Eight days before Homecoming, the sound of disaster cracked through the walls of Farmhouse’s basement. A heavy, sharp thud: An eight-foot display board for campus decorations had crashed onto one below it.
"Are you kidding me?" Chi Omega Homecoming liaison Jessica Smith clapped her hands over her cheeks, turned her back on the boards and walked in the opposite direction. Eight men and 18 women stared wide-eyed. Another liaison, Nicole Parker, gingerly inspects the boards. The lower board was covered in tubes of tissue paper that somehow, together, were strong enough to withstand the blow. "Jessica?" she says, "Jessica, it’s fine. They’re okay."
Crisis averted. The Homecoming grouping of Chi Omega, Farmhouse and Kappa Sigma has been working on campus decorations since Labor Day, but in a way, you could say they’ve been working on this for decades. According to the MU Archives, the tradition of house decorations began in 1935.
"If there were a Mizzou holiday, it would be Homecoming," says Todd McCubbin, the Executive Director of the Mizzou Alumni Association. While discussing traditions, he looks out his door. He walks down the hall of the Reynolds Alumni Center and returns in a few moments with Tom Schultz, former Executive Director of the Mizzou Alumni Association and a member of the MU class of 1956.
"House decorating was a big deal," Schultz says. He looks down and shakes his head, recalling his days in Kappa Sigma. "A big deal. In the '50s, Mizzou was smaller, the Homecoming parade was much shorter, and events like the blood drive didn’t exist, so house decorations was the major homecoming highlight," he says. Each sorority and fraternity made their own decorations, so there were more to see, and pomping likely consumed more time than it does now.
A 1960 photograph from Lambda Chi Alpha shows a three-dimensional Truman the Tiger smacking a Jayhawk with a mallet towering as high as the three-story house. "There was a huge wow factor to them," Homecoming Tri-Director Brandon Thiel says of the vintage decorations. "They were so much bigger in the "60s because they were still trying to figure out where to go with the process of it." Displays are now restricted to a 32-foot width, 16-foot height and 10-foot depth.
As Schultz is talking, McCubbin steps out again and comes back with David Roloff, who was an undergrad during the '70s.
"There were two times a year when you felt accepted in Greektown: campus decorations and bid day," he says. He recounts a famous "snake dance" that took place the night before Homecoming; it wound through campus and picked up a lot of people from campus decorations and ended in the parking lot of the training center.
Before MU became a dry campus, campus decorations were a huge party. "The roads were essentially paved with crushed beer cans," McCubbin says. He lived nearby in Harrisburg as a kid but never saw the campus decorations. Now it’s a family-oriented event that draws more than 25,000 people each year.
For the Homecoming centennial, Jeremy Essner, a Farmhouse Homecoming liaison, is using some civil engineering know-how and high school art experience to design an interactive background and prop display. Most effort goes into pomping, which involves rolling tissue paper — about $12,000 worth, campus-wide — around dowels, pens or markers, licking the paper to hold it together and pinching the bottom. Then, the pinched end is dipped into "pomp juice" — a goopy, tan mix of water and flour — and arranged side-by-side to create a mural-like work of art.
Juniors and seniors in Chi Omega are required to spend three hours a week working on Homecoming; freshmen and sophomores work seven hours a week.
Freshman Laura Evans, says sometimes it can seem like a part-time job, but she has enjoyed pomping because it helped her meet pledge sisters, the women in upper classes, and fraternity members.
"You hear about husbands who have met their wives or best friendships forming while prepping for campus decs," McCubbin says. When the Mizzou Alumni Association suggested completely ending pomping, Greek representatives expressed that they would need something to replace the social aspect of the work. "It's so much more than a four-hour campus decoration competition, and that’s what makes it special," he says.
Carrie Bien, student programs coordinator for the Mizzou Alumni Association, says Greek historically, Greek members made campus decorations and parade floats out of chicken wire and tissue paper to pomp creations and structures that were much larger. "Pomping of floats was eliminated in the early 2000s to reduce the level of time that students spent on Homecoming," she says. Now only 50 percent of the campus decorations can include pomping.
The time pays off. Bien, who first worked on her chapter’s campus decorations in 2005, has two favorite parts of the night: "First, around 6:45 p.m., traffic really begins to pick up — but mostly with families. This is a special time because it is mostly children who sit in awe of the characters, the skits and the construction." Then, about two hours later, a wave of "Campus Decs Regulars" hits Greektown. "These are people who have attended campus decs for years or are Greek alumni," Bien says. "They have a special interest in the construction and artistry behind the decorations because they remember their time spent putting everything together."
Thiel sees the campus decorations as service to the community. "We had 25,000 people come last year to partake in Mizzou spirit," he says. "Campus decorations show the city and alumni we care about it."