Torch Night: Symbolically Passing the Torch

To members of the University of Tennessee community, the torch represents the Volunteer spirit of service and leadership. Torch Night is the backdrop for a longstanding campus tradition of symbolically passing the torch of Volunteer ideals to each new generation of students.

Torch Night: A New Beginning is a rite of passage for incoming Volunteers. At the beginning of each academic year, the entire first-year class gathers to take up the Torch of Service and commit themselves to the Volunteer ideal of selfless leadership. Continuing a time-honored tradition, students raise orange or white glowing sticks and recite a pledge to “represent my university and my fellow Volunteers with honesty, compassion, and courage … and to light the way for others.”

Another ceremony for graduating seniors takes place just prior to commencement. At Torch Night: A Farewell to Thee, soon-to-be graduates bid farewell to UT and pledge to carry the Volunteer spirit of service and leadership into the broader community.

Each year, a small group of students who embody the Volunteer spirit are named Torchbearers. It is the highest honor a student at the university can receive. Through their exemplary leadership and service, Torchbearers light the way for future generations of Volunteers.

Over the decades, both celebrations have evolved, been discontinued then revived, and undergone name changes. Torch Night was initiated in 1925 as the Freshman Pledge Ceremony. The ceremony in front of Ayres Hall involved a literal passing of the torch from a senior to a freshman student. Freshmen would light their candles from the torch then file down the Hill in silence.

The first ceremony in which graduating seniors bade farewell to their alma mater, an event then known as Aloha Oe, took place in 1926. The name Aloha Oe (farewell to thee) was undoubtedly taken from the beloved Hawaiian song. But that first event was a raucous occasion, featuring a muddy tug-of-war as well as female students clad in grass skirts and strumming ukuleles. By 1935, Aloha Oe had evolved into a solemn ceremony. Senior women in white dresses and senior men in suits marched through Grecian columns installed on Shields-Watkins Field.

Those ceremonies celebrating the symbolic passing of the torch predated UT’s official symbol, the Torchbearer statue. In fact, the winner of the 1930 design competition for a Volunteer symbol cited the Torch Night and Aloha Oe traditions as inspirations for his creation. Today, the Torchbearer stands on the edge of Circle Park as an iconic representation of the spirit enshrined in the Volunteer Creed: One that beareth a torch shadoweth oneself to give light to others. That maxim is etched on the statue’s base.