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History of the Founder’s Medal for Oratory

Founder’s Day Medal for Oratory:
 Glory Days to Cast Aways

Established at the same time and with the same endowment fund as were the Founder’s Department Medals (now the Founder’s Medals for First Honors), the Founder’s Day Medal (now the Founder’s Medal for Oratory) has diminished significantly in importance and honor since its inception.

First awarded with grand fanfare on May 27, 1876, near the end of the initial academic year of the University’s history, the Founder’s Day Medal preceded the awarding of Founder’s Department Medals by several months. (The second of the Founder’s Awards was presented by the Medical Department at its commencement in February 1877.)

In its first catalogue, Announcement, Vanderbilt University, First Session, 1875–1876, under the topic “Prizes,” none are listed. However, solicitation is issued:

“the establishment of Prizes is invited as special incentives to study and good deportment.”

Also in this initial Announcement, “Founder’s Day” is declared to be May 27 (the birthday of Cornelius Vanderbilt), and it is stated that the Calendar should be marked for “suitable celebration every year,” and that following the first year there was contemplation of planning for Commencement day to concur with Founder’s Day.

Perhaps the obvious source for these “Prizes” was the founder himself. As to the initiation of the subject, we have indications that it probably was Bishop McTyeire himself. From the following letter, it appears that the University had initially drawn up a design for a proposed Founder’s Medal. Frank Armstrong (Mrs. Cornelius) Vanderbilt acted as the facilitator for the establishment of the first University medals. (By this time the “Commodore,” to whom she refers as “Com.,” is in very poor health.) In a letter dated simply May 7 (no year indicated, but assumed to be 1876) to Bishop McTyeire, she writes:

“I hasten to reply to the Medal question, (I was not able to get a clear answer before today.) & the 27th of May will roll round very rapidly.” Com. says “he wishes 1 medal to be handsomer than any of the others and that to be for the finest Oratory and Elocution to be left open to competitions of any class. He intends setting aside a certain amount of money—the interest of which he wants to be used for Medals—although he does not want to prevent others from founding other Medals—but that he leaves to the discretion of the Faculty. He wants to give the highest medal of the principal Depts.—others can give the lesser ones.

The Die you spoke of” — he says to suit yourselves & draw on him for the payment. Nothing touching our institution should be looked at or undertaken that would not bear an appreciation with the magnitude of the whole concern, or nothing we undertake to do must be half done. Now is the time to set an example to all institutions that may hereafter arise. I shall want your aid before I can come to the conclusion of what kind of a fund I shall appropriate to accomplish the object I have suggested. I do not expect to accomplish this thing to its fullest extent, for your 1st yearly examination, but at the same time will pay the expense of anything in the way of medals you wish to give this year.  (These are all his own words.) You can write what you think, etc. The designs are good. Com. doesn’t care what design you have.”

Chancellor Garland, in his report to the President of the Board of Trust on June 17, 1876, as recorded in the Board of Trust minutes (Vol. I, p. 68), relates the awarding of the first Founder’s Day Medal:

The Founder’s Day was duly observed and the prize for excellency in Oratory was awarded to Mr. R.J. Craig.

The establishment of the Vanderbilt Medals, of which there is one for each Department, was not made in time for award at the close of the present session.

The awarding of the first “Founder’s Medal” occurred on May 27, 1876 (spring of the first Academic Year of Vanderbilt University) and is described in detail in the 1876–77 Announcement under the heading, “The Oratorical Contest”:

“At night the University building (Main Bldg., now Kirkland Hall) was brilliantly illuminated, lights shining from every window. The houses of the Professors were also illuminated. A very large audience was present to witness the contest for the University Medal. The Band played several airs in front of the main entrance, while numerous companies promenaded the grounds.

