Editor’s note: As homecoming returns to the University of Montana’s campus this weekend, the Kaimin looked back at its archives and the University’s former yearbook, “The Sentinel,” to see how the yearly tradition started. The photos seen in this issue are scanned by photographer Nate Sanchez from past issues of the Kaimin and The Sentinel. The Kaimin also asked alums their thoughts on homecoming, and looked ahead to the full return of this year’s celebration after two years of limitations during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Homecoming started at the University of Montana in 1919 when several graduates, professors and undergrads at a Missoula mortgage company peered through a window onto Missoula’s brick-cobbled downtown streets, according to a Nov. 25, 1919, issue of the Montana Kaimin.

They watched from their office as students, pedestrians and soldiers returning from World War I walked along Higgins Street. Scars of war bled into day-to-day life. More than 400 new enrollees, many of them veterans, swelled the University. Tent cities lined the south side of campus for some time upon their return. The overflow was too much for the sparse dormitories. 

UM planted Memorial Way, which still stands north of Main Hall, where 32 ponderosa pine trees mark the death of each UM student killed while enlisted in World War I. 

The University also lost students from the Spanish Flu, with later estimates of an infection rate of one-in-four Missoulians. The virus killed more than 100 people in Missoula.

Between the losses from the war and the flu outbreak, the mood in Missoula was bleak. 

But the students at Forbis-Toole, the mortgage company, helped to turn things around with a suggestion.

“Why not have a Homecoming day at the ‘U’ this year, and get all the former students to come back for a couple of days?” they told the Kaimin.

With the war over, hundreds of students set in motion the first mass return of alumni who used to call campus home. 

By the end of the first homecoming, students established traditions like the parade and lighting the “M.” Other traditions have ebbed and flowed over the years to form the four-day homecoming week UM is familiar with today. 

Since the first homecoming, it’s become a time for reconnection and celebration of the University, according to Bill Johnston, a UM graduate from Libby, Montana. Johnston graduated from UM in 1979. In 1975, he went to his first homecoming. 

Most of homecoming centered around the football game. In 1975, the game was at the team’s old stadium by the track and field. Johnston remembered the old bleachers would sway with the wind and left a green residue on people’s pants. 

“You could always tell who went to the football game based on the green stuff they sprayed on the field and the bleachers,” Johnston recalled. “Everyone just kinda looked green.”

Since his first homecoming, Johnston said he has not missed the chance to reunite with his college friends and old professors. He’s worked at UM in the admissions office, and was the executive director of UM’s alumni association. He retired in 2016, and will receive the distinguished alumni award at the 2022 homecoming during the football game Saturday. 

“There’s nowhere else I can see the people I was around each day,” he said. “There’s different people, different reunions. It’s a time to reconnect with friends, family and faculty, and you get to see how campus has changed since you left.”

In over 100 years, UM’s homecoming has only been canceled three times: Twice during World War II and once for the COVID-19 pandemic. Some years, however, missed classic homecoming traditions, like singing on the steps, the lighting of the “M” and even the parade. This year, the homecoming parade will return for the first time since 2019. 

The first HOCO

When the original organizers of homecoming looked out the window of Forbis-Toole and hatched their plans, they decided they wanted to bring UM alums back to campus to celebrate veterans coming back from the war. The students were unhappy with the lack of celebration at the University, and brought the plans to the city’s chamber of commerce in 1919.

Edward Elliot, UM’s chancellor, then the head of the University, was in the audience at the chamber of commerce. He approved their plans eagerly. Within a week, faculty and students sent letters to each past member of the University. Dean Arthur Stone, head of the journalism school, made the call for students to return. 

“The spirit of Montana is not one that should flash only temporarily and for weeks lie dormant,” Stone said at the journalism school’s 1919 convocation. “Rather it is a spirit that is vibrant 365 days of the year — one that sends a ‘squiggle’ running up and down your spinal column … Manifest that spirit we know you have — make it so apparent that the visitors will feel homesick for the old days again.”

The freshman class did most of the legwork for the first homecoming. The students held the event on Thanksgiving Day in 1919.

Freshmen created the first lighted “M” by sticking fuses into the side of the white-painted rock letter. Dozens volunteered to staff the football games and parties. 

Every student was expected to be part of the homecoming parade. The Kaimin estimated roughly 600 guests convened in Missoula the day before homecoming. At the time, 1,200 students were enrolled at UM and 12,000 people lived in Missoula.

The entire day centered on the Griz football game against Washington State University.

By all accounts, UM’s first homecoming was a success, although Washington State crushed the Griz in football. A couple even held their wedding on campus after the game. Since then, different variations of homecoming have come to Missoula in the fall each year. 

Ups and downs

Some homecomings at UM since 1919 have included musical guests like the jazz Dave Brubeck Quartet and flamenco guitarist Carlos Montoya. Others had dances hosted on campus and by Greek life. 

But other years, namely the early 1970s, according to UM alum Michael Higgs, had little to do with the spirit of reunion that the first homecoming emphasized.

“The whole thing was basically just the football game,” Higgs said. 

Higgs moved to Missoula from Michigan. He was a member of the Black Student Union, Phi Delta Theta, and later was on the alumni board of directors. Higgs said he fell in love with Missoula the first time he landed at the airport in 1972. 

“I was like, ‘Whoa, this is the place to be,’” Higgs said. 

During his first fall, however, Higgs said people weren’t as excited about the yell night or parade that usually happened during homecoming. While Higgs said there was a lack of homecoming traditions during his UM undergrad, he returned one year in the 1980s to see a revival on campus.

He heard some UM graduates had resurrected or adapted many of the traditions into the Griz pep rally on the Oval and UM’s welcome walk in the 1980s.

Higgs soon became a regular homecoming attendee. He said his favorite homecoming was in 1999, the first one he shared with his family.

“I got to bring my wife and my son to Missoula for the first time,” Higgs said. “They got to meet people I had known for 30 years by then.”

In 2006, Michael Higgs’ son, Mike Higgs, enrolled at UM. Mike Higgs played on the Griz football team. Michael Higgs thought his son would enroll at a state school in the Midwest, so he said it was an amazing surprise to learn his son would go to his alma mater. 

Both Michael Higgs and Johnston plan to be at this year’s homecoming.

This year, homecoming traditions like the Hello Walk happened this week on Wednesday. On Thursday there will be a “Hall Brawl” homecoming dance at 7 p.m. in Schreiber Gym. On Friday at 8 p.m., the Forestry School will set a bonfire in the Oval to light the “Yell Night Pep Rally.” The Grizzly Marching band will play while the UM advocates light the “M” using flashlights. 

At 10 a.m. Saturday morning, the alumni-led homecoming parade, with the theme “Might of Montana,” will start near Sentinel High School, move east on South Avenue and conclude at South Campus.  

Finally, the Griz football team will take on Portland State at 2 p.m. on Sept. 24. But the informal meet-ups, tailgates and reconnections will continue through the night. 

“Soak it all in,” Higgs advised current students. “I look back on my student years, and we didn’t even bother. Go to the activities, meet alums. See people who have made a difference for the community. It’s a lot of fun and a huge memory for me now.”