Iowa State University Alumni Association

Traditions and History

The purpose of the college was to give the sons and daughters of the working farmer an education. Higher education had traditionally been denied women. The college’s second president, A. S. Welch, summarized the purpose of the college memorably in his inaugural speech on March 17, 1869:

The Iowa Agricultural College and Model Farm, the nation’s first land-grant college, opened its doors in 1868. Its first class of 26 students graduated in 1877. The college was renamed the Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts in 1898, and became the Iowa State University of Science and Technology in 1959.

“Our (educational reform of this institution) is the withdrawal of the ancient classics from the place of honor which they have largely held in our college curriculum, and the liberal substitution of those branches of natural science which underlie the industries of this beautiful state. The other is the free admission young women on equal terms with young men.”

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Campaniling Cardinal & Gold
Cy Cyclones
Festival of Lights Homecoming
Lancelot & Elaine Official University Mace
VEISHEA The Zodiac



Since the story of the campanile is a love story, the "campaniling" tradition makes sense. Today, the original 10 bells have increased to 50, and their influence has grown exponentially. A student officially becomes an Iowa Stater when he or she is kissed under the campanile at the stroke of midnight.

Cardinal and Gold

The saga of Iowa State's colors began in the 1890s...

Originally, silver, black, and gold were selected, chosen for the following reasons noted somewhat tongue in cheek in the I.A.C.  (Iowa Agricultural College) Student newspaper:

May 15, 1891:  "The college colors are thought by all to be a wise choice and the committee deserve our praise...The first, a Silver denoting the mechanical department on which is engraved the violet colors the letters, "I.A.C."  Next Yellow signifying the golden harvest which is claimed by the generals.  Last, Black, denoting death, assigned to the Vet Department who kill but never cure."

But the new colors proved difficult to use....

May 2, 1899:  "Rumor has it that the ISC colors are soon to be changed.  May the day hasten.  The silver, gold, and black have for some time adorned our standard, and right royally have they been carried.  But these colors as a college emblem almost approach the bounds of superfluity."

Oh, for a sweater....

October 3, 1899:  "The matter of colors has proven a stumbling block and this is not to be wondered at.  As we have stated before, the silver, gold, and black are approaching their last days.  They are pretty, but absolutely impossible to use in any way that would uniform our the colors adopted for a college athletic team determine what shall be the colors of the college.  It follows then, that we should be very careful in this matter...We should be conservative and careful in this matter.  What the Council does now will probably hold for all time and they must not blunder this time."

Cardinal and Gold it is!

October 10, 1899:  "At Thursday's Council meeting the special committee appointed to investigate and report on suitable colors for the sweaters, reported in favor of a cardinal sweater with a gold letter...This is a commendable improvement and makes a distinctive and striking set of colors.  From the prominence of cardinal and gold at the Nebraska game, it is evident that common consent will very soon adopt these as the college colors."

Color Cy


In 1954, members of Iowa State's Pep Council decided that Iowa State needed a mascot to symbolize new spirit for the athletic teams.  Since a cyclone was difficult to depict in costume, a cardinal was selected, from the cardinal and gold of the official school colors.  Pep Council ran a contest to select a name for the new mascot.  The winning entry, "Cy," was submitted by 17 people.  The first to submit the name, Mrs. Ed Ohlsen of Ames, won a cardinal and gold stadium blanket.



Iowa State became the Cyclones after they leveled Northwestern in 1895.  As the Chicago Tribune (9/29/1895) noted:

Struck by a Cyclone
It Comes from Iowa and Devastates Evanston Town

"Northwestern might as well have tried to play football with an Iowa cyclone as with the Iowa team it met yesterday.  At the end of 50 minutes' play, the big husky farmers from Iowa's Agricultural College had rolled up 36 points, while the 15 yard line was the nearest Northwestern got to Iowa's goal."

Festival of Lights

Festival of Lights

Iowa State's tree lighting tradition was first celebrated in 1914-1915, and was then discontinued until 1946.  Since that time, the event has come to symbolize holiday music, campus carriage rides, visits to the Farm House, and candles on campus.

Over the years, what was originally a Christmas event has been changed to become more inclusive, commemorating the entire holiday season. In 1988, the Iowa State Singers sang the following words, penned by ISU student James Tener,

"This tree we light may signal to all our community

This tree we light may signal to all our hopes for humanity."

Historic Cy


Alumni first began returning home for an official Homecoming in 1912. Since then, the celebration continues to entertain both young and old Iowa Staters, with traditional events, including tailgate parties, fireworks, lawn displays, “Yell Like Hell” cheering competition, and mass campaniling. Several times throughout the past decade, the Student Alumni Association Leadership Council has coordinated the efforts of hundreds of students who volunteer their time to help Story County Habitat for Humanity build a house.

For more about Homecoming, please visit the Homecoming website.


