Oklahoma State University celebrates homecoming like no other place I know. The grandiose party they put on for homecoming draws thousands back to the small town so many knew as home. The tradition of what was once called “America’s Greatest Homecoming” runs deep in Stillwater.
The week leading up to homecoming includes countless events such as football frenzy, dorm decorations, painting Hester street, Walkarounds, the Homecoming and Hoops pep rally, and a huge parade Saturday morning, which now holds an even more sacred space for many cowboys.
All of these events lead up to a Saturday football game. A football Saturday in Stillwater brings out faithful fans. They spread out and speckle the campus with tailgating tents and a shared sense of hospitality before filling the stadium to cheer on their team, no matter the outcome. Trust me, I have been a fan for over fourteen years now. I chose to cheer each week as one of the many “loyal and true” as our alma mater song states. And at times, that proves difficult.
But the crown jewel of the celebration lands on the Friday night of homecoming. Friday night the streets all around campus close. People flood the roads for Walkarounds, where you literally walk around to see the house decs Greek Life creates over the first eight weeks of school. And y’all, each year their creations blow me away.
A fraternity and sorority pair up to create enormous works of art that tell the story of Stillwater through a different theme each year. Their house decs start with giant metal poles and frames welded in the front yards of fraternity houses. The rest consists almost entirely of pomp. If you have never pomped, you basically stick small squares of tissue paper into chicken wire with glue. And sometimes you pomp with a toothpick to achieve even finer detail.
And when you finish, you get something like this.
It really is incredible. Each year I make to Stillwater for walkarounds, I wonder if this is the year I am too far removed to recognize a face in the crowd. And every year it feels just like it did when I found myself a student on the campus. I see faces I know and people to catch up with. Stillwater will always feel like home.
This year, I sat Friday night out after a very long week. I needed to recharge. But my roommate of three years and wonderful friend Lauren had an extra ticket to the game and I wasn’t missing it.
As I drove into town Saturday for the game I realized I had not been back to Stillwater in about a year. Epic fail on my part. I inched slowly through town in game day Stillwater traffic to meet one of my college roommates, Aubrey, at our old college house which her dad bought for us to live in during college and for him to have a weekend home in Stillwater.
Driving down the roads I know and love I saw the many things that changed in just a year. New restaurants open, old things I loved closed. I saw the old Shakey’s Ice Cream where I kind of side swiped a pink pole and got a lovely pink scratch on my car junior year. I buffed it out for the most part. I drove by the apartment two of my best friends lived in and we all spent hours laughing. I went by the street the boys we had a prank war with in college lived on and the house where my Bible study Kari leader lived and shared her talent for hosting with me so graciously. I sat in my college house and talked with friends and their families like I never left. I ate Hideaway Pizza from the original Hideaway.
It felt so normal. It felt like home.
But I also saw new buildings on campus and had no idea what they held. I saw college kids who looked like little babies laughing in big clumps as they walked towards their dorms just like we once did. New students filled section 101 at the stadium and I had no idea who they were. I found myself not wanting anything to have changed in the place I love so dearly.
It all felt so weird and different.
After the game I met up with Lauren and Aubrey at Lauren’s parents new house, because even that had changed. But their home is gorgeous, and I am grateful for their hospitality always. We sat on their veranda as the cold front blew in. We all keep in touch, but do not all sit face to face very often. As the wind blew around us we picked up right where we left off. We caught up on life, shared our hearts and laughed until a late night storm finally pushed us inside and forced my drive back home.
You see, as we sat there I realized we had changed and grown, but we still fit. We shared so much of our lives in college. We experienced heartbreak together. We experienced random fourth roommates together. We learned to live with other people together. We graduated together. We grew into who we are today together.
I love returning to Stillwater, but I sometimes hate seeing all of the changes. I have become the alum who wants to talk about how there was only one Classroom Building when I went to OSU. Or talk about how the Dairy Bar was the best place you could eat on your meal plan. But I know change is good, and these types of statements age me fast.
Homecoming reminds me of the beauty in change. You see, I am not who I was when I started in Stillwater. I grew up. I changed. My friends changed and grew. We are supposed to change and grow. If we hadn’t, that would be sad. Life is about changing and growing. Even the sacred and beloved spaces and places we love must grow if they are to continue to exist.
As I drove out of town much later than I anticipated I saw a group of the new buildings that stood where I only knew a field. What once felt like the edge of civilization in Stillwater, now bustled with buildings, though they were all closed for business by 11 PM (some things do not change). Instead of gawking at the structures that filled the field I knew, I smiled.
Stillwater, you get to grow and change. Oklahoma State, you will never be exactly the place I knew and that is good. Not that either of these things needed my permission to happen, clearly. But the reminder of knowing the places and people we love, the places and people that impact who we become, those places and people still hold a piece of what we loved and knew as we both change and grow.