The exercises in the Chapel were opened by music from the Band, followed by an oration by R.F. Chew, of the Philosophical Society, on “Ideals.” After another air by the Band, came an oration by R.J. Craig, of the Dialectic Society, on “Centennial Thoughts.” The Band played another piece, and C.A. Richardson, of the Dialectic Society, delivered an oration, the subject of which was “Palma non sine pulcere.” The judges, consisting of Judge Baxter, the Rev. Dr. Cunnyngham, and the Rev. Dr. Kelley, then retired to make their decision. Dr. Lipscomb was selected to make known their award, and to present the medal. He congratulated the contestants for the medal on the creditable maimer in which they had acquitted themselves, and awarded the medal to R.J. Craig. The doxology was then sung by the large assembly, led by Mrs. Blandner, on the piano, and the benediction was pronounced by Bishop McTyeire.”

In their meeting of December 21, 1876, the Executive Committee of the Board of Trust (BOT minutes, Vol. I, p. 98) passed the following resolution:

“Resolved: that we return our hearty thanks to Commodore Vanderbilt for three $1000 Bonds, Nos. 36, 37, 38 on the Lake Shore R.R. to endow five medals, viz. the Founder’s Medal $50.00 and Medals for each of the Departments $40.00 each.”

Therefore, the “Com’s” desire for “one medal to be handsomer than any of the others” was carried out. Its gold weight was obviously greater than the other four.

The earliest Founder’s Medals were die-cast. The earliest Founder’s Medal which the University has in its Special Collections is from 1882 and was made by Gates & Pohlman, Nashville. It measures 1 7/16″ across and is die-cast except for a portion of the inscription on the reverse: “First Honors in (department, recipient’s name, month and year of presentation)” which are all engraved. While the gold weight is not indicated on the medal, it is apparent that it is of high quality.

From around 1900 to 1950, a cheaper version was used with the profile of Cornelius Vanderbilt soldered to the medal with a raised surrounding border with engraved (as opposed to die-cast) lettering. In the early 1950’s the medal was produced by the Balfour Company. They measured 1 7/16″, and were die-cast in 14K gold and cost $43.50.

Since 1989 the Herff-Jones Company has produced the medal. It measures 1 3/8″, is die-cast of 10K gold and costs $537.00 as of June 2006. All Founder’s Medals are identical. Using the Consumer Price Index, the $50 Founder’s Medal (for oratory) in 1876 would be worth approximately $939.85 in today’s dollars; the $40 Founder’s Medal would be approximately $751.88.

University Special Collections has in its collection examples of two other early medals, the “A.L.P. Green Medal” and the “R.A. Young Medal.” Both are dated 1884 and are patterned after the “Founder’s Medal.” Although not as thick, both are die-cast in gold with the founders’ profile surrounded with the Latin wording for the University and date of founding on the obverse. The wording on the reverse is engraved entirely with only the surrounding laurel wreath die-cast. These medals were produced by the B.H. Steif Company, Nashville. Apparently, the firm of Gates & Pohlman had exclusive rights for the production of the Founder’s Medal.

In its second catalogue, Announcement, Vanderbilt University, 1876–1877, the establishment of two Literary Societies is recognized. (Actually, these clubs had been established during the first academic year.) The “Philosophic” and the “Dialetic” societies were formed “for exercise in debate, elocution, composition, and other wholesome mental and social work.” These clubs met on Saturdays after the “morning recitations.”

On the following page “Founder’s Day” (May 27), was described as a day filled with “celebration” and “addresses.”

“In the evening the two Literary Societies will have a joint celebration, in which their appointed orators will contend for the Founder’s Medal.”

Several pages later under the heading of “University Honors: Medals and Prizes,” “The “Founder’s Medal” is described:

“The Founder’s Medal is conferred on the 27th of May, the anniversary of the birthday of the founder of the University, as a prize for oratory, the contestants—four in number—being designated by the two Literary Societies, and the award being publicly made by a disinterested committee.”

And on the following page (46), “University Honors: The Vanderbilt Medals” are described:

“The generous founder of the University provides four medals, one for each Department, which will be conferred upon conditions to be fixed by the several Faculties. These, however, will not exclude or supersede other similar endowments by those who would stimulate study and encourage learning.”

