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What's Old Is New Again: Dickinson College Re-imagines Charter Day for 2020

Dickinson Charter Day celebrations went virtual in 2020. Photo illustration by Neil Mills and MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson.

Celebration goes virtual for 2020 Charter Day

by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson

When Dickinson's charter was enacted 237 years ago, no one could have imagined the way that Dickinsonians marked this year's anniversary of that big day.

Every year on Sept. 9, Dickinsonians gather on campus to celebrate Charter Day and honor the college’s history, and in recent years, alumni in several cities joined in the fun through local get-togethers. This fall, as classes resume online because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Dickinson brought the whole event online for all to enjoy.  

The event included a virtual scavenger hunt and group exploration of some of the world’s great museums and a webinar on the college’s early history by College Archivist Jim Gerencser ’93. The 86 Dickinsonians who tuned in to the Tuesday-afternoon webinar heard interesting and sometimes colorful anecdotes about the founding, the curriculum, student life, the first graduation and more.

Some fun facts they learned:

  • An early name under consideration for the college was “John and Mary’s College Over the Susquehanna”—a mouthful that paid tribute to both John and Mary Dickinson and the mighty Susquehanna River.
  • Initially, there were only two professors at Dickinson—and one was the author of a book of nursery-rhyme-like verse about geography that his students reportedly disliked.
  • Early fundraising efforts included a lottery that also benefitted the Pennsylvania state house in Philadelphia.
  • The first person appointed as president turned down the position—only to come back later and serve in that position until his death.

The biggest reveal arrived when Gerencser produced the 237-year-old document that started it all. From his office in Dickinson's Archives & Special Collections, Gerencser held the original charter up for several seconds so Dickinsonians around the world could admire the two-century-old, handwritten document in real time.

We imagine the first graduating class of Dickinson would be amazed by that 21st-century technology and by the three new Dickinson Zoom backgrounds the college unveiled to help Dickinsonians fly their Dickinson flag all year long. But some things never change, said Liz Glynn Toth '06, director of alumni relations.

"The college continues to thrive because of our proud and loyal community members who support and care about the Dickinson experience," she wrote, in a Charter Day email to the Dickinson community. "As we mark Charter Day, we are grateful for the strength of our Dickinson community."

To learn more about Dickinson history, check out the History of the College page

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Published September 9, 2020