Founders' Day

Honoring Founders a Tradition Since 1901

Duke University Day, 1946

One of the long-standing traditions of Trinity College and Duke University is the observance of honoring the benefactors of the institution. The practice was formalized by the Board of Trustees on June 4, 1901, when October 3 was designated as Benefactors' Day in honor of Washington Duke. The annual college holiday came about in response to Duke's gift of $100,000 for endowment which raised his donations to Trinity College to $444,250, a sum then unparalleled in the South.

The first official observance in October, 1901, was a joyous affair. With Washington Duke sitting on the stage, the program consisted of music by a Durham chorus and a Raleigh orchestra, an address by Bishop Hendrix of Missouri, and the reading of the gifts to the college received during the year. Hearty student cheers resounded after the reading of each gift. The date selected for the observance was the birthday of Duke's grandson, George Washington Duke, son of Benjamin and Sarah Duke, who died in early childhood.

The original intent "to honor Washington Duke forever" has been kept in spirit but through the years the name and even date of the annual observance has changed. It has been called Benefactors' Day (1901-1924), Duke University Day (1926-1947), and, since 1948, Founders' Day. The most common forms of recognition have been an address on campus, the laying of a wreath at the tombs of the Dukes, and for many years the planting of trees by the senior class presidents to beautify the campus. The day has been the occasion for the presentation of special donations and awards, the dedication of buildings or gifts such as the Flentrop Organ in 1976, and the awarding of honorary degrees. The most elaborate celebrations occurred in the year-long Centennial Celebration of 1938-1939, and on the 100th Anniversary of James B. Duke's birth in 1956. Although the announcement of the selection of four presidents has been made at trustees meetings on Founders' Day weekend, only President Douglas M. Knight has been inaugurated as part of the annual celebration.

After the creation of Duke University, the date shifted to December 11 in honor of the signing of the Indenture of The Duke Endowment. A more accurate date perhaps would have been December 29 when the trustees met, accepted the terms of the Indenture, and changed the name of the college to Duke University, but that date was totally inappropriate for a campus celebration. The new Duke University Day was largely a product of the Office of Alumni Affairs. Local alumni chapters were encouraged to meet on December 11 to elect officers and to hear what could be characterized as a "state of the university" report. These meetings grew from ten in North Carolina and Virginia in 1926 to a high of over sixty nationwide in 1936. In 1927 the first meeting was held in New York City, and in 1930 the first Alumni chapter was organized in Los Angeles. In 1931 there also were observances in China and Japan. These meetings were greatly curtailed from 1939 to 1945.

After 1948, primary attention returned to campus where prominent speakers were featured along with significant announcements to the University community. Major gifts or grants were announced from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1949, the Ford Foundation in 1955, and The Duke Endowment in 1952 and 1957.

In 1967, the annual event was shifted to the Sunday nearest December 11 with the primary focus on the morning worship service in the Chapel. In 1986 that observance was extended to a long weekend beginning with a formal campus-wide Convocation on Thursday immediately following an annual meeting of the faculty. This focus, again on a Convocation, meets the long felt desire that the celebration be a time when students and faculty of all the schools, and administrators, staff, and friends of the university can come together as one in common appreciation of the past and future of Duke University. Since the weekend always includes a quarterly meeting of the board of trustees and, since 1980, hosts the Founders' Society as well, it truly marks a high point in the academic year of the university.

With the 1997 celebration, the ceremonies were again moved, back to a date in the early Fall. The events of the weekend include a memorial for members of the community deceased during the year passed, recognition of outstanding students, faculty, and staff, and the presentations of awards for teaching, the Distinguished Alumni Award, and the University Medal for Distinguished Meritorious Service at Duke.


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© 1990. William E. King, University Archivist, 1972-2002. Updated 2002.
This article is reprinted from If Gargoyles Could Talk: Sketches of Duke University by William E. King. Carolina Academic Press, 1997.