In the Announcement of 1877–78 (the third University catalogue), under the heading, “The Founder’s Medals,” distinction is made between the two categories of “Founder’s Medals”: (1) “Founder’s Day Medal,” to be conferred on May 27 as a Prize for Oratory in which four contestants designated by the Literary Societies contend; (2) “Founder’s Department Medals,” for which “conditions (are) determined by respective Faculties.”

The social prominence of the Founder’s Day Oratorical Contest and the perceived importance of the medal are related in the following excerpts from articles appearing in Nashville Banner.

May 28, 1880:

“The contest for this medal is always looked for with anxious expectation by the young gentlemen of the societies, in hopes that the representatives of the respective organizations will be successful, as it is considered of more importance than that of the other medals that are offered. . . . The committee retired, and brought in their decision unanimously. . . .  A pleasant time was afterward spent in a promenade.”

Friday, May 27, 1881:

“Perhaps the largest audience that ever assembled at the Vanderbilt University were in attendance last night to witness the oratorical contest by the Literary Societies for the Founder’s Medal. The young ladies and gentlemen spent the rest of the evening promenading in the hall.”

Sunday morning, May 28, 1882:

“The contest for the Founder’s oratorical prize medal occurred in the chapel of Vanderbilt University last night. The audience was quite large and composed of the city’s most cultivated people. The contest was between the members of the Philosophic and Dialectic Societies.”

[The judges] were over fifteen minutes arriving at a conclusion. Finally, it was agreed to award the prize to Mr. Cruce, and on their return it was so announced. Mr. Cruce received the honor gracefully, tastefully and blushingly and amid vociferous applause, in which the ladies joined heartily. . . .  The prize is of gold, handsomely engraved, and cost $50. It bore the following inscription: “Universitas Vanderbiltia, Founder’s Prize for Oratory, 1794.” (Either the reporter had received erroneous information or could not read Roman numerals. The date on the medal has always been 1873, the date of the University’s founding, not the date of the Founder’s birth!)

The invitations were among the most handsome ever seen in Nashville. The copy received at the Banner office is printed on white satin with the monogram of the Philosophic and Dialectic Societies in the upper right-hand comer.  The announcement is printed below it. The whole is fastened by means of a blue ribbon bow to an elegant card on which is printed the committees.

The popularity of this oratorical contest no doubt prompted an additional medal for oratory. The “Young Medal” was described in the 1883–84 Announcement to be initiated that academic year with the recipient to be named in the commencement program and in the Register of the following year.

The 1885–86 Announcement states a change in protocol for the choice of contestants for the Founder’s Day Medal:

“the contestants, four in number, being designated by the Faculty” (not by the individual Societies as before).

According to the Announcements for 1888–1890, a third Literary Society, “Garland Lyceum,” became active and joined in the Founder’s Day celebration and oratorical contest. By the beginning of the 1890–91 academic year, the “Garland Lyceum” had disbanded.By the late 1890’s there had obviously been questions to arise regarding eligibility of contestants for scholarships and medals.

The 1896–97 Announcement specifically states for the first time regarding “Medals and Prizes”:

“No student who is neglectful of the studies of any school will be considered for the scholarship medals of the University, nor will he be permitted to participate in the public celebration of the Literary Societies. No graduate student or fellow will be allowed to compete for a medal or other prize.”

(The overall title for the Announcement [catalogue] and the Register [class roles for the previous year] became the Bulletin of Vanderbilt University in 1903–04.)

By the academic year of 1905–06, “Founder’s Day,” no longer appeared as a heading for description in the Announcement of the Bulletin. However, May 27 continued to be indicated as “Founder’s Day” on the University Calendar.

The Announcement for the academic year of 1910–11 notes another Literary Society, the John Marshall Law Club, in addition to the Philosophic and Dialetic Societies. And for the first time in the catalogue there is an entry for “Oratorical Contests” with specific rules carefully explained:

“The contests for the founder’s Day Medal and the R.A. Young Medal are open to all students in the University. All speeches should be in the hands of the Secretary of the Faculty in typewritten form on or before the second Saturday in March. The best sixteen are chosen by a committee of the Faculty on the basis of thought and composition. On the first Saturday of April, called Concour Day, the chosen speakers deliver their speeches before a committee of the Faculty which selects the best eight, the first four contending for the Founder’s Medal, the second four for the Young Medal. Speeches for these contests must be limited to 1,800 words.”

