Inside Mizzou Podcast:
Tradition, Ep. 2
From Homecoming to Tap Day, blues music to barbeque, traditions at Mizzou and across Missouri honor the history, cultures and celebrations of their communities.
Joining Chancellor Cartwright this week are Mizzou alumni Lisa Higgins, director of the Missouri Folk Arts Program, and RJ Platto, senior designer in the Joint Office of Strategic Communication and Marketing, to discuss some of Mizzou’s most well-known traditions. They’ll also explore how traditions can shape the individual experience and forge bonds that are timeless.
Moderator: [00:00:09] From the classroom to the cornfield, journalism to SEC athletics, the University of Missouri works 52 weeks a year, every year. This is Inside Mizzou — real stories, real discoveries, and real impact of the Mizzou community. Today’s episode is called, “Tradition.” Joining Chancellor Cartwright is Mizzou alum RJ Patto, senior designer in the Joint office of Strategic Communication and Marketing, and Lisa Higgins, the director of the Missouri Folk Arts Program. Thank you all for being here today. Tradition is an especially important part of the Mizzou experience, as old as the university itself. In 1911, Mizzou held the country’s first Homecoming event. A few years later, in 1927, the tradition of Tap Day was established, honoring exceptional service-minded students who were initiated into one of the university’s six secret societies. Other traditions include Tiger Walk, yelling “I love Mizzou!” in speaker circle and not whispering while you walk under the J-School archway, where legend has it that many years ago the J-School dean overheard two students bragging about cheating on a test and subsequently failed them.
Moderator: [00:01:25] Chancellor Cartwright, why is tradition so important to Mizzou and the campus experience?
Chancellor Cartwright: [00:01:31] You know, tradition is important to all of us. If you think about what traditions tend to do, they tend to connect us to one another. We have a shared experience that we can talk to each other about, and others may not know exactly what we’re talking about, but we then feel much more connected as part of a family. I think what’s important, too, about Mizzou, specifically, is that we have so many different traditions that there’s some tradition that every one of us can connect with and, I think, have those experiences with one another that will allow us to have a lifetime of memories about our time at Mizzou.
Moderator: [00:02:09] RJ, what about you? Why do you think tradition is so important to Mizzou and the campus experience?
RJ Platto: [00:02:15] Well, for me personally it had a tremendous effect on what I call Mizzou is my hometown. I’ve been in Columbia ever since I was three, so technically I’ve grown up here and lived here all my life. When I went to Mizzou, you know, and like what I did and my profession, it was kind of scary because graphic design kind of makes you think, “Oh, I need to go to a big city.” So, I made it my goal to stay here because I had such a tremendous connection with Mizzou as well as my wife. She’s also a Mizzou graduate. So, the idea of having a connection with someone you don’t even know who is from a different state makes you very proud to be part of Mizzou and the traditions that it has.
Moderator: [00:03:05] So, we’ve talked a lot about traditions and how they’ve influenced campus experience. Lisa, you’ve spent 19 years as the director of the Missouri Folk Arts Program. Right?
Lisa Higgins: [00:03:16] Right.
Moderator: [00:03:17] So, can you tell us a little bit more about how these traditions kind of form within these certain communities or in these different communities?
Lisa Higgins: [00:03:25] Sure. Any community — and that is small groups and one of the ways we define folklore. One of our scholars, Dan Ben-Amos, says, “Just artistic expression in small groups.” Artistic covers a lot of things. It could be jokes and pranks, it could be language, the way people dress, the way people dance, the step dancers in the black fraternities and sororities, for instance. You know, we have these official traditions that we recognize on campus now, but we also — there are a lot of communities. I was not an undergrad here at MU, but I was a graduate student. In fact, I was an intern at the Missouri Folk arts Program before I became the director later. And in the English Department, the grad students, we had a lot of our own traditions that helped bond us together in our studies and a little bit in our misery, you know — trying to get through comps and those sort of things. We would have Halloween parties every year and dress up as dead authors and scholars. So, there’s that sort of thing. But then in this state, or even in the country, any community — even within our state there are smaller regional groups. So, down in the Ozarks there’s a fishing tradition where they hand forge gigs, and they still make some of the Jon boats by hand out of wood, and they go out in the middle of the night in the winter and kill fish and have a fish fry on the gravel bar. So, that’s, you know, an example of a regional tradition within a community that’s still practicing, maybe not as widely as it was before because you can buy an aluminum Jon boat a lot quicker than you can make a wooden one, for instance. We have a lot of music traditions. There’s no coincidence that St. Louis Blues hockey — you know, the blues came first, and actually it was a little bit of a mini-great migration from Mississippi. A lot of people know about blues moving from Mississippi to Chicago, but it also moved from Mississippi a little bit from the Bootheel up to St. Louis, so we have our own blues tradition there, too.
