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Every Middlebury graduate receives a replica of Gamaliel Painter's cane, hand-crafted by a Vermont artisan.

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Painter's Cane: The Story Behind a Middlebury Tradition [video]

May 23, 2016



MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – Each year as Middlebury graduates cross the commencement stage, they pick up a diploma, of course, but they also receive an unusual keepsake – a finely crafted replica of Gamaliel Painter’s cane, presented by the president of the Middlebury College Alumni Association. The cane tradition, introduced by President John McCardell in 1995, has revitalized a Middlebury symbol that dates back to the founding of the College in 1800.

In a new video, history professor Jim Ralph, a member of the class of 1982, tells the story of Gamaliel Painter, a founder of both the town of Middlebury and the College, who left a major bequest to the College when he died. He also left his cane, a symbol of strength and authority, as a legacy for future generations.

As a symbol, the cane has gone in and out of campus consciousness over the past two centuries – quite popular in the early 20th century and all but forgotten during the social revolutions of the 1960s and 70s. The original cane, which resides in the president’s office, is passed around to newly arrived freshmen at their convocation in Mead Chapel. It also serves as the institutional “mace” at official College events. By the time graduation rolls around, most of the students have learned the rollicking cane song from the early 1900s. 

With rare archival footage of Middlebury cane traditions from the past as well as a short segment about the Vermont craftsman who makes the replicas in nearby Hinesburg, the video sheds new light on an old and beloved story.

2 Comments

Wow, great history on the cane. I recall taking part in a run of the cane in Connecticut many years ago. So being a summer language school graduate, we were not honored with a cane, so being able to hold it on the run was special. But I fear for it's future because the Ash tree in New England is being decimated by the ash borer, so I hope it can continue with another form of local wood.

by Terri Wilson MA '85 (not verified)

I live in Germany and went back to Middlebury to be part of the 50th reunion. Back in 1966 the graduates were not awarded a cane but the reunion committee made up for this and we even got one with a special plaque commemorating the 50th reunion and a gold ribbon. On the flight back to Germany this white-bearded chap (me) was standing in line waiting for boarding, leaning on his cane. At the end of pre-boarding (for those with children and/or who need assistance) the flight attendant offerd me pre-boarding. I said that I did not need assistance but she answered, "No, but you certainly will need a little longer." So I obliged and hobbled aboard. So let it be known, for you Seniors among us who have a cane: take it with you on flights

by Steve Perry '66 (not verified)

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