It appears that as the University grew, interest in oratory also grew, making more rules and more faculty involvement necessary. It is also interesting to note that the Founder’s Medal was obviously considered to be the more prestigious of the two oratorical contests. By the academic year of 1917–18, the R.A.Young Medal was dropped and the best eight (rather than sixteen) speech transcripts were selected by the faculty committee to be delivered on Concour Day. And the best four of those were presented in competition for the Founder’s Day Medal.

It is noted from the Campus Calendar that Founder’s Day was celebrated the day prior to or following May 27 when that date fell on a weekend.

While all other rules remain the same for “Oratorical Contests,” the 1923–24 Announcement denotes changes in two dates in the protocol: all speeches were requested to be in the hands of the Secretary of the Faculty on or before the last Saturday in April, and Concour Day was moved to “the Monday nearest the middle of May.” The reason for moving these dates later is not apparent. Perhaps participants had become fewer?

For the first time in the University’s history no Literary Societies are listed in the Announcement for the academic year of 1933–34. The description under the heading “Medals” is greatly abbreviated from previous years:

“No student who is neglectful of the studies of any school will be considered for the scholarship medals of the University. The Founder’s Medal for Oratory is conferred May 27, the birthday of the founder of the University, as a prize for oratory.”

The protocol for “Oratory” is also abbreviated and changed from previous years:

On Founder’s Day, May 27, the Founder’s Medal in Oratory is awarded. The contest is among four finalists who have been selected by a faculty committee at a preliminary contest on Concour Day. All undergraduates except previous winners are eligible.

No date for Concour Day is indicated on the Campus Calendar of 1933–34. Perhaps the Depression had something to do with these changes. It might appear that “oratory” had been in decline during the previous ten years. Yet there were five different oratorical contests established at the University by the late 1930’s.

The Campus Calendar in the 1938–39 Announcement marks May 27 as “A holiday” with “Contest for Founder’s Medal at 8:00 p.m.” In the same catalogue, the heading of “Medals and Prizes” no longer begins with the sentence:

“No student who is neglectful of the studies of any school will be considered for the scholarship medals of the University.” It simply states, “The Founder’s Medal for Oratory (Gold Medal) is awarded to the winner of the Oratorical contest held on May 27, the birthday of the founder of the University.” (Note that “Gold Medal” has been added. This could have been due to the Depression as well.)

In the same catalogue under the general heading of “Oratory,” “The Founder’s Medal Contest” is similarly described:

“A gold medal is awarded to the winner of the contest held on May 27, the birthday of Commodore Vanderbilt. All undergraduates except previous winners are eligible. At a preliminary contest called Concour Day, four speakers are selected by a committee of the faculty for the final contest.”

While May 27 continued to be denoted as Founder’s Day on the Campus Calendar from 1945–47, it was not listed as a holiday. And although the “Founder’s Day Medal” continued to be listed under “Medals” and under “Oratory” (which for the first time is listed under “Student Life and Organizations”), the medal was not awarded from 1943–1946. The citations in both instances are less specific as in previous years. For instance, the description of the medal simply states that it is awarded to the winner of the “oratorical contest held in May” with no day given. The entry under “Oratory” does specifically state May 27 as the date of the contest and does indicate a preliminary contest in which four speakers are selected by a committee without mentioning specific dates or Concour Day. Certainly, World War II played a significant role in these alterations.

