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Sesquicentennial Memories

Our Centennial Commencement

By Michael Smith ‘79

With the College’s Sesquicentennial Commencement upon us, it is a fine opportunity to look back upon the Commencement held fifty years ago, on the occasion of the one hundredth anniversary of the institution’s founding.

Festivities were launched at a special banquet held at the old Narragansett Hotel in Downtown Providence on May 3; tickets were sold for five dollars each. Lest this seem like a bargain, one must note that $5.00 in 1954 had the buying power of $34.83 in 2004 dollars. By way of comparison, tickets for the 2004 Sesquicentennial Commencement Gala are being sold for $30.

image: Frank BucciA special Centennial Convocation was held on the afternoon of Sunday, May 16 at Veterans Memorial Auditorium. After musical selections by the Rhode Island Philharmonic, greetings were offered by Governor Dennis J. Roberts, by the Chair of the Board of Trustees of State Colleges A. Livingston Kelley, and by President William C. Gaige. The Principal Address was given by Dr. Henry M. Wriston, President of Brown University from 1937-1955, who also received an honorary Doctor of Education degree at the convocation. Brown had been instrumental in the founding and in the early years of the Rhode Island Normal School.

Class Day was held on the afternoon of Friday, June 18 on the lawn of the State House. The ceremony was enlivened by the carrying of the traditional daisy chain by sophomores wearing white gowns. President Gaige addressed the class and awarded certificates to eight students – five seniors and three juniors -- being inducted into “Who’s Who Among Students at American Universities and Colleges.” The seniors were Joan P. Black, of North Providence; Frank A. Bucci, of Glocester; Joan M. Duval, of Manville; Mary T. McCauley, of Providence; and John Nazarian, of Pawtucket.

The program lists the following speakers: Lillian Santanello, as Class Historian; Allison Hiorns, who read the Class Ode; Barbara Motte, as Class President, presented the Address to the Graduates; Frank A. Bucci, as Student Council President, presented the Address to the Undergraduates; Barbara Finegan delivered the Class Oration; Donald Lyons read the Class Will; and Naomi Sousa delivered the Ivy Oration.

Commencement itself was held on Saturday, June 19, 1954 at Veterans Memorial Auditorium. Degrees were awarded to 178 individuals; Bachelor of Education degrees were conferred upon 19 in the English-Social Studies Curriculum, 12 in the Mathematics-Science Curriculum, 62 in the Elementary Curriculum, 22 in the Kindergarten-Primary Curriculum, 3 in Vocational-Industrial Education, and to 30 Teachers-in-Service. In addition, 30 Master of Education degrees were awarded.

The Commencement Address was given by Judge Harold R. Medina of the United States Court of Appeals, 2nd Circuit (New York City). While noting that the support of sectarian religion or religious teachings in the classroom would be troublesome, Judge Medina did promote the teaching of such values as good will, justice, and freedom, which he characterized as values held by many religions.

Greetings were delivered by Governor Dennis J. Roberts and by Dr. Michael F. Walsh, Commissioner of Education. In his remarks, President Gaige reported that all of the graduates had obtained teaching positions for the fall.

The day was sunny and warm, with a high of 83 degrees and a low of 53 degrees, as reported by the US Weather Bureau in Hillsgrove.

The world of a half century ago was so different, yet so much seems familiar. On Commencement weekend 1954, The Providence Journal and Providence Sunday Journal offered the following glimpse of the world into which our Centennial class had just graduated:


  • Five American advisors to French forces fighting in Indochina were reported missing and presumed dead.


  • The Army-McCarthy hearings had just concluded and debate over the hearings dominated national discourse.


  • State Republicans were talking up Walter I. Sundlun as a potential opponent to Senator Theodore Francis Green in the November elections.
  • The first test piles were being readied for driving into the Providence River to support the new Providence River Bridge.
  • New England Telephone announced that a switchover to dial telephones would be possible for residents in the East Providence and Seekonk exchanges two years hence – in 1956.


  • The Dow closed on an up note at Friday’s bell and stood at 327.19.


  • With a 6-3 win over the league-leading Cleveland Indians, the Boston Red Sox climbed out of the American League cellar. The Sox were one game out of last place in the 8-team league, 19 1⁄2 games out of first and a game ahead of the Baltimore Orioles.
  • Manny Almedia, Providence boxing impresario, had made an offer to promote the next Rocky Marciano heavyweight title defense in Rhode Island.


  • Playing at local theatres: “The Best Years of Our Lives” at the Elmwood and the Park; “Cease Fire” at the Somerset Drive-In; and “Demetrius & the Gladiators” at the RKO Albee.


  • WJAR Channel 10 was the only TV station that most people could receive. Those with outdoor antennas might be able to receive a snowy signal from WBZ Channel 4 in Boston. Broadcast hours were from 8:30 am to 12:45 am.
  • Three major all-day radio stations broadcast in the Providence area: WEAN, WJAR, and WPRO. Their licenses permitted broadcasting from 6:00 am to midnight. Other local radio stations were limited to broadcasting during daytime hours only.


  • Many Downtown Providence stores, except the major department stores, reported that they were now open on Mondays “for the convenience of the shoppers.”

The author gratefully acknowledges Marlene Lopes, Special Collections Librarian, for her assistance with research for the Sesquicentennial Memories series. Much of the information for this article is available from the College Archives. Other information was taken from articles published by The Providence Journal on June 19 and June 20, 1954, and available on microfilm at Adams Library.

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