General “Black Jack” Pershing: War hero, commencement speaker

A recent reference question and the impending end of the fall semester got us thinking about commencement exercises.  In particular, we’ve been remembering some of the memorable speakers the University of Maryland has hosted over the years.  The list is impressive and diverse, including luminaries such as Isaac Asimov (1977), then-Vice President Lyndon Johnson (1963), former Terp quarterback Boomer Esiason (1999), and even Kermit the Frog (1996).

But to find one of the first nationally famous figures to grace the University’s commencement stage, you have to go all the way back to 1922.  In June of that year, General of the Armies John J. “Black Jack” Pershing was the speaker.  General Pershing had served as the commander of the American Expeditionary Force during World War I, and was at the time of his speech at the University the highest ranking military officer in the country.

According to reports, General Pershing’s address was well-received.  In a sign that commencement addresses haven’t changed much in the past 90 years, the Washington Post reported that:

“The general won the hearts of his auditors when he stated that for some reason it was customary for graduates and their friends at commencement exercises to listen to dull speeches, but he trusted that they would not be too hard on him.”

General Pershing went on to discuss the importance of education and its role in promoting patriotism and fighting against the ignorance that he saw as the cause of World War I.

General John J. Pershing (far right) poses during commencement exercises at the University of Maryland in 1922.
General John J. Pershing (far right) poses during commencement exercises at the University of Maryland in 1922. (click for a larger version)

After his speech, Pershing was awarded a Doctor of Laws degree by University President Dr. Albert F. Woods.  There was a reception hosted by General Pershing after the ceremony, according to the Baltimore Sun, where he was able to meet with the graduates and pose for some pictures.  Several of these pictures are in the University Archives and can be found in our digital collections.

General John J. Pershing poses with University of Maryland graduates in 1922
General John J. Pershing poses with University of Maryland graduates in 1922. (click for a larger version)

General Pershing’s presence on campus was felt long after his speech ended.  In 1935, the University formed its own chapter of the Pershing Rifles, a national military honorary fraternity that Pershing had founded when he was at the University of Nebraska.  The group was known for its drill precision and rifle tricks, and often performed both on and off campus.  The Pershing Rifles were a mainstay on campus until folding in 1967, when the changing times and the end of compulsory military training meant less interest and funding.

The Pershing Rifles yearbook photo from 1966. The women seen here were not members, they were known as "sweethearts".
The Pershing Rifles yearbook photo from 1966. The women seen here were not members, they were known as “sweethearts”.

The staff of the University Archives would like to extend our congratulations to those receiving their diplomas this December.  You’ve worked hard to get to this point- enjoy it!

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