A different sort of Commencement

Book Nook Commencement, 1931. Herman B Wells, then an instructor in economics and sociology, sits on the stage to the left of the podium, in a white suit.
Book Nook Commencement, 1931. Herman B Wells, then an instructor in economics and sociology, sits on the stage to the left of the podium, in a white suit.

The Book Nook Commencement was a mock commencement ceremony that took place at the Book Nook, a popular student hangout in the 1920s located at Indiana and Kirkwood Avenue. A combination soda fountain and bookstore, the Book Nook was known for its music and the sometimes rowdy behavior of its customers. For many years the Book Nook played a significant role in Indiana University student culture. The 1924 Arbutus humorously makes this clear in their account of the University’s founding: “The university was founded on Foundation Day in the year 1820, by a band of pioneers who stopped their covered wagons in front of the Book Nook. Upon learning that it was Foundation Day and a holiday, the decided to celebrate and found a university. Where they found it no one knows.”

Notable IU alum musician and composer Hoagy Carmichael was a frequent patron, and it is said he composed his most famous songs, Stardust, at one of the Book Nook booths. In his autobiography, Sometimes I Wonder (1965), Carmichael described the Book Nook as, “a randy temple smelling of socks, wet slickers, vanilla flavoring, face powder, and unread books. Its dim lights, its scarred walls, its marked up booths, and unsteady tables made campus history.” (54) Herman B Wells described a slightly less raucous establishment in his autobiography, Being Lucky (1980): “since there was not yet a union building or its equivalent, extracurricular activities centered in a campus hangout known as the Book Nook, later called the Gables. In my day it was the hub of all student activity; here student political action was plotted, organizations were formed, ideas and theories were exchanged among students from various disciplines and from different sections of the campus. For most of this period the Book Nook was presided over by something of a genius, Peter Costas, a young Greek immigrant who transformed a campus hangout into a remarkably fertile cultural and political breeding place in the manner of the famous English coffee houses. All in all it was a lively, exhilarating place.”

The first Book Nook Commencement was held in 1927 for William Moenkhaus, a contemporary and friend of Carmichael. Moenkhaus was a leader of a group of students who called themselves the “Bent Eagles,” known to spend a lot of time at the Book Nook. Carmichael was also a member of the “Bent Eagles,”; others included Bix Beiderbecke (cornetist), “Wad” Allen, Charles Bud Dant, and Ed Wolfe. Moenkhaus was often referred to as the “poet of Indiana Avenue” and was known to perform Dada poetry. When Moenkhaus was denied his diploma due to his refusal to take a required course on hygiene, the owners of the Book Nook George and Peter Costas worked with the Bent Eagles to put together the mock commencement. The Book Nook Commencement was certainly infused with the spirit of Dada; Moenkhaus delivered his speech wearing a bathrobe and holding a dead fish. “President” Peter Costas handed out degrees from the “College of Arts and Appliances.”

The Book Nook Commencements were increasingly elaborate productions, involving a parade from fraternity house to the Nook, absurd speeches, music, the conferring of fake degrees and diplomas, and “noise” by the “Book Nook Symphony Orchestra,” and “additional noise” by the “Concert Ya Book Nook Orchestra.” Students arrived attired in cone shaped hats and bathrobes. Some of the nonsensical degrees handed out included: Master of Hearts, Doctor of Physique, Doctor of Yell, Vociferatissimus, and Lord Mare of Hearts, Eroticus, Cum Laude. During the last Book Nook Commencement, Herman B Wells, then an instructor in economics, was presented with the degree “Doctor of Nookology.” Four Book Nook Commencement ceremonies were held, three between 1927-1929, and the last in 1931. In 1930, the Depression caused many students to drop out, and the mock commencement was cancelled. Although it was revived the next year, soon after the 1931 commencement the Depression again put a stop to the production.

Book Nook Commencement, 1928
Book Nook Commencement, 1928

Santa Wells

Have you been by the Archives lately? Santa Wells is out and ready to greet you!

