Conclusion

Spectators await the 1923 homecoming game against University of Chicago. By the early 1920s, the nascent homecoming tradition already attracted enormous crowds of students and alumni, circa 1923.

The homecoming movement spread like wildfire in the years after 1910.  Within the next several years, many other universities—Wisconsin and Missouri in 1911, Arizona in 1914, to name a few—launched their own homecomings.  Writing in 1930, C. F. Williams noted that “virtually every college in the land has since become vitally interested in Homecomings of one kind or another.”  Williams described the homecoming idea as having been “contagious.”[1]  

Certainly, the University of Illinois promoters of homecoming believed that they were the first to invent the event.  This mistaken notion persisted in part because of the efforts of C. F. Williams himself.  Throughout his long life (he died in 1971), the onetime journalist touted his role as the supposed originator of Homecoming.  This claim, probably never seriously examined, soon attained the status of “fact” through its frequent repetition in the columns of the Illinois Alumni News and other University of Illinois publications.  Later in life, Williams often visited the UI campus and was invariably hailed as the co-founder of Homecoming.  He was a zealous defender of his reputation, and indeed, in his own obituary (which he wrote for the Phi Kappa Psi newsletter!) referred to himself as the originator of “the first college Homecoming in the United States.”[2]

So, what can be said about the University of Illinois and the origins of homecoming?  One can define homecoming as a well-planned, University-sponsored annual alumni event centering on an intercollegiate football game.  Michigan, Northern Illinois University, and Indiana University held homecoming-like events prior to 1910, but these events did not have the degree of planning associated with the first Illinois homecoming of 1910, nor did they employ the defining title of “Homecoming.”  Baylor University, on the other hand, did hold a well-planned alumni event specifically called “Home-Coming” in 1909--one year before Illinois’s first homecoming.  The Texas school, though, had not started a tradition:  The next Baylor homecoming was not held until 1915. 
Thanks to the 1918 hiatus, the Illinois homecoming tradition cannot be said to have been continuous since 1910.   At the very least, Illinois can claim to have had the longest tradition called “Homecoming,” and to have self-consciously created the event with the intention of it being a precedent that would be adopted by other institutions.[3]

Endnotes:

[1]Williams, 7.

[2]C. F. Williams Morgue File, Record Series 26/4/1, University of Illinois Archives.  In 1957, when a column in the Detroit Free Press referred to another Illinois man as the founder of Homecoming, Williams sent off a letter to the writer: “In 1956, I was honored as one of the founders at the Illinois-Minnesota homecoming game.  I was introduced to the crowd with Dr. Lloyd Mowry (sic), president of the University.  I was honored at a pep rally the day previous to the game, and was a guest on television and radio, with surviving brothers of Dr. Ekblaw.  For a quarter of a century and longer I have been introduced in Champaign and Urbana and at alumni meetings here and there as a co-founder with Elmer Ekblaw.”  Ibid.

[3]In November 1953, Williams re-created the moment when he and W. Elmer Ekblaw supposedly sat on the steps of the old YMCA and conceived the Homecoming idea.  Ekblaw had died in 1949, so Williams posed for the cameras with Elmer’s brother, George.  A photo of this staged event appeared in the Illinois Alumni News.  Somewhat ironically, the photo caption writer seems to have gotten it about right when he or she wrote, “Illinois was the first university to hold annual reunions under this (Homecoming) title.” Ibid.