Founders’ Day Traditions

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The practice of honoring the benefactors of Trinity College and Duke University 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 original intent “to honor Washington Duke forever” has been kept in spirit, but the name and date of the annual observance has changed over the years. It has been called Benefactors’ Day (1901-1924), Duke University Day (1926-1947), and, since 1948, Founders’ Day. The most elaborate celebrations occurred during the year-long Centennial Celebration of 1938-1939, and on the 100th anniversary of James B. Duke’s birth in 1956.

After the creation of Duke University in 1924, the date shifted to December 11 in honor of the signing of the Indenture of The Duke Endowment. For several decades, tree-planting ceremonies were a traditional part of the festivities. In 1997, the ceremonies were moved back to a date in the early fall, usually the weekend closest to October 3rd. Events 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.

Post contributed by Tim Pyatt, Duke University Archivist.