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Fridays With Fred: ‘Three cheers for the rock we fix’

The story of how a big rock became a platform.

June 18, 1906. Two days before Commencement. A thundershower threatens to spoil the evening’s festivities, but the blackest, stormiest clouds drift off, leaving only a few spattering drops in their wake. The Shakespeare Society performs A Midsummer Night’s Dream under arc lights on “As You Like It Hill” to a delighted crowd. After the show, most of them climb the hill to the open area between Pearsons’ Hall of Science and the college chapel, joined by throngs of fellow students, hastening to crowd around an immense flat-topped boulder. At 8:30 p.m. selected members of the senior class light torches, which cast a flickering orange glow on the upturned faces watching a student in cap and gown climb atop the great stone.

For several years, senior classes had made special gifts to the college before graduating. The class of 1906 decided that instead of a tree or plantings, they would offer something more substantial and permanent. Someone suggested a platform for speakers – rejoicing students were always clamoring for speeches after a big win on the gridiron or a major victory over rival schools in the popular oratorical contests. Speakers usually had to address their classmates via a derelict wagon or a teetering pile of soapboxes or apple crates stolen for the occasion. Another student recalled visiting Ira Buell’s farm, just south of Beloit, and spotting a sizeable boulder, which just might serve the purpose. Buell was Beloit College class of 1878—and curator of Logan Museum—and he liked the idea. After a mining engineer looked the stone over and proclaimed its removal feasible, Buell hired a derrick to lift the eight tons of granite and a heavy dray cart to move it several miles to campus, where they eased it into place west of the chapel in a spot students used for post-game bonfires.

A couple of seniors approached Latin professor, Forest E. “Pa” Calland, about an appropriate name for the new monument. “Rostra Beloitensia,” he told them, without hesitation, and so they affixed a brass plate to that effect and the class planned out the dedication program. Calland explained in a Round Table article a few years later, that “‘The Beloit Rostrum is the correct translation of Rostra Beloitensia.’”

The program began with seniors in caps and gowns singing a college song. From on top of the boulder, master of ceremonies A.C. Patterson introduced the dedicatory speaker, classmate Edward H. Light, who gave a “forceful and impressive speech,” according to a Beloit newspaper. “The class dedicates this stone,” he said, “to the highest achievements of the Beloit of the past and the still higher achievements of the Beloit of the future. May its well-being ever be safeguarded by those who stand for the perpetuation of the past.”

Next to mount the stone was Acting President George L. Collie, who accepted the gift for the college. “This is a monument as to what Beloit has accomplished. Let it be an incentive to students of after years,” he said. “It is with this desire that I accept this rostrum on behalf of the trustees.”

After another Beloit song, senior class president Charles Porter, presented a cap and gown to junior class president, J. Cuyler Baker, following a long standing tradition among the students. Then senior Edna Pomeroy stepped up to pass on a beautiful American flag to junior Ethel Horton.

These ceremonies completed, popular college janitor John Pfeffer, in charge of college buildings since 1851, stood atop the Rostra Beloitensia and spoke in his thick German accent to those assembled about the geological history of the rock, which, according to geologist Collie, had originated some hundreds of miles away in Canada and traveled to Wisconsin courtesy of a glacier many thousands of years ago. “It was an impressive sight,” wrote one reporter, “to see the well known figure of Mr. Pfeffer on the Rostra with his face lighted up by the torches and to hear his well-known voice, which so many hundreds of students have learned to love and respect, speaking words of advice to the seniors as they gathered about him.”

After “Professor of Dust and Ashes” Pfeffer climbed down, the crowd sang the newly created anthem, “Rostra Beloitensia”, words by senior Carl Bramer and music by sophomore Rowland Leach:

Did you ever hear the story
Of our wonderful Beloit?
How in field and oratory
We do deeds of high exploit?
Here are men both good and great,
Here we triumph in debate,
Here the night is loud with cheering
When we win the Interstate.

And as future years o’erpass us,
And new triumphs we shall share,
From this rock shall men address us
As they rend and saw the air.
Then let loud the eagle scream,
And full bright the bon-fire gleam
While the youth about the rostrum
Hear of deeds that pass a dream.

Three round cheers for Alma Mater
In the land there is none greater.
Three cheers for the rock we fix,
Three cheers for 1906.

Then the senior class led everyone by torchlight around the campus, with a brief speech before each building, bidding fond farewell to the familiar places. They returned to the Rostra Beloitensia to conclude the ceremony with a perennial Beloit favorite, “Domine Salvam Fac.”

Fred Burwell’86
January 27, 2011

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