From ‘county fair’ to Illini celebration

Quad Day’s extensive history began with pushback in the ’70s

A+University+student+rides+a+unicycle+on+the+Main+Quad+for+Quad+Day+in+the+%E2%80%9870s.+This+Sundays+Quad+Day+makes+it+the+51st+one+for+the+University.+%0A

Photo courtesy of University of Illinois Archives

A University student rides a unicycle on the Main Quad for Quad Day in the ‘70s. This Sunday’s Quad Day makes it the 51st one for the University.

By Faith Allendorf, Features Editor

This Sunday marks the 51st Quad Day celebration – a day when thousands of students gather on the Main and South Quads to explore the 800+ RSOs. 

But 51 years ago, Quad Day looked much different than it does now. According to Ryan Ross, University alum and ​​history and traditions curator of the University Alumni Association, the first Quad Day in 1971 started during a time of “great tension” between students and the University. 

“It started when the student body didn’t really trust adults in general, but especially the administration and the faculty,” Ross said. “It was a time of protests on campus on everything from the Vietnam War to the US invasion of Cambodia to racism on campus.” 

The dean of Student Programs at the time, Dan Perrino, wanted to find a way to bring students and adults on campus together through a bonding experience, trying to break the tension. 

“They really thought of it as a kind of a county fair on the Quad that would have fun and games, and it would be a way for all of the different groups on campus to come together and meet each other and shed the usual roles they played,” Ross said.

While they were excited about the opportunity to create Quad Day, Perrino and his staff were met with backlash from the faculty and campus sponsors. The faculty feared students would protest, and the administrators were not interested in creating new programs.

But that didn’t stop Perrino, who was adored by students. Despite criticism from the faculty, Perrino appealed to students, and through his credibility and advertisement in The Daily Illini, he was able to gather support for Quad Day. 

Over 7,000 students came to the Quad for a celebration that featured a volleyball game, a hotdog stand, a student and faculty talent show, several concerts, contests and more. 

There were only around 50 student group booths that stretched from the Illini Union to the English Building – a huge difference from the crowds of a modern Quad Day.

“That first year, it was much more scaled back than what it became,” Ross said. “The emphasis was really on getting everybody together and sort of having a big party.”

Jim Schlueter, an alum from the class of ’80, remembered the time he spent on the Quad during that special day. He said that compared to now, the first Quad Days were not as organized or as big as they are now. 

Schlueter also remembered a specific activity he took part in as an Illini Guide during Quad Day: selling buttered corn that cost a 50-cent Quad Day token for an ear. 

“It was great fun, and I just always remember how when I was done with that, I was soaked head to toe in butter, like I had dipped myself in it,” Schlueter said. 

Quad Day continued to be a token of the week-before-classes experience, garnering popularity as a fair-like celebration of being an Illini. 

Ross said that in the ’90s, the focus of the afternoon shifted away from being like a fair.

“Over time, the presence of the RSOs using Quad Day as an event to tell new students about all of the groups on campus they could join became the focus,” Ross said. “Some of the games got scaled back to make more room for more tables and booths.” 

Maria Knight, an alum from the class of ’94, recalled her Quad Day experience, specifically remembering how packed the quad was. She also said that Quad Day was how she met her future husband – they were both working the I-Guides booth. 

“He dragged me over to like, two booths down where they were doing a watermelon seed spitting contest,” Knight said. “I don’t remember if I participated, but my husband did. It was fun watching people try to spit the seeds father.” 

As Quad Day went on through the ’2000s, the number of students and RSOs on the quad kept getting bigger. 

According to Ross, while Quad Day has been relatively the same since the ’90s, its popularity exploded in the late ’2000s, becoming what it is today. 

“I graduated in 2008…but when I was an undergraduate, it was pretty much exactly like it is now,” Ross said. “It just hit that transition of becoming just crazy.” 

While Quad Day is a gigantic event that continues to grow in size every year, the message of the day has remained the same since Perrino’s quad fair in 1971: gathering and growing together.

“The University was so important to meet people and to get to feel part of a community that helped me find who I was,” Schlueter said. “The kind of activities that we did were really important, and to be involved with organizations really was beneficial to me personally.”

[email protected]