The Bulletin for 1948–49 replaced the term “Announcement” with “General Catalogue,” with the Campus Calendar again denoting May 27 as “a University Holiday.” But the 1950–51 General Catalogue lists May 2 as “Founder’s-Honors Day—a University Holiday.” (This date may have been a “typo,” however, as commencement gradually moved earlier on the Calendar, Founder’s Day on May 27 came during final examinations.) The description of the Founder’s Medal simply states that the:

“Gold Medal is awarded to the winner of the Oratorical contest held in May.” Under the heading “Oratory,” the contest is said to be held “on a date announced each year.”

The 1951–52 Campus Calendar announces May 7 as “Founder’s Day-Honors Day—a University Holiday.” The following year (1952–53) May 6 is designated “Founder’s Day & Honors Day—a University Holiday,” and the description of the Founder’s Medal changes the date for the contest from “May” to “spring quarter,” with the description under the heading “Oratory” stating “on a date in the spring quarter announced each year.”

The seventy-five year tradition of celebrating Founder’s Day on May 27 was finally broken—almost! The very next year (1953–54) Founder’s Day was celebrated on May 27 as it was also in 1954–55. But the Campus Calendars for the next two academic years (1955–56 and 1956–55) for the first time in the University’s history did not include a Founder’s Day—on any date!

The following year (1957–58) Founder’s Day returned to the calendar on May 27 with “Evening Exercises.” The “Founder’s Medal” continued to be described in the Catalogue under the heading “Medals and Prizes,” although the heading “Oratory” was deleted from the “Student Life Section.”

While “Founder’s Day” continued to be listed on the Campus Calendar as May 27, the description of the “Founder’s Medal for Oratory” was dropped from the Catalogue beginning in 1962–63 for the following fifteen years. (It is probable that the contest for oratory was dropped during this period.) In the meantime, “Founder’s Day” was changed to March 17 (the date of the founding gift) in the 1972–73 Catalogue.

When the description of the “Founder’s Medal for Oratory” reappears in the 1977–78 Catalogue under the heading “Prizes and Awards, Other Awards and Prizes,” the criteria for the selection of the recipient of the medal become subjective with no contest involved:

“The Founder’s Medal for Oratory is awarded to the senior who in his or her career at Vanderbilt has demonstrated the highest standard in public speaking.” The wording was revised in 1985–86, dropping “in his or her career at Vanderbilt,” and that is how it remains stated today (2006).

A complete list of the recipients of the Founder’s (Day) Medal (for Oratory) since 1876 can be found here. At first glance, none of the recipients appear to have become notable “orators” later in life. However, further research of each of the names will no doubt reveal many evangelists, preachers, attorneys, politicians, etc., who would have used their potential in public speaking to great advantage.

In the early Commencement Programs, the Founder’s Day Medal recipient was given-top billing, being listed above the Founder’s Department Medal recipients. In the 1909 Commencement Program for the first time, the name of the medal appeared as “Founder’s Medal in Oratory” but continued to be listed before “Founder’s Department Medals.” In the 1915 Commencement Program for the first time, “Founder’s Department Medals” changed to “Founder’s Medals for Scholarship” but continued to be listed following “Founder’s Medal in Oratory.” In the 1937 Commencement Program for the first time, the “Founder’s Medals for Scholarship” were listed at the top of the list of “Prizes, Scholarships, and Medals.” The “Founder’s Medal in Oratory” fell to seventh place in the list. Before 1937, “Founder’s Medals for Scholarship” had been placed in the middle of the awards list and then at the end of the list (perhaps for emphasis).

Today’s Commencement Program (2006) devotes a full page to the nine “Founder’s Medals for First Honors,” just under the heading “Medal, Prizes, and Other Awards,” while “Founder’s Medal for Oratory” appears, almost without notice, as third in the list of awards under “The College of Arts & Science.”

Thus, the original Founder’s Medal—desired by the Founder himself to be the finest of the awards; the first ever to be awarded; with very specific rules as to the selection process; the winner of which selected by a committee of outside judges on or within a few days of May 27; the reporting of which appeared prominently in Nashville newspapers; and the listing of the recipient at the head of the University’s list of award winners—has all but faded into oblivion along with the art of fine oratory for which it was established.

— Research assistance provided by Lyle Lankford, 2006