Moderator: [00:05:27] Yeah, kind of going more into that: Are there anymore traditions that are so specific to the state of Missouri?
Lisa Higgins: [00:05:35] Well, similarly to blues then with jazz. I mean, I think Kansas City — everybody recognizes that Kansas City is a jazz place. We had the great privilege to know a guy named, Alaadeen. His birth name was Sonny White, and he grew up in Kansas City in the little jazz district where people would hang out on the street corners and the porches and play together. He would always say New Orleans, you know, that jazz was born in New Orleans, but in Kansas City they put long pants on it. In other words, it grew up in Kansas City. It got refined, it got cool in Kansas City. So, that’s another one, yeah.
Moderator: [00:06:14] Now just bringing it back to the whole group: Why is tradition so important to universities and to campus climate and kind of establishing that community?
RJ Platto: [00:06:25] Well, I would say that I just have a strong connection with the Mizzou community as well as my professors. And I think when you create a strong connection with the academic place that you grew and had known to love, it’s that much more convincing when you talk to younger siblings or friends or family or just acquaintances if you’re talking about, “Hey, where did you go to school?” And maybe it’s somebody that you were talking to in another state that you’re working with, and they have kids that are like, “Oh we’re looking for a really good journalism school.” That might be, you know, the opportunity for someone to say, “Hey, there’s a school in Missouri. They’re topnotch in journalism.” So, having that connection and having those traditions can really affect and influence those alumni to spread the word and bring students to the university.
Chancellor Cartwright: [00:07:24] I think RJ covered a lot of it really well. I think the big thing with tradition is that it is something that does tie us together around a place or events, and it connects us in ways that are similar to what we do in our family units, right. It’s that we typically have some traditions. We’re going to eat spaghetti on one night or do something else for a night, watch a movie. Those are things that are small things but really meaningful to the family unit and bring us closer together. And we have a lot of affection tied to some of those traditions. You know, it’s very very hard not to smile and respond when someone yells, M-I-Z.
RJ Platto: [00:08:08] Z-O-U.
Chancellor Cartwright: [00:08:11] Exactly. It’s a natural reflex. And you see that throughout wherever you go, right. You go into airports — if I have something that has any indication of Mizzou, someone will yell it. And you have to be ready to respond, and there’s smiles usually afterwards. So, it’s one of those uplifting memories because you come back to that place you were. And I think that’s the biggest thing is just having that opportunity to connect with other people that may not have even been at the institution when you were there, but you have that shared experience, and anytime you meet each other in the future you’ll have some common place, some common language that you can talk to each other about that’s beyond whatever else you need to be discussing with individuals. So, I think that’s really what these traditions do for us.
Moderator: [00:09:01] Building upon that, why is it so important to understand and participate in these traditions?
Lisa Higgins: [00:09:08] I think we’ve all hit on the fact that it’s a bonding experience, that you have a community or you have communities. And you talked about family — that’s a really great example. I think that metaphor for the university is a good one. Even our religious communities have folk traditions, even though they may have been, you know, codified long ago in hymn books and other things, right. But we have some things that we still do that go back for generations. You’d mentioned food also. Food is such a cool way to talk about tradition. You know, we folklorists like to talk about: What do you eat at Thanksgiving? How do you make your dressing, or do you call it stuffing?
Everyone: [00:09:52] (Laughter)
Lisa Higgins: [00:09:52] You know those kinds of things are what bonds a family. I think the same thing happens.
Chancellor Cartwright: [00:09:58] You know, for me, it’s the social aspect of it, the opportunity to go out and do something different than what you’re doing in the classroom. When we’re talking about a higher education institution, we’re here to educate people, and we tend to focus predominantly on that. But a big part of education is feeling comfortable. A big part of education is feeling that this is your place, this is your home. And students will be much more successful if they feel at home and if they feel welcome in that community. And I think that’s one of the things, too, that we see with traditions is that it’s an opening for you to get more involved with the community, for you to see this as your place and actually to put your mark on those traditions because each time that you participate in a tradition it gives you that opportunity to rethink what that tradition is about and how you might be able to change it. You’re still honoring all the things that have happened in the past, but you’re also putting your mark on that tradition. And I think that’s what’s great about traditions is that people become much more connected. They’re much more comfortable. They then will perform much better academically because they feel that they’re at home.
