February 19, 2007

Commemoration Day: An Occasion to Celebrate

Each February, as days begin to grow longer and the prospect of spring seems closer, many older members of the Johns Hopkins family remember fondly the years when Commemoration Day was a major event in the university’s academic year.

Held annually on Feb. 22 to commemorate the university’s founding (and the installation of President Daniel Coit Gilman on Feb. 22, 1876), it was a time when faculty, students, staff and alumni gathered to enjoy the pomp and circumstance of an academic community. The president usually spoke about the state of the university, there were greetings from the board of trustees, and honorary degrees were presented to distinguished persons.

Such was the case 70 years ago, in February 1937.

Noting that the year coincided with the 25th anniversary of the founding of the School of Engineering, the trustees and recently elected President Isaiah Bowman decided it would be an opportune time to recognize some of the nation’s outstanding engineering leaders.

Meeting in November 1936 in the president’s Homewood House office, six members of the faculty nominated three individuals to receive honorary doctor of engineering degrees. The board of trustees, then headed by Daniel Willard (also president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad), readily accepted their suggestions. Those nominated were John E. Greiner, Carl C. Thomas and Herbert A. Wagner.

Greiner, founder of the J.E. Greiner engineering company, was cited for his pioneering work in contributing to “the practices, methods and standards of bridge building.” His specialty was railroad bridges “with their peculiar problems of rolling loads at various speeds and constantly increasing axle loads.” The nominating papers included three pages of major construction projects in Baltimore and across the country that Greiner had designed and supervised in construction.

Carl Thomas was an associate in engineering research at the California Institute of Technology. Earlier, from 1913 to 1920, he had been a professor of mechanical engineering at Johns Hopkins. His primary interest was in steam turbines, and he had written the authoritative text on the subject. Thomas was cited for his “contributions, through scientific research, in the field of gas and steam engineering.” His “constructive work in organizing the Department of Mechanical Engineering” was also noted.

Herbert Wagner was president of the Consolidated Gas, Electric Light & Power Co. of Baltimore, which became BE&E in 1955. Wagner was a pioneer in the early development of alternating current. He invented the first subway transformer and built the first large AC plant in St. Louis in 1895. “Under his guidance,” the citation read, “his company has risen to a recognized position as the best type of public utility company.”

A large crowd gathered at the grand Lyric Theater on Feb. 22, 1937, to celebrate the university’s history and to salute the School of Engineering and honored guests.

While such an elaborate tradition has faded away, the university last year resumed the practice of formally recognizing Commemoration Day with a more modest event