It’s Always Homecoming

A year in the life of one of Baylor’s most cherished traditions

The nation’s oldest homecoming, an annual fall celebration that takes over the city of Waco and the Baylor University campus that hosts it, begins its day well before the dawn. The preparation, travel plans and excitement for the day bring the University community and the entire Baylor Family together in a planning process that runs all year long.

HOCO Bonfire

Regardless of which day one engages in the flurry of Homecoming activities, whether an alum attending a special reunion or departmental open house or making the pilgrimage to meet old friends, a freshman attending Mass Meeting, an upperclassman attending Dinner with the Livingstones, a future Baylor Bear attending the Homecoming parade, or a family engaging in any of the innumerable other activities that surround Homecoming, preparation for this cherished tradition began nearly a year prior in a collaboration that brings students, staff, administrators and many others together to create an unforgettable “welcome home” for alumni and friends.

Baylor’s Homecoming tradition began in 1909 when President Samuel Palmer Brooks and a group of faculty embarked on a campaign to bring graduates home to renew old friendships and “catch the Baylor spirit again.” That first Homecoming, planned for Thanksgiving weekend, included festivities such as a band concert, reception, class reunions, a parade through Waco to campus, a football game on Carroll Field and an “old-time soirée” in Burleson Hall (which at the time was a female residence hall).

HOCO Immortal Ten

“Homecoming today is built around the same purpose and framework as the very first one,” Toby Barnett, B.A. ’94, interim vice president for university advancement, said. “We want our alumni to feel welcomed back to campus and to know the valuable role they play in the life of the University. It is our hope that they will see both our history and our future in the experiences and will catch the Baylor spirit again, just as President Brooks dreamed they would in 1909.”

Baylor’s Alumni team plays a key role in the Homecoming celebration. The University plans reunions and other gatherings, honors alumni who graduated 50 years ago with their “golden diplomas,” hosts Singspiration — the Baylor Family worship event — and welcomes alumni and friends to the Homecoming game with a festive tailgate among other events.

HOCO Reunions

This year, alumni will find a new front door to the Homecoming festivities in the Mark and Paula Hurd Welcome Center and the McLane Family Alumni Center housed within it.

“We can’t wait for alumni and their families and friends of the University to see the new Hurd Welcome Center and McLane Family Alumni Center. The facility will be a hub of activity as alumni come into town this year for Homecoming,” Barnett said. “Our Baylor Alumni team will be on hand to greet visitors and share details about the weekend, but even more than that, we look forward to catching up with friends and finding new ways to connect all year long. Homecoming is an amazing time of remembering and reflecting, but it also is a time for looking forward and getting excited about the University’s very bright future.”

As a student, Barnett served as a member of Baylor’s Chamber of Commerce, the student organization that puts hands and feet to key Homecoming activities. He recalls the commitment it took to engage in Homecoming planning and execution while juggling classes and other commitments.

“Chamber’s motto, ‘anything for Baylor,’ is on full display around Homecoming, but you likely won’t see these students doing their jobs,” Barnett said. “They’ll have their hands in the execution of Freshman Mass Meeting, spirit rally and bonfire, parade, all the way through the running of the Baylor Line in McLane Stadium. They work tirelessly on the events — not for the glory, but to do their part to make sure our alumni and the entire Baylor Family feel welcomed and get excited about Baylor.”

Chamber’s planning largely happens with as much preparation as the typical wedding, but this union of thousands of alumni, fans, friends and family is an annual one. So, inevitably, Chamber and University leaders continuously think about how the experience can be improved, how to make the events flow more smoothly or what additions should be made to the schedule.

HOCO Float building

“We always have a special time to debrief and reflect with our Chamber team because it’s easy to plan a huge, awesome wild week, and then just move on to the next thing,” explains Dakota Farquhar-Caddell, B.B.A. ’11, M.Div. ’18, associate director of student activities and the Robert Reid Director of the Baylor Chamber of Commerce.

The student organization’s planning begins with naming a Homecoming Chair, an essential leader charged with guiding the journey to a successful Homecoming.

Natalie Lewicki, a Baylor junior pursuing a degree in neuroscience, was given that charge for Homecoming 2023. In the dead of summer, when a fair number of students were enjoying the languid schedule of a well-deserved vacation or simply basking in the months-long reprieve from the demands of their class schedules, Lewicki had one priority.

“I treated it as a nine-to-five job during the summer,” she explains. “My main goal is to ensure that everyone that comes to campus feels welcomed and they have a great time. In order to do that, there is a lot of planning that goes into it.”

My main goal is to ensure that everyone that comes to campus feels welcomed and they have a great time.

HOCO Royal and True

It’s a planning process that takes a great deal of collaboration and support.

“Starting even before school lets out, Chamber of Commerce leaders are working with University staff to craft a schedule, plan events, work with partners and stakeholders, set up meetings, talk to campus safety,” Farquhar-Caddell details. “It’s a year-long planning process. Months leading up to it, Chamber continues to collaborate with University leaders and partners to be sure everything is supported, safety measures exceed expectations and that all events welcome alumni and the entire Baylor Family to reignite the Baylor spirit.”