Moderator: [00:11:12] In conclusion or just to round out this episode, what is one of your favorite Mizzou traditions and why?
RJ Platto: [00:11:20] That is a hard question. I always go to the M-I-Z because, I mean, I know it’s just such a simple tradition, but that tradition crosses so many barriers in terms of — just any type of barrier. Generational barriers, barriers of people across the country. I mean, if you knew a Mizzou alumni — like, I don’t know, Jon Hamm. I’m sure if you said, “M-I-Z,” to Jon Hamm, then he’d reply, “Z-O-U.”
Moderator: [00:11:49] I have heard from a friend that he did reply when she said, “M-I-Z.” He said, “Z-O-U.”
RJ Platto: [00:11:56] Like Chancellor Cartwright said it’s a reflex, you know. I really do like that one a lot just because of how simple it is. And so many people can participate in that. I will say, though, I do like the Tiger Stripe ice cream after the Tiger Walk. That was very rewarding. I was like: Alright, so if I’m going to walk through the Columns, am I getting free ice cream every time?
Everyone: [00:12:20] (Laughter)
RJ Platto: [00:12:20] But I soon realized that I had to go buy my own. Anyway, I digress. No, I think if I had to choose one, it would be M-I-Z. Because it’s just so, so simple, and it crosses over so many different barriers.
Lisa Higgins: [00:12:34] I’ve come to — I was in marching band and concert band in high school and didn’t continue that. So, I marched in a lot of parades. I’ve started going down — I can walk to downtown pretty easily and walk over and watch the parade. Now, I’m a folklorist. So, I have to be a people watcher. And I keep an eye out for those artistic expression. So, it might just be what people are wearing or how they get their black and gold on, but also the pomp.
Moderator: [00:13:02] Pomp and circumstance?
Lisa Higgins: [00:13:03] No, not the pomp and circumstance. In the house decks and the floats where that — is that?
Moderator: [00:13:08] Oh, pomping.
Lisa Higgins: [00:13:09] Pomping, thank you. See, I was not in a sorority. But that’s an artistic expression in a small group. And to see the way they have interpreted the themes and that they’ve come up with the ideas and that’s also another thing that, you know, your big sister or your big brothers or whatever are teaching you how to do this. So, I always like to go and check that out.
Chancellor Cartwright: [00:13:30] Well, certainly M-I-Z is hard to top. That is one that I think we all connect with. But there are a lot of traditions, and there are things, you know, that I think we want to even do more of. My wife was in marching band at Iowa, and of course she loves the Marching Mizzou here. And one of the things that I think we try to do is at least walk down by the band at the football games to see. Because they are very committed to what they’re doing. And having them at the game itself is a tradition and making sure that they keep things exciting and they keep people engaged. Being able to work with them and see what they’re doing for our institution is great. You know, one thing we haven’t talked about from a tradition viewpoint — it’s not a tradition that you participate in it but many people don’t think about how they participate in it — but there’s a tremendous tradition at Mizzou in terms of supporting this institution philanthropically. We announced last week that we had some of our largest cash donations and that we passed $1 billion in our campaign. This is something that you don’t see at a lot of other institutions. We have a group of people who are really devoted to supporting this institution — to supporting the students, to supporting work, great work that’s going on. And I think that’s a tradition that I see that’s not just for Mizzou, but I think it’s a Missourian thing. Missouri is incredibly supportive of people in general and wants to be able to have the best institutions and the best opportunities for the people of this great state. So, I think acknowledging how much people are doing philanthropically in this state and how much they embrace it and feel that it’s part of what they should be doing. Again, I think for many people it’s not that they’re thinking about whether I should do it or not; it’s almost a reflex for some of them that they’re helping with these different activities.
Moderator: [00:15:35] Thank you all for being here today. One more thing, though, before we leave. What do you call a group of unorganized cats? A catastrophe!
Everyone: [00:15:54] (Laughter)
Moderator: [00:15:54] Our audio engineer is Aaron Hay. Our featured music is “Forest Park Rhapsody,” composed by MU undergraduate and music composition major, Ben Colagiovanni. You can find more information about Ben and his piece on the Inside Mizzou webpage. Make sure to join us next time, and keep an eye out for the chancellor’s newsletter to stay on top of what’s happening at Mizzou. Thanks for joining us on this episode of Inside Mizzou. See you around the columns!