Melodius Thunk, an a capella group, performed at Kids Fare.






















Be sure to check out more celebratory photos from the Sesquicentennial kickoff.




Gorgeous weather, a variety of activities and the good company of thousands of people. It was a perfect scene for the two-day kickoff of Northwestern's Sesquicentennial celebration.

"As you look around at this beautiful setting, it's clear that the University's founders were men of exceptional vision and that we are the beneficiaries of that foresight," said University President Henry Bienen at the Friday, Oct. 20, opening ceremony at Deering Meadow. "The celebration of Northwestern's Sesquicentennial gives us the opportunity to reflect on our past and honor our heritage."

Indeed, attendees had a dizzying array of such opportunities during the kickoff weekend. Among many other speakers, novelist John Barth delighted his audience in a freewheeling talk on drama in fiction. Professor William Nix of Stanford delivered the first of what will be an annual lecture on technology, named for Jerome Cohen, late dean of the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. And Augusta Read Thomas (Mu87), composer in residence for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, wrote a special fanfare for Sesquicentennial that was played on Saturday night; she was also on hand earlier to discuss her cutting-edge works.

In his keynote address, Pulitzer Prize-winning history professor Garry Wills tackled the question of whether the university as an institution had outlived its usefulness in the face of the technological onslaught. "The university will not be made obsolete because we cannot allow it to be," Wills concluded. "It has never before been more needed. ... We are here, therefore ... to tell our many friends and loyal supporters that in the words of the philosopher Al Jolson, 'You ain't seen nothin' yet.'"

Not everything at the kickoff, however, was serious business. A 30-minute fireworks display on Friday night was the perfect visual crescendo to a busy day of activities. When the last flares sputtered, hundreds of people -- far more than expected -- took guided tours of the Dearborn Observatory organized by the Department of Physics and Astronomy and gazed through the lenses at Jupiter and Saturn.

Children got in the groove the next morning at Kids Fare, which featured such campus groups as Boomshaka, Graffiti Dancers and Melodius Thunk. Thanks to Marc Schulman (L79), president of Eli's Cheesecake Co., hundreds sank their teeth into a 600-pound birthday cheesecake, which by Schulman's estimate contained 2 million calories. At Tech senior lecturer Eberhard Zwergel beguiled and occasionally unnerved Sesqui-goers with his chemical pyrotechnics. And a tug of war competition at Floyd Long Field got participants' competitive juices flowing. Junior Jessica Edmonds, a member of the victorious Pi Beta Phi-Beta Theta Pi team, was exultant. "We're tough. We used to be the champions, 150 years ago or whatever," she said, in yet another historical Northwestern reference.

No doubt the team's embers were stoked by the previous evening's fare at the Sesqui-picnic outside Norris University Center. The thousands who came could choose from a variety of tasty options. "Everyone is saying we should have these things all the time," said sophomore Emily Wessel, who attended the picnic with her father, Lew, of Hilton Head, S.C.

"This is wonderful," he said, approving of his daughter's choice for higher education. "Emily wanted a first-class university on a beautiful campus near a big city. She got it all."

Many alumni at the kickoff remarked on a major difference from the past: Northwestern's increasingly multicultural makeup. "The diversity here, however, seems to have resulted in more actual inclusion than at many other universities," noted Dave Beach (WCAS61) of San Francisco. At a discussion on religion on the campus, the Rev. Timothy Stevens, University chaplain, also touched on the diversity issue: "The 'other people' are now us. ... A lot of the old models for a campus ministry are outmoded."

Yet even if the University in its earlier days was more homogenous, that is not to say Northwestern was not interested in the outside world. In his remarks on the enduring influence of Melville Herskovits, Northwestern's pioneer on African anthropology, University Library Africana curator David Easterbrook pointed out that Herskovits organized frequent symposia on international topics, arranged for guest speakers such as black activist W.E.B. DuBois and UN leader Ralph Bunche to come to Evanston and was unwavering in the local fight against discrimination.

"In Herskovits' 36 years at Northwestern, he had a remarkable impact on campus life," Easterbrook said.

Regarding the world's majority population -- women -- Carolyn DeSwarte Gifford (WCAS69, G71, 75), a visiting scholar in the gender studies program, said in her presentation that the struggle for equality began early at Northwestern. After touring Europe, women's rights proponent Frances Willard returned to Evanston in 1871 to become president of the Evanston College for Ladies. Two years later the college merged with Northwestern, which had begun to accept women in 1869.

Willard, too, joined in the Sesquicentennial concert on Saturday night, as Medill junior Jamie Tschida, dressed as the educator, suffragist and temperance leader, recited a Willard speech called the New Chivalry. The evening was a potpourri of the past, emceed by Barbara O'Keefe, dean of the School of Speech, and Bernard Dobroski (GMu81), dean of the School of Music. Among those who performed were Sherrill Milnes, John Evans Distinguished Professor of Music, who sang a stirring musical rendition of the Gettysburg Address; Sunny Joy Langton, assistant professor of voice, who sang an aria in a costumed impersonation of 19th-century soprano Jenny Lind; and Anne Waller, senior lecturer in guitar, who played two mandolin selections from the 1890s with the Northwestern Guitar Ensemble, dressed as the University Mandolin Club of that era.

One of the evening's high points came with the debut of the 58-minute Sesquicentennial video Northwestern: Moments in Time. Many alumni were interviewed for the video, but perhaps the comments of former gridiron star and current businessperson and philanthropist Ronald Burton (SESP60) capture best the feeling of so many about their alma mater, now 150 years in existence. "The grass is always greener at Northwestern," Burton said.

Robert Freed is associate editor of Northwestern magazine.