As the Thanksgiving weekend approached this year, the Hesston College campus stood silent.
2017 would have marked the 50th anniversary of the Hesston College Thanksgiving tradition.
But instead, students traveled home or stayed tucked away in their dorm rooms. There were no Bills or Normas dressed up as hot dogs or clowns running the two-mile race. Nor were there lines of people filing into the talent show or masterworks concert. The Thanksgiving meal was served in the cafeteria to the few students who had no other choice but to stay on campus.
The Hesston College Thanksgiving is now a thing of the past.
But the memory still lingers.
Freshman students, unfamiliar with the traditional Thanksgiving weekend, often ask, “What happened to Thanksgiving weekend at Hesston? I heard it was a big deal.”
And it was.
A tradition since 1967, the Thanksgiving weekend celebration, at its peak, served 786 people across multiple events. But in its final year, the college only served 294 people. The weekend just wasn’t drawing the crowd anymore.
But the community of Hesston College is feeling the effects. In a Facebook post on Thanksgiving day, Hesston College sports announcer Rusty Witcher wrote:
“It’s 10:36 on a Thanksgiving night. There is no Thanksgiving basketball at Hesston College this weekend, for the first time dating back to the 70s. I have been going to/involved with basketball at Hesston College for 30+ years. It’s really kind of sad.”
Others quickly agreed. Many responded to Whitcher’s post with comments such as one by former instructor Jennifer Friesen LeFevre.
“There is a big void in H-Town this weekend,” LeFevre said. “I miss seeing people who have been coming to the college for years.”
Husband of bible professor Michele Hershberger, Del Hershberger even commented, “I don’t understand why they stopped the tradition. So many alumni came back from all over. Their loyalty is priceless.”
But somewhere along the way “so many” decreased to “not enough.”
In a proposal by the Hesston College administration council, Thanksgiving weekend was pulled apart, analyzed, and deemed to have lost its purpose: to showcase the college to prospective students, enhance community spirit, and serve students and families who spend most of the year apart.
Mennonite enrollment has fallen by 60 percent, an influential factor in Thanksgiving attendance. Travel has become easier for both students and faculty, meaning that more students are able to fly home for a short break. And so, Thanksgiving was cancelled at Hesston College this year.
But it was still a tradition. In fact, it was an almost 50-year-old tradition. And amidst the changing demographics of Hesston College students, the Thanksgiving weekend reminded the campus and community that the values of the school still held fast: Hesston College doesn’t take community building lightly.
But what about now?
Hesston College doesn’t have many traditions that span numerous years. We’ve lost an opportunity for that community-building.
Despite the proposal’s statement that “social media has conceivably replaced the felt need to reconnect as frequently or in person as in the past,” I have faith the Hesston College “sense of community” can still thrive despite the changes made to the Thanksgiving weekend festivities.
But this community won’t form on its own.
A cancelled Thanksgiving is a call for intentionality at anytime of the year, anywhere around the world, and with anyone who may cross our paths.
Why should we wait for Thanksgiving to be reminded of that? Or why should we let them think that Thanksgiving festivities at the college were just another set of events? No, they were the core of our community.
I am reminded of the summer before I started at Hesston College. I had finally made my decision to be a Lark, but wasn’t aware of what that community truly felt like.
My mom was driving home from the airport and made a quick stop at a travel plaza in Pennsylvania. 2,100 miles away from Hesston, Kansas, she saw a woman wearing a Hesston College shirt.
A former alumni and future Hesston parent, my mom approached this woman and started a conversation about Hesston College. This woman, as I’m told, grinned with joy and was proud to be from Hesston. I was proud to be attending a college that built community anywhere, any place and at any time. Now I see this woman at every Hesston College music concert and receive a big hug.
Hesston College can still do community, and it’s still a tradition that should not be lost long after the memories of Thanksgiving weekend are gone.
We can’t change the fact that Thanksgiving was cancelled this year. But we would do well not to forget the previous packed houses for the talent show, the many families that ran the two-mile run together, or the community that was built.
If these memories encourage us to take our mission of community elsewhere, people will become curious about that so called “Hesston community like none other.” And maybe, the beloved Hesston College Thanksgiving weekend will make a comeback.
This could take on many forms. Maybe you participate in the Run the Neuf event in honor of former alumn Russ Neufeld to show support for the community he nurtured or perhaps you find the past Thanksgiving events “new dates” on the calendar and show support for the traditions re-imagined.
And just maybe, Hesston College will see that we don’t take our traditions lightly, but even more so, we don’t take community lightly. We want our Thanksgiving weekend back.
Although Hesston College was possibly one of a very few higher ed. institutions sponsoring all campus events on Thanksgiving weekend, Hesston College is also one of very few places to understand community at its finest.
And the world still needs that community, the kind of community that Hesston College knows best.