S&T engineers get a chance to blow off steam, honor patron saint

Sunday, March 16, 2008

ROLLA, Mo. -- The leather jacket that commemorates Scott Kenny's role as an organizer of the annual St. Patrick's Day celebration at his alma mater is so worn and tattered, his wife refuses to allow it in the house. Kenny couldn't be more proud.

"It's worth more to me than any suit I've ever owned," said Kenny, a St. Louis resident and a 1974 graduate of what was then the University of Missouri-Rolla.

Much has changed in the 100 years since students at the Missouri School of Mines convinced administrators to declare an unofficial campus holiday -- and cancel classes -- to honor St. Patrick, the purported patron saint of engineers.

There's the latest name change, official since Jan. 1, to the more prestigious-sounding Missouri University of Science and Technology.

Excessive drinking is no longer the accepted standard, not after a pair of alcohol-related student deaths in 1988 and 1991 connected with the student group that runs the weeklong party.

And the legendary if disgusting "Alice" -- a cattle trough filled with stale beer, road kill and other unmentionables into which members of the St. Patrick's student court were unceremoniously thrown -- was retired a decade ago.

But while Alice doesn't live here anymore, the tongue-in-cheek celebration of all things Irish has survived its first century as a combination class reunion, bacchanalian celebration and day at the parade with the children.

"It's a counterpoint [to the rigorous academic environment]," said Lance Haynes, a professor of speech and media studies and the parade board's faculty adviser. "It keeps everything in balance."

On Saturday, generations of former student organizers gathered at sunrise to paint downtown Pine Street green. Students, alumni and locals donned clothes in every conceivable shade of emerald, from sweaters and top hats to plastic beads and scarves. Some brought along green bandana-wearing pooches.

After the parade, shillelagh-toting students re-enacted the events of March 16, 1908, when a young scholar named George Menefee led a march to the administration building and demanded that a campus leader bow and receive a blessing from St. Patrick. Hoping to quell student unrest, the administrator relented. Thus, a celebration was born.

This time, St. Pat --portrayed by student Paul Voss -- made Chancellor John Carney kneel before he was named an honorary knight. Then the crowd outside Norwood Hall collectively knelt, its members dubbed "centennial knights."

Springfield engineer Kim "Mac" McGinnis, class of 1979, returned for his 30th consecutive year of street painting. The trip north was considerably easier than those he took the past several years while living in Beijing.

"This is a brotherhood," said McGinnis, whose own St. Patrick's leather jacket was in even worse shape than the one Kenny wore.

Like the once-notorious St. Patrick celebrations, McGinnis said he has mellowed with age. These days, a mid-March visit to the campus where he toiled as a young man is about connecting with old friends, making new ones and recalling days when hair was longer, bellies smaller and the possibilities endless.

"This is our homecoming," he said.

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