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Speeches & Media

The Joys of Mountain Day

Beloved tradition reminds us of the bonds we share 

Kathleen McCartney, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Winter 2017

I often joke that there are few decisions the Smith College president makes entirely on her own, given the strong tradition of shared governance. A happy exception is determining when to ring the bells for Mountain Day. Not surprisingly, perhaps, given the importance of this cherished tradition, many people try to influence my decision. Early in the semester, students offer general advice: Please not too early, please not too late, and Don’t choose a Friday because I don’t have any classes on Friday. Then the pleas get more specific: Please don’t choose next Tuesday because I will be away at a conference or Not this Monday because I have a seminar at Mount Holyoke. The athletics teams are careful to let me know when they will have an away game, which is often, given the number of teams. Even the professors play the influence game; this fall, two faculty members let me know when they had scheduled guest lecturers!

If I wait too long to call Mountain Day, there is some grumbling, but not from students in the Quad houses. They prefer I wait until they “riot,” a relatively new tradition, I’m told. When I hear a crowd of students roaring down my driveway, I flick the hall lights off and on a few times so they know they have my attention. Screaming and blaring horns, they increase the volume as I step out on the balcony and pretend not to understand them. What are you saying? I ask, as they yell, We want Mountain Day! Sometimes they come armed with water guns.

This year, I had some added pressure to choose the right day. A student had posted on Twitter that two professors—Nathan Derr of biological sciences and Shannon Audley of education and child study—were planning to be married in a pop-up-style wedding on Mountain Day. I emailed Nate, and he confirmed that the tweet was true, so I promised I would choose a good day. The sun was shining brightly when Shannon and Nathan were married by Professor Emeritus Thomas Derr, father of the groom, in the garden behind the President’s House, surrounded by a crowd of family, friends and community members who had been alerted to the ceremony as soon as the bells rang. I attended the wedding, of course, and was moved by the sentiment that had led them to allow the Smith College president to select their wedding day. In the years ahead, they plan to celebrate their anniversary on the random Mountain Day of that year—not on October 2, the date of Mountain Day 2017. That means I will have the pleasure of choosing their anniversary for the next few years.

So why have I chosen to write about Mountain Day? Because traditions carry a universal sense of importance for communities like ours. Mountain Day connects us in a joyous, shared experience. The social customs associated with Mountain Day may evolve; however, the meaning of this day is carried forward with each generation of Smithies. Mountain Day is a gift from the president to the students, and the gift carries with it many cherished values, especially a love of nature, which grounds us, and friendships, which sustain us.

Year after year, the response is immediate to my emailed Mountain Day announcement to alumnae around the world. A member of the class of 1971 wrote to say that she used one of her Mountain Days as an undergraduate to visit Sophia Smith’s grave in Hatfield to make a gravestone rubbing for her art history class. This year, I heard about the Mountain Day Ramble, celebrated by alumnae in Singapore; instead of climbing Mount Tom, they climbed Bukit Timah. Alumnae from many Smith clubs gather after work to share a glass of wine and a few Smith stories. For one alumna from the class of ’88, Mountain Day is a family affair. She chooses a beautiful day, wakes up her three children and takes them on a hike—no school on their family’s Mountain Day. This year, her daughter, a first-year student at Smith, got to experience Mountain Day on the Smith campus for the first time.

I have added my own special touch to Mountain Day by inviting students to begin their day with cider doughnuts at 9 a.m. in front of the President’s House. This year, some students arrived in pajamas and others in flannel shirts, perhaps the start of another tradition. Several athletic teams came as a group in their gear. Over time, attendance has grown at this breakfast of sorts, and so has the doughnut demand. We served 45 dozen in the first 20 minutes! Members of my team scrambled for more at a local supermarket, as I posed for selfies with the students, another new tradition. I will be sure to triple my doughnut order next year. Near the end of the hour, four students introduced me to a “prospie,” a prospective student, who seemed delighted that she was catching a glimpse of what is special about Smith. I have a feeling I will see her next fall.