Lancelot and Elaine

It was the climax of VEISHEA, 1935. A large float, shaped like a swan and carrying flower-bedecked and white-robed Iowa State maidens, emerged from a smoke screen and glided its way to the middle of Lake LaVerne. And then the plaster swan unloosed its feathered passengers: four swans.

Two of the swans were named Lancelot and Elaine by student Jean Nesinwanger, who won $10.00.  Since that time, there have been numerous Lancelots and Elaines (including a pair of trumpeter swans reintroduced to their original Iowa habitat) and in 1944, 1970, and 1971 cygnets (baby swans) were born.  Swans take a mate for life unless one of the pair dies or is moved away.

Lake LaVerne, the home of Lancelot and Elaine, was created with a $10,000 donation in 1916 by LaVerne W. Noyes.  Noyes, a wealthy Chicago philanthropist and member of the first graduating class of 1872, funded a lake in what had been a three-acre marsh area, fed by College Creek.  Another Iowa State tradition: If you walk around the Lake LaVerne three times with your beloved, you are destined to be together.

Official University MaceThe University Mace

A new tradition was born at Iowa State in the creation of a presidential mace to be carried at commencement ceremonies. The bronze, silver and tiger maple mace brings new life to traditions and images of Iowa State.

“The first challenge that was given to me was to create something that would be meaningful to everyone at Iowa State, said sculptor and medallic artist Jeanne Stevens-Sollman. "The one thing that kept coming back was the Campanile. The other element of campus that seemed to be important was the reflecting pool with the Christian Petersen sculpture around it. I took some artistic license and moved the clock up into the tower, which became the place where the presidential seal could be… and added the disc which to me became the reflecting pool even though they’re not adjacent to each other.”

Like the ancient Roman standard-bearer, a mace leads a ceremony with tradition and grandeur. Dating back to ancient Egypt, the first maces were weapons. The mace began to evolve from a weapon to an ornamental symbol of power when it was carried by the royal sergeants-at-arms and stamped with the royal arms. As time passed, the mace began to be carried at academic processional and recession during commencement, inaugural, and at other key ceremonies. The mace symbolizes the academic authority of Iowa State University and is a common symbol among colleges and universities.

"The mace signifies the dignity and special nature of the commencement ceremony," said ISU President Gregory L. Geoffroy. "Commencement is a very special time in the life of an individual, a transition point when they leave behind the life of a student and enter their chosen professions."

Mace Facts
Total height: 5 feet
Weight: 14 pounds
Created of bronze, silver, and tiger maple
Number of bands encircling the staff: 14 (for the number of ISU presidents)
Artist: Jeanne Stevens-Sollman, Bellefonte, Pa.
Cost: $12,500
Funded by: The ISU Alumni Association’s Circle of former presidents, chairs and executive directors; the Stanton Carillon Foundation; and University Museums
First used: Spring commencement ceremonies, May 7-8, 2004
First carried by: Richard Horton, ISU professor of electrical and computer engineering and chief faculty marshal for the commencement ceremonies
Currently housed: Iowa State University Alumni Center



Imagine planning an event like VEISHEA, but with no office space for student meetings and no financial reserves. The year was 1922, and the VEISHEA Central Committee was meeting for the first time. They met at Beardshear (the Memorial Union hadn’t been built yet), and for each meeting they had to ask a janitor to help them find and unlock a room. But the administration was solidly behind their effort: to combine the celebrations of the different divisions (today called colleges), which had resulted in too many unauthorized student holidays. The engineers skipped classes for their St. Patrick’s Day parade; the home ec women skipped for their May Day dance; the aggies skipped for their Ag Carnival. But could one festival combine all the traditions of the separate divisions -- Veterinary Medicine, Engineering, Industrial Science, Home Economics, and Agriculture?

The answer was a resounding “yes!” Not only did the student planners combine the first letter of each division to name the festival, they also wove together a combination of traditions that has stuck: College open houses, a student musical performance (“Stars Over VEISHEA”), canoe races, a parade, and, of course, cherry pies.

VEISHEA was a top campus leadership opportunity for more than 90 years and provided opportunities for entertainment and campus celebration each spring. VEISHEA was canceled permanently by President Steven Leath in 2014 following a riot that caused thousands of dollars of property damage and seriously injured one student. The celebration had been marred for years by violent disturbances, the cumulative effect of which led to the beloved celebration's demise.


The Zodiac

Who knows what prompted that first student to step over the bronze zodiac relief of the floor of the Gold Star Hall in the Memorial Union? But for more than 70 years, subsequent students have done likewise, understanding that to step on the zodiac is to ensure that they will flunk their next exam. (It should be noted that staff, faculty, and alumni members also detour the enchanted circle, indicating the solemn belief that bad luck may befall more than just test-takers.) The bad luck can be dissipated by throwing a coin into the Fountain of the Four Seasons directly outside the door, but most students don’t want to risk it.

This site is co-sponsored by the ISU Alumni Association and the University Archives, ISU Library.



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