The long-standing tradition of IU President Herman B Wells donning a Santa suit seems to have begun in 1948 at the Association of Women Students Christmas Eve party. In its December 13, 1948 newsletter, the AWS teased, “Yes siree kids, here’s your one and only chance to see red-faced, jolly old Saint Nick himself. Laden with his bag of gifts, he will circulate through the holly bedecked building all evening to hand out free gifts to all good and lucky little coeds and eddies.” In announcing the party, the IDS reported that the true identity of Santa was a closely guarded secret and would only be revealed at the party.

Despite his costume, the IDS reported that most in the crowd recognized their beloved IU president immediately. If his appearance was not surprise enough, then his announced gift to the Union Board and Association of Women Students surely would have been – a new cabaret piano tied with a red ribbon.

In my research, I did not find anything on why this tradition began but word is Santa Wells became an eagerly-anticipated annual tradition. I am not certain what Wells wore that first year, but I do know he wrote the below to Colonel Robert Shoemaker, Dean of Students:

What? You can’t read Wells’ notoriously bad handwriting? How about his secretary’s interpretation:

Apparently they were able to make this happen, as the following year AWS Social Chairman D’Alice Coburn wrote President Wells a thank you for his repeat Santa performance, stating, “I hope the Santa suit was satisfactory…I feel quite sure you were the best dressed Santa in Bloomington.”


Herman B Wells biography

Please join us this Wednesday, April 18, from 5-6:30 in the Wells Library lobby to celebrate the release of Professor James Capshew’s Herman B Wells: The Promise of the American University.

Further information about the event can be found here. As mentioned in the press release, Dr. Capshew heavily utilized our collection for his research, so we have been asked to help with the event! If you visit the Wells Library lobby, you will see that we have already installed exhibits in both the East and West cases. The West case features a chronological exhibit of Dr. Wells, while the East case has “‘Thank God for Herman B Wells: Wells and the Student Touch,” highlighting the special relationship Dr. Wells had with students through the entirety of his career. In addition to photographs from our collection, we have also included selections from Wells’ presidential and chancellor’s records, speeches and writings, as well as oral histories from former students. Additionally, Archives intern Whitney Olthoff helped develop a looping slide show of Wells images for the lobby flat screens, posters for the pillars, and tent cards for the tables featuring Wells trivia!

He had an astounding memory, but additionally, he was phenomenally human. He had the capacity to share the moment with anybody, it seemed like.
-John Harrold, Class of 1961, in a 2008 oral history

Chancellor Wells speaking with member of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), 1969.

The reception is open to the public, so please join us for “Wells-themed” hors d’oeuvres (fried chicken! green beans! Dr. Wells’ favorite cake!) will be served. Copies of the biography will be available for purchase and Dr. Capshew will be on hand to sign them.

New Finding Aid: Newell and Eleanor Long Show files, 1939-1982

The finding aid for the Newell and Eleanor Long Show files is now available!  Newell Long was a music professor at Indiana University from 1935 to 1975 and his wife Eleanor taught English at IU from 1939 to 1962.  Together the couple wrote a number of musical pageants, plays, and skits for university and local events.  Newell Long would write the musical scores and Eleanor Long composed the scripts.  The collection includes general information on the shows, music, programs, and scripts.

Many of these shows were either Indiana or IU themed, including “All’s Wells That Ends Well,” a musical tribute to Herman B Wells upon his retirement as IU President in 1962.  The musical revue was performed by faculty and their spouses and included songs such as “The Might of the Humble B,” “Wells’ Belles,”  and “Be Yourself.” Other items you will find in the collection about “All’s Wells that Ends Wells” includes notes, musical scores, lyrics, scripts, and a newspaper article.

“Gloriana, Indiana,” a musical history of IU, was written by the Longs and presented to the University Club for the 150th anniversary of Indiana University.  Original songs include “Tomorrow is Foundation Day” and “Equality for Women.”  The show files also contain music for “Hymn to Indiana” and “Hail to Old IU.”

Among other shows featured in the collection are “The Cradle of the Commonwealth,” for the Corydon Sesquicentennial, “The Tale of the Lonesome Tulip Tree,” for the Tulip Trace Council of Girl Scouts, and “Never Underestimate the Power of a Woman,” for the University Club.