Despite the significant load, the planning is not solely reserved for the Chamber’s Homecoming Chair.

“I have around 19 Chamber members that help with the planning process for Homecoming,” says Lewicki. “They all have different roles that are specific to events throughout Homecoming week. During the entire week we have someone that helps plan out support for Dinner with the Livingstones, we have someone that plans Mass Meeting for the freshmen. So, it’s not just me doing every single thing. That would be completely impossible.”

HOCO pics with President Livingstone

Another person on campus is planning for the weekend well in advance. For Baylor President Linda A. Livingstone, Ph.D., Homecoming is one of the most exciting events of the year. Eager to not miss a thing, she and her team engage early in setting priorities for her participation.

“Homecoming is not owned by one group or department. Homecoming is something that the whole campus participates in planning and attending and enjoying. How do you unite the campus to make this weekend happen and make sure that everybody’s event is promoted and cared for? I think that’s a challenge and would be a challenge for any event,” says Chief of Staff to the President, Tiffany Hogue, B.A. ’95.

Hogue, a Baylor grad herself, understands why all the planning is necessary and what the end result of a well-executed Homecoming can be.

“I am so grateful to have graduated from an institution and to work for an institution that really means what it says when we talk about Baylor Family,” Hogue muses. ”From the planning perspective, we really take into account, ‘What is the experience like for current students? What is it like for young alums? What do we offer families? What do we offer for multi-generational folks? What are some special touch points for people with unique celebrations in a particular year?’”

When asked about how difficult it is to keep the goal of Homecoming in focus, given all of the parties the event strives to forge memories for, Hogue says, “It’s not hard. It really isn’t and you also kind of realize this is a privilege. Most other schools don’t have anything like this.”

With all of this planning on campus, one might not realize Homecoming preparations are happening early in the year across the country. In order to secure housing and approved vacation time, alumni, family and friends from all across the country begin their planning as soon as they know what days in their calendar to block off.

Matt Burchett, B.A. ’01, Nick Martineau, B.B.A. ’01, M.Div. ’04, and Jon Rolph, B.A. ’01,  have been returning together to Homecoming for 25 years. Ready to protect that weekend, they circle the dates on their calendars as soon as the football schedule is released.

“Homecoming is where we met each other and it makes sense that it is how we would stay connected,” Martineau said.

The three met as freshmen at their first Homecoming bonfire. Fast friends, they decided to go through the fraternity rush together, eventually rooming together their junior year. When graduation led to moves to different states, it did not cause them to go their separate ways.

“We asked ourselves ‘What does it look like for this friendship to persist? What if we could go through life together?’” Burchett reflected. “We had a lot of intention to that. It was a deliberate decision to say, ‘We want to do this together,’ and Homecoming became an anchor for that.”

Rolph reflected on how Homecoming is a natural anchor for them as alumni because of their relationship to the event as students. “We were all really involved in the activities around Homecoming as students, the energy around all the big days in the calendar of the University. It was really natural for us to want to come back and participate as alumni.”

The friends’ first Homecoming as freshmen was in 1997. Now, 25 years later, traditions of their own have developed and evolved, and their families are eager to be a part of the fun as well. The crew of adults and children now totals 18, and they know the annual tradition is officially started when they meet for lunch at Vitek’s on Friday afternoon. Day one concludes with Pigskin followed by the bonfire. On Saturday morning, they always attend the parade before the football game.

HOCO parade and children

“Part of what’s been fun is seeing our kids, because they’re consistently going every year, feel some of those same feelings that we do,” said Rolph. “It feels welcoming. We come back, we just feel so much joy and so much fun, and our kids have caught that. They look forward to Baylor Homecoming.”

Sharing their love for Baylor with their families has become a cherished part of their own Homecoming tradition.

“Our Baylor years were filled with some of the most fun memories,” Martineau remembered. “Coming back year after year and walking campus with our families, sharing stories from the past, and making new memories with our kids, has been a highlight.”

For Burchett, Martineau, and Rolph, Homecoming is a steady point that brings them together through the changes of life.

“Homecoming was always this anchor institution for our friendship,” Burchett said. “We knew that in the chaos of life and kids and jobs and moving across states and doing different things that, because we loved Baylor and we loved each other, we always knew Homecoming was going to be a place we’d come back to.”

And it is that sentiment, above all, that ultimately calls the entire Baylor Family home for Homecoming. Baylor has meant so much to the lives of those who have come in contact with the University, whether as a student, alumni, employee or a part of the family by choice, that when the day finally arrives and one engages with Homecoming, it is a touchstone for so many things.

“It is such a privilege for all of us who love Baylor to be a part of preparing for Homecoming,” Barnett said. “No matter how long it’s been — one year or 50 years — since they’ve been back on campus, we want all our alums to feel the sense of community, Christian friendship and pure joy that are a part of the Baylor experience. We’ll be waiting with a cold Dr Pepper to welcome them home.”

Coming back year after year and walking campus with our families, sharing stories from the past, and making new memories with our kids, has been a highlight.