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AU News

Silver and Gold: Silver the Horse is Part of AU Commencement Tradition

Web Commencement Silver and rider
As graduates proceed up Boulevard for commencement, there’s a lot of gold and black; and a horse named Silver. 

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For nearly 20 years now Bill Payne has saddled up Silver, a beautiful gray Anglo Arabian breed horse with thoroughbred ancestry, leading the procession of graduates to the historic Alumni Lawn at Anderson University.  

We thought it would be interesting to examine the tradition of leading the processional with a horse and rider. 

University commencements are as varied as academic institutions themselves. With roots steeped in medieval Europe, commencements can seem anachronistic in contemporary culture, especially those that hype up the event with all the trappings of an illustrious, stately, and almost magical event. Faculty and graduates don regalia designed in the 14th century and updated four centuries later at Oxford and Cambridge. Since the 1800s, commencements haven’t changed that much. We believe that’s a good thing. 

One of the hallmarks of President Evans Whitaker’s tenure has been the creation of numerous meaningful traditions that make the AU experience exceedingly rich for graduates and their families. Things like the Matriculation Ceremony and Archway Walk symbolize the freshman class’s entry to the University, and four years later, the last thing the senior class does is walk through the Boulevard archway into the world to symbolize their momentous exit as newly minted graduates. Another is Fall Convocation with sounds of bagpipers and choir singing Michael W. Smith’s Ancient Words, and the choir and orchestra performing the most beautiful and large arrangement of Amazing Grace. And, of course, the Centennial Alma Mater by legendary band leader and two-time Grammy award winner, Johnny Mann (a.k.a. The original voice of Theodore the Chipmunk) is yet another indispensable tradition. 

A student of the history of higher education, Whitaker was aware of a social construct called the “institutional saga” developed in 1972 by Burton R. Clark. Taking decades to develop, an institutional saga is something of a narrative of the historical adventures, accomplishments, practices, and culture that serve to bond people together who have shared common history and tradition. 

As Anderson has grown and refined to become a leading comprehensive university in the United States, President Whitaker knew it was important to continue to develop the institution’s saga, building on Anderson’s history, and creating new institutional substance during our time. 

“Commencement at Anderson was fine just as it was back in the very early 2000s, but I didn’t think it was as special as it could be,” Whitaker said. “So, I began tinkering with it”, he added.  

Attaining a college degree is a huge accomplishment for students and their families. President Whitaker tells us that he wanted it to be something more than a common college commencement. In his words, “It should be a spectacular event from beginning to end. When it’s over, we want graduates and their families to say to themselves, ‘Wow, that was unique, amazing, thought provoking, emotionally moving, and fun.” 

So Whitaker approached Payne to see if he had a horse suitable to lead the ceremony’s processional. 

He saw Silver and the rest is history, as they say. 

Horses in a procession symbolize dignity and grace, serenity, and peace, but they are also revered symbols of power, strength, and freedom, making their presence in a dream important and evocative, representing the dreamer’s capacity to face challenges and overcome obstacles in life, something we hope for all our graduates.  

A horse was just what was needed to set the tone and the expectation for the unexpected, the president thought to himself. 

Owner/rider Bill Payne, a riding instructor at Penn’s Woods Stable near Anderson, estimates Silver to be approximately 20-25 years old. He has led the procession of graduates for much of the past 18 years, with a couple of exceptions, such as inclement weather and a different horse ridden by an alumna one year. Payne also had a stand-in ride Silver on one occasion. 

Payne became familiar with Anderson University from his days of involvement with an equestrian team that was briefly in existence. He still looks forward to donning his formal “mourning wear” complete with top hat and tails, then mounting Silver for this important ride. 

Payne also notes that Silver has an understudy, another horse whose name is Liam. Of course, not all horses are suited to the privilege of leading a commencement processional. Payne explains that a horse must have a temperament that suits them to riding in a ceremony where there’s pomp and circumstance and crowds lining Anderson’s Boulevard.  

The week prior to commencement, Payne is busy prepping Silver, grooming him for commencement weekend.  

On that important day, Silver leads in hundreds of faculty, and hundreds of graduates. He’s followed by a pristinely preserved 1932 Packard limousine carrying the commencement speaker, the Board of Trust Chairman, and the President. Academic deans come next bearing the flags of their colleges, followed by the full-time faculty. Finally, the seniors follow their faculty. Processional music is something classical and serious. At the archway, Silver and Paine turn to face the seniors as they enter the archway from Boulevard. At the end of the ceremony, modern jazzy music is played as the platform party, faculty and graduates exit Alumni Lawn and proceed through the archway for the last time as undergraduates. 

Will Silver continue to lead the processional?  

Well, as with any animals advancing in years, Silver’s health isn’t what it used to be. Payne explains that he has a form of a melanoma, a cancer that is thankfully not as severe in a horse as it would be in a human; however, the disease can still advance, so future commencement appearances are yet to be determined. When Silver is no longer able to lead commencement, however, President Whitaker is determined the tradition will continue. “Traditions are important in collegiate life,” Whitaker says. In this case, Silver set the standard, and his successors will just have to come to understand they’re following in his large footsteps to continue to make AU Commencement stately, moving, and “over-the-top special” for everyone in attendance. 

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Executive Director for Public Relations