I attended my first Picnic Day in 1953. Haven’t missed one since. Many things have changed, but much of the spirit of the day has remained the same.
The parade used to be a very big deal, with elaborate floats entered by various living groups (we had fraternities back then, but no sororities) and campus departments.
It was easy to think you were at the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena.
There were many marching bands from high schools throughout Northern and Central California. I especially remember the tuba section from Manteca High School was seven-persons strong, with each tuba bearing a different letter of the school’s name.
If you look at old parade photos, you’ll see people lined up 10 or 12 deep and you might even see me perched on a branch of one of those massive cork oak trees to get a bird’s-eye view of the proceedings.
If you were lucky, you might get to shake hands with the governor of California (Goodwin Knight) or a perpetually campaigning Congressman.
For a nickel, you could buy a Dixie cup of ice cream from the campus dairy, complete with one of those awful wooden spoons, but little substantial food was sold on campus. Most people packed and brought their own picnics. A true fried-chicken-and-potato-salad day, long before Colonel Sanders moved to town.
Picnic Day also hosted a fabulous all-day high school track meet on Toomey Field that was billed as the “biggest one-day high school track meet in the country.” More than 1,000 competitors from probably a hundred high schools.
For those of us growing up in town, Picnic Day was second only to Christmas morning, and even then it was a close call.
The thing that hasn’t changed is the notion that this is above all an “open house” celebrating all that the campus has to offer. Many departments knock themselves out to come up with new and interesting displays every year, many of them intensively interactive. I think that’s the part I appreciate most about Picnic Day and why it’s still a must-attend event on my yearly calendar.