quality of their song made them the class to beat. “They had the most beautiful song,” Audley said. “The lyrics really nailed what the theme ‘alma mater’ meant.” The sophomores focused their efforts on an extensive dance routine including taiko drummers and members of Willamette’s dance team, then gathered to shout rather than sing their song. The juniors got caught up in their own rendition of “Drift Away” before breaking into a rap that ended with “We’re the juniors! We’re the juniors!” The seniors, perhaps suspecting the secret to victory could be found in tradition, wrote a song based on the University’s motto and included march elements in their dance routine — accompanied by Blitz, the Bearcat mascot.
“I had a hard time judging because I was so excited for the students,” said Kearsty Dunlap, who attended Glee as a child with her Willamette professor father. “I liked the changes and personal spin each class put on their performances, and I thought it was a good combination of old and new traditions.”
“My emotions were all over the board,” said Kirsten Murray. “Some classes nailed Glee with their songs and their passion. I was a little disappointed by the lack of formality that we were used to during our Glee days, but I understand that times change. Their Glee is not my Glee, just as my Glee was not the Glee of the 1960s.”
As the judges deliberated, the classes took part in tug o’ war challenges, the seniors leveraging a win. And it was the seniors who erupted in shouts and cheers when the judges announced their victory and presented them with the 2007 Glee banner.
“Blue Friday” bets were few and far between, and payoffs turned into an enthusiastic water balloon fight on Jackson Plaza. Still, all involved considered the Glee revival a success.
“It’s remarkably impressive that these students were able to capture the essence of Glee, the spirit of the competition, without ever having seen it,” Audley said. “We’ll work to strengthen the tradition now that it’s been reestablished, and we’ll invite alumni to offer their guidance and suggestions and to come back for the event.”
“Part of the changes we all go through, particularly as alumni,” Murray said, “is recognizing that not everything stays the same at our beloved WU. But the students are having a great experience, which is what makes Willamette so endearing — the memories.”