Mercer University honored an annual tradition on Oct. 21 as approximately 400 students loaded onto eight charter buses and made the two hour trip to Penfield, Ga., the site of Mercer’s original campus.
The theme of this year’s Pilgrimage to Penfield was “Take a step back in your future,” and the evening featured reflections by Mercer alumna Sarah “Honey” Withers.
Students who attended the event visited Jesse Mercer’s grave (and the graves of other important Mercer figures), attended a service in the original Mercer chapel, ate dinner provided by Aramark and enjoyed a fireworks show.
This year, there was a slight change to the graveyard ceremony. Instead of reading a litany by Jesse’s grave, students participated in a round of Mercer trivia to test their knowledge of Mercer history.
Senior Matt Hickman, Co-Chair of the Heritage Life committee, said SGA had received comments from students in the past about the eerie nature of the litany.
“We wanted to do something that would erase the negative connotations of being in a graveyard and do something more entertaining and fun,” Hickman said. Trivia was chosen as a way to both inform and engage students.
Dr. Steve Brown, associate dean of student services, spoke to students in the graveyard about the history surrounding them. Jesse Mercer, founder of Mercer University, is buried in the graveyard along with Billington Sanders, the first president of Mercer. Students also visited the graves of Spright Dowell, president from 1928 – 1953, and the man responsible for the construction of MEP and Connell Student Center. Brown also spoke about the most recently placed grave, that of James McAfee, long-time investor in the theology program at Mercer who was buried there in 2004.
Senior Christopher Driver delivered this year’s ‘Mercer Reflections’ in the chapel, telling freshmen that he understands the emblematic character of Porter Osbourne Jr. much better as a senior than he did when reading it going into his first year at Mercer.
“I’ve learned that I can and should help other people, but that these people often end up helping me more,” Driver said.
The chapel service also featured a history of Penfield, delivered by Dean Doug Pearson, a musical performance by Junior Liz Skinner, opening and closing remarks from Senator Matt Hickman, Co-Chair of Heritage Life, a speech by Mrs. Withers and a litany read by Senior Senator Trent White. Sophomore Class President Dalton Turner closed the service with a benediction and led the audience in singing Mercer’s alma mater.
Withers, introduced by her granddaughter, Senator-at-Large Sarah Brown, spoke about her love of Mercer and encouraged students to make the best of their time here.
“You are a blessed privileged generation because you have chosen Mercer and Mercer has chosen you,” Withers said. “Don’t squander your time in worthless endeavors and seize each day so that you will never be haunted by regret or thoughts of what might have been.”
Withers detailed the differences between Mercer in her time and present day, including family style dinners in MEP separate from the men on campus, curfews for women and compulsory chapel services.
According to Withers, students still managed to have fun with what could be seen as relatively strict rules. Each year, the male students held an intended ‘panty raid’ in MEP in which they would raid girls’ dorm rooms and confiscate pairs of frilly underwear. One year, Withers said, firetrucks came and were stationed in front of MEP with fire hoses ready to shoot at full force.
“Not a one [boy] crossed the street…the girls were so disappointed,” Withers joked.
Withers also met her husband at Mercer and cited the day he proposed to her in Tattnall Square Park as one of her best memories from college.
Freshman Morgan Smith enjoyed her first trip to Penfield. “The food was good, the fireworks were fun, and I liked hearing from Miss Honey about how Mercer used to be,” she said.
Hickman believes the event was a success. “I couldn’t have asked for a better event,” he said. “We had really good speakers, and the events outside of the chapel went smoothly as well. Mollie Davis ran everything spectacularly.”
Although the event is intended for freshmen, many students go multiple times throughout their college career. Hickman himself has been every year, first as a freshman for his FYS class, then as a preceptor and member of SGA and finally as one of the coordinators of the event.
“It’s kind of bittersweet knowing I won’t go back to Penfield as a student,” he said.