The History of GM Week

The event most cherished and observed by the whole student body, which became a major ceremonial preserved in a relatively mild form to this date, was the Grand Marshal's election and installation. This first occurred in 1865, when Major Albert M. Harper of Pittsburgh was elected and endowed with a ceremonial sword, as was fitting in a year of war. His function was to head and represent the entire student body on all occasions in all relations, thereby giving it a formal unity. Except for a few years during the 1890's Grand Marshals were elected each year, usually in the spring, and this provided, as it were, the culminating event of the student calendar. The election was often hotly contested, and the split between fraternity and nonsociety candidates and voters was already evident in 1872.

The election customs were well established by 1882, when Independence Grove, a strangely named junior, of Chi Phi, was elected Grand Marshal. In 1883 occurred a characteristic Grand Marshal's election night on May 2 in Harmony Hall, used for many years for the purpose, and the retiring marshal was presented with a suitably inscribed gold-headed cane. The students then filed into the streets and, headed by Doring's Band, paraded through the city, with Greek fire displays and houses illuminated. They stopped at Boughton's hat store, where the new marshal was presented with a high silk hat, still used symbolically as the headgear of the office.

A common practice of the student parade was to serenade the students of the Emma Willard School, located in downtown, as well as some of the professors and school dignitaries at their homes, and they generally responded with speeches of acknowledgment. At about eleven at night the parade returned to Harmony Hall for food, drink, and high jinks. Until the wee hours of the morning, the press reported, the shouts and plaudits could be heard for blocks on the still night air. In 1883 the total expenses of the election were $212.50, raised by class assessments, and they included $28 for the hall and damages to it, $127 for the music, and $12 for the services of the 8 policemen at the hall and in the parade. In 1884, the excitement of the occasion was enhanced when the Columbia College baseball team arrived for a game and was welcomed uproariously.

The political order on the postwar Rensselaer campus was also transmitted from the past and continued to function despite discontent and the desire for reform. The Student Union as an association of all students had its roots in the nineteenth century, although its modern and formal organization dated from 1908. Its two heads, one the Grand Marshal, and the other, president of the Union, carried great prestige, and harked back to the nineteenth century. They were the occasion for an annual student campaign, election, and celebration which were encrusted with tradition and lively youthful antics. On these foundations was erected in due course a broad system of student elections, comprising class officers and members of the Student Council, in which the fraternities almost from the first played a prominent, if not dominant, role. The spring week of hectic campaigning and voting culminated in the celebration of Grand Marshal's Night. How genuinely democratic this election system is can be debated, but it has persisted as the one unifying, all-Institute event, accompanied by the frenzied excitement of electioneering characteristic of American politics generally and caricatured by the exploits and ebullience of youth.

The election of the grand marshal has undergone many changes since the position was created in 1865. In the 1880's the GM was elected by a "caucus" of students at a location off campus in an environment that might not have been conducive to intelligent voting. These 1886 Transit illustrations indicate that the process was reformed. Institute regulations, city and state laws, and changes in society have continued to modify election events. In spite of change, Rensselaer alumni share fond memories of these GM nights, days, or weeks, whether they were held on or off campus and with of without certain beverages of entertainment.

Text excerpts from "Education for a Technological Society - A sesquicentennial History of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute" by Samuel Rezneck [Professor Emeritus of History - Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute]