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A Pandemic, A Graduation, and Alma Morgan Davis

To start, queue the graduation music! … "We made it! Congratulations!"

Those words seem to be commonplace this time of year as the academic calendar here in the United States and all over the world comes to an end and a graduating class prepares to walk across the stage accepting a diploma from their distinguished dean or other authorized persons. As life is now beginning to recover from the effects of the COVID shutdown, some graduation ceremonies are starting to return and take place at some capacity and with newly adapted guidelines. Understandably, some are cautious, yet optimistic; both sentiments of which are fitting for graduating seniors. The world and life post-school is wonderful, but the unknown can be daunting. Since graduation is a time for celebration, a time to honor success and praise scholastic accomplishment, I want to share an amazing story of the graduation commemorations of Alma Morgan Davis, my maternal 2nd great-grandfather. You may be surprised at just how many striking similarities there are between his time over 100 years ago and our present day.

Alma Morgan Davis had always been intelligent and hardworking, a combination that made him a fantastic student. In the 1890’s, Alma was attending Lehi Grade School where an astute principal named John Metz approached Alma telling him of the newly established Tempe Normal School (which later turned into Arizona State University). When Alma was finishing up Fifth Reader, the name given to the last year of grade school, he was only 13 years old. Despite his young age, and with the encouragement and support of his father and school principal, Alma decided that he would enroll in Tempe Normal School. In the fall of 1896, Alma rode 10 miles in a cart dragged by a horse and enrolled in Tempe Normal School.

Alma at the age of 14.

Funny thing is, at this time you had to be 15 years old to enroll in college and Alma was only 13. He was always large for his age and says that when he registered, nobody asked his real age, so he just kept his mouth shut. It is fun to look at pictures of him during this time; you can really tell that he is a large kid. One of the new pictures I uncovered in ASU’s archive was a picture of Alma in chemistry class. He is actually quite taller than many of the other people in the class, but he still has a young face. Alma attended classes and enjoyed so much his learning. He spent much time reading and studying. The next few years at Tempe Normal School were great for Alma. He had many impactful experiences as well as hard trials and lessons; but overall, he learned and grew.

Alma (right side standing) in Professor Fredrick M. Irish's chemistry class (1898).

During his days at Tempe Normal School, he became very much involved with the university. He became a captain and key player of the football team, winning the Territorial Cup (which I have written about if you’d like to learn more on our website). When Alma’s class leadership was organized, one his friends came to him and told him that he wanted to run for class president. He asked Alma to nominate him because he said that everyone liked Alma and would follow whatever he said. Alma agreed to nominate him and when election time came, Alma nominated his friend. However, before elections took place, another student nominated Alma for president. Alma voted for his friend, but the other seventeen students in his class voted for him thereby sealing him as class president.

By 1900, Alma had finished up all of the graduation requirements, but by then, his age had been found out and he had to stay on another year until he was 18 years old. Also, during this time Tempe Normal School extended graduation requirements from three years of required courses to four years. So, Alma’s graduating class of 1901 was the first class to graduate from the four-year extended program.

In Alma’s final year at Tempe Normal School, there was a bad smallpox epidemic. Many in the community as well as the students in Alma’s class held their breath as they awaited a verdict concerning graduation ceremonies, since many places were being closed and events cancelled throughout the United States as well as the Phoenix Valley. The class of 1901 had prepared a day of events and exercises on their graduation for Monday, June 10. However, the Friday before, the principal made the tough decision and announcement that any and all commencement arrangements had to be cancelled. A newspaper article I recently discovered in The Arizona Republic (see below) writes that “the seniors’ crests fell, but they bore the inevitable bravely and made the best of the situation.” That day, they made a makeshift ceremony. The principal spoke along with several distinguished teachers, the class sand their song, and alas Alma, the class president, gave a speech and class prophesy. The Arizona Republic again writes that his class prophesy was a “most creditable and ingenious piece of work.” Alma set a scene, telling of a future date in the year 3000 where him and his classmates were successful and achieved all their dreams.

An Arizona Republic Newspaper Article from June 12, 1901 talking about the graduation ceremony.

Although Alma’s academic career culminated in an underwhelming, makeshift ceremony, he writes that his school days were some of the happiest days of his life. Circumstances right now and for the past year seem to resemble the setting of the Phoenix Valley in 1901. Perhaps we had so much going for us only to have things be but on pause or cancelled, including many graduation ceremonies. My hope is that despite challenging circumstances that are out of our control, we can still look forward and ahead, like Alma did, always growing and enjoying the journey.

Alma (center) and his graduating class on 1901 from Tempe Normal School.

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