A Graduation Gown's Century-Old Family Legacy

When Connecticut College student Bobby Brooks graduates this Sunday, he'll wear a gown that's almost a full century old. For 96 years, members of his extended family have worn the same graduation gown at 25 commencement ceremonies at colleges and universities across the country.

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From NPR News it's DAY TO DAY. This is graduation weekend for many colleges and universities. And this year at Connecticut College in New London a graduate named Bobby Brooks will be crossing the stage. On his back he'll be carrying 96 years of history. Jordana Gustafson has the story.

JORDANA GUSTAFSON reporting

For Bobby Brooks the load may be hot, but it won't be heavy. He's wearing his great-grandmother's 96-year-old graduation gown.

Mr. BOBBY BROOKS: Well, it's made of wool, so physically it's going to be a lot hotter. But, yeah, it's different.

GUSTAFSON: It's made of light weight black wool and his great-grandmother Bertha Cottrell first wore it during her senior year at Wellesley College in 1910. The gown spent the last several weeks with Bobby Brooks's mother, Terry, in Hollis, New Hampshire, awaiting transport to Connecticut.

Ms. TERRY BROOKS (Bobby Brooks' Mother): Well, I had nothing to do with this cover. It's just a dry cleaner bag, but it's in a black-and-white zebra stripe and it came with the gown, so here we go. This is...

GUSTAFSON: As mother of the graduate, Terry's this year's keeper of the gown. She explains how the tradition began.

Ms. BROOKS: Bertha had three children. She had twin boys and then my mother-in-law Mary. And when the first one graduated it was the depression and-I think he graduated in 1934-and money was very tight. So she said, well, wear my gown. I've got it around here somewhere. It's just a black gown. And he did.

GUSTAFSON: And then his brother and sister wore it, and then his own children, and his nieces and nephews, and then his grandchildren and grandnieces and nephews. And each person's name, college, and degree was stitched onto a white tag and sewn into the back of the gown.

Ms. BROOKS: You can see that at the very top of the gown in the back is Bertha's name from 1910 and you can see that she did that in her handwriting, so to speak. And here's the exact same handwriting as she did her son's and her daughter's and her son's.

GUSTAFSON: The list of colleges is long and prestigious. Wellesley, Dartmouth, Yale, Stanford, Princeton, Duke. Last year Terry and her sister-in-law inserted a new black panel to accommodate the growing registry without disturbing the pleats.

Ms. BROOKS: For posterity, so my Bobby's will go right here below his brother's.

GUSTAFSON: The gown's never been shipped, it's always hand delivered. And it's been to the cleaner's only once, ever. And this was only after the gown's oldest living wearer, Mary Lee, had an extensive consultation with the dry cleaner. And Terry swears it's in mint condition and that it has no bad odor. The other unique thing about the gown is that for years it's been accompanied by a small bag with a sewing kit and spare graduation cap. And by one other item.

Ms. BROOKS: Well, this is the book that follows the gown and it's called the Odyssey of the Gown and it just follows the history in print of who's worn it and...

GUSTAFSON: It's a scrapbook full of recent news clippings and photos of every single graduate who's ever worn the garment. Family members say that the gown has taken on a life of its own. It's become a precious, almost life-like treasure. Terry jokes about guarding it with her life, but she's not really joking.

Ms. BROOKS: No, I don't. I don't want anything to happen to that gown. And I've told my family that while it's under our care in this house, if anyone yells fire my husband is to get the pets out and I'm going for the gown.

GUSTAFSON: Bobby too appreciates the gown's history.

Mr. BROOKS: It feels a little bit more special. Just to have, you know, sort of your family legacy on your back and knowing that there's so many great people that have done the same thing in the past. That's definitely more special than just any other gown.

GUSTAFSON: This weekend will be the gown's 26th trip down the aisle and its fourth time graduating from Connecticut College. For NPR News, I'm Jordana Gustafson.

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