By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
It really didn’t hit until the other day when doing research on the history of homecoming as I learned the tradition most likely started at Missouri in 1910.
As a Missouri graduate, although contrary to popular belief I did not attend the first homecoming, either as a student or homecoming celebrant, but I must admit I was a student there closer to the first homecoming than I would like to admit.
In fact, a year from now we will be 50 years removed from attaining that degree, which would give me some latitude in looking back at life as it was then, just as those who chose to return to West Virginia University this weekend for its homecoming celebration will dig into their past, be it a year, a decade or half a century ago.
Sadly – and I report this more as a warning and as a lesson to others than as any sense of accomplishment – I have not attended a Missouri homecoming since departing. Having chosen sports writing as a profession, my fall Saturdays have been taken up either by a football game that I had to attend or a baseball playoff or World Series that demanded my presence.
This is not to say that I have not returned to Missouri, for in my brief stay at the short-lived newspaper known as the St. Louis Sun in the early 1990s, I did drive up to Columbia a couple of times to look around and reminisce, although things had changed so much that in some ways the feeling was more of sorrow than happiness.
But there on the corner of Route 40 and University, across from Hickman High and the original McDonald’s to hit the town, was the Dairy Queen in which I worked, a job I considered a step up from being a short-order cook down the road at the Wigwam Café.
You talk about memories being rekindled through homecoming, it was sometime right after lunch rush on a lovely November day that a customer came into the Dairy Queen. Even before he could order his Dilly bar, or whatever it was he wanted that day, he shared the news bulletin he had just heard on his car radio.
It was Nov. 22, 1963.
“President Kennedy has been shot,” he said.
That, to our generation, was what Pearl Harbor was to a previous one and what 9/11 would be to a future one, and there I
was, a newly wed to a college freshman whose father was an influential vice-president at Pan American World Airways, a friend of the Kennedys who had helped her get a summer job within the White House answering letters from children to the First Family, stunned.
Indeed, in a way that moment and memory is what homecoming really is about … a football game, yes, but more about life at a place in time where you enter as a child and exit as a budding adult, ready to take on a world that may not be ready for you.
You know everything as you leave school.
And you know nothing at all.
Your memories come back about everything; about college bars unlike any you ever will come across again as you go through life, be it in a metropolitan area or a small town, for none of the bars you frequent are filled with 18- to 22-year-olds whose biggest worry of the night was whether the bouncer at the door would pay any attention to their fake ID.
Friendships you hadn’t thought of in 20 years come rushing back at homecoming, even the answers to test questions that you didn’t know when you sat down to take the test now are fresh in your mind, making you wonder why you could not think of them then.
The talk may get back to yesterday’s heroes. Surely, if I would return to Mizzou for homecoming, we would talk about the way we held Heisman Trophy winner Joe Bellino to minus-6 rushing yards in an Orange Bowl victory over Navy the same way WVU grads talk about the heroics of Major Harris or Pat White or Jeff Hostetler.
And for those who return home and think back to the day Pitt robbed WVU of a chance to play for the national championship and beat Pat White and Co., you have nothing on the Missouri team sitting on the verge of a unbeaten shot at the national title, ranked No. 1 in the nation only to lose its final regular-season game to arch-rival Kansas.
That Kansas later would have to forfeit that victory for playing not one, but as I remember it, three ineligible players, mattered not for the ruling came too late to save the year or the title.
College, you see, was something special, although you really don’t understand how special when you are there. The relationships you make seem to last beyond even those from high school, perhaps because you may live with many of those who become friends and perhaps because you pass into the prime of your life with them.
So enjoy homecoming and use it to bring back the pleasant memories of wonderful times with wonderful people.
Who knows? Maybe even next year I may venture back to Columbia for my 50th anniversary homecoming. I kind of feel I owe it to myself.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.