Annual Homecoming celebration goes online, reprising traditional rites and adding fresh activities

How’s this for contrast? Last year’s bicentennial Homecoming celebration brought a record 6,000 visitors to campus for a weekend of gleeful feats and fetes. Crowds mingled all over ­— at food trucks, in campus buildings, at Sabine Field for the football game against rival Coast Guard (oh, what a finish).

Because of the coronavirus pandemic and Vermont Health Department guidelines, this year’s Homecoming will have neither crowds, nor in-person banquets or spectator sports. Zero visitors.

But there will still be a chock-full events schedule ­— including a brand-new athletic competition — broadcast online for anyone with a broadband connection and a taste for tradition to enjoy.

“We’re taking pieces of Homecoming that people relate with … and always enjoy seeing when they’re on campus and we’re going to broadcast that so they can watch it at home.” Eddie Habeck, director, Norwich University Alumni and Family Relations

This year’s Homecoming, dubbed “From the Hill to Your Home,” started Thursday and continues through Saturday. Alumni and Family Relations Director Eddie Habeck and Associate Vice President of Alumni and Family Relations Diane Scolaro had hoped for a traditional campus-filling event, planning one through June.

But with the coronavirus unvanquished, everyone, and everything shifted.

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The Regimental Band will celebrate its bicentennial by playing a concert that will be broadcast as part of the 2020 virtual Homecoming celebration. (Photo by Mark Collier.)

“It became clear COVID-19 would be hanging out for a while,” Scolaro said. “We got a bit of a late start on (planning), but we were fortunate to have peers around the country that were in the same boat.”

Habeck and Scolaro talked with colleagues from other universities and saw two approaches for COVID-19-adjusted reunions — moving everything to 2021 or creating online stand-ins for the fall.

They decided to try both.

“We recognized just how important Homecoming is to the entire Norwich family,” Habeck said. “And not everything can be accommodated online.”

So the fifth-year reunion classes, which this year end in zero and five (e.g., 1970 and 1975) will be invited to campus next year to celebrate the with class years ending in one and six. Everything else would go online, but Scolaro said it was important to create something more dynamic than a string of Zoom meetings.

“We’re pretty proud of what we pulled off last year; it was probably the most exciting Homecoming Norwich has ever hosted,” Scolaro said. “So, our goal this year was to do the same thing, only in a virtual format.

“We wanted to incorporate as many traditional aspects of Homecoming as we could that lent themselves to being part of a virtual experience,” she added. “But we found … that there are some things that were made for TV.”

Tuning in

Enter NUTV, which will be broadcast for two hours on Friday and for three hours Saturday on the Norwich Alumni and Family Office’s norwich.edu webpage and Facebook.

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Norwich University Alumni and Family Relations Director Eddie Habeck and the Alden Partridge mascot settle in to watch NUTV. (Screenshot from video by Ronny DeMasi.)

“We’re taking pieces of Homecoming that people relate with … and always enjoy seeing when they’re on campus and we’re going to broadcast that so they can watch it at home,” Habeck said.

For example, the Corps of Cadets’ traditional Review with Retreat, a Shock Platoon demonstration and the Regimental Band’s bicentennial concert will be broadcast. (This performance, marking the band’s bicentennial, is separate from the March concert at Carnegie Hall that marked the university’s bicentennial.)

For sports, Norwich Executive Vice President David Whaley hatched the idea of an obstacle course involving fall sports athletes, whose seasons the pandemic had scrapped.

The Semper Fidelis Society, which usually delivers the fall Levy Challenge obstacle course competition, also erased by COVID-19, offered to help organize the new competition, dubbed the Grit Games.

The Grit Games, featuring cross country, football, rugby, soccer and volleyball athletes will be broadcast at noon Saturday.

If alums would rather participate in athletics than watch, they can run a virtual 5-kilometer race or join the Corps of Cadets for morning physical training, broadcast from the Upper Parade Ground. (If it rains — forecasts call for a 20% chance — the cadets will get wet but alums at home won’t.)

New possibilities

Scolaro said the online format opened new Homecoming possibilities. For example, Homecomings had forgone reading of the Roll of Honor, the list of alumni who’d died between Homecomings, in favor of a moment of silence. The list had lengthened as class sizes increased, lengthening standing time painfully for some older alumni.

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Regimental Commander Caleb Miller ’21 will lead an all-classes trivia competition as part of 2020’s virtual Homecoming celebration. (Image courtesy Corps of Cadets via Facebook.)

This year, though, Whaley took the list, and a camera crew, to the Norwich campus graveyard and read it in full. The roll reading and the Sept. 12 ceremony that renamed North Hall as Schneider Hall in honor of President Emeritus Richard W. Schneider will be broadcast. (Coronavirus-related health guidelines had limited the renaming ceremony live audience).

Virtual meetings, including a wine and cheese tasting, a Pints with the President cocktail hour with President Mark C. Anarumo and a trivia challenge led by Regimental Commander Caleb Miller ’21 will complement NUTV.

Habeck said although alumni have told him that they’ll miss being on campus, they’ve supported the changes, some of which may be adopted in future years.

“This is a learning opportunity,” Habeck added. “The goal always is to engage … and connect our alumni. And by doing these virtual pieces, it’s broadening our audience. I have hopes that this year, with all that we’re doing, we might connect with people that have never been to a Norwich Homecoming before. Maybe they’re stationed overseas, maybe they’re living (internationally).

“Sharing all of what we are sharing may inspire many people to say, ‘Hey, I want to be there next year. I need to be there for my next fifth-year reunion.’”

For the complete 2020 Homecoming schedule, click here. 

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