The following is an excerpt from a Mason Spirit article that ran many years ago and is not in the digital archives. I believe Mike McDermott was still the university marshal at the time of the writing.
If we were to say George Mason University has one long-standing tradition that tradition would definitely have to be Mason Day. Beginning two years before the university’s first commencement, few things in Mason’s history have so consistently united the community on campus.
According to Mike McDermott, who served as Mason’s first university marshal and is now an associate professor emeritus of philosophy and religious studies, Mason Day grew out of a University of Virginia (UVA) tradition.
In 1965, as a branch campus of UVA, George Mason College celebrated UVA’s Founders Day (Thomas Jefferson’s birthday) on April 13. Yet the college couldn’t resist honoring George Mason on the very next day, April 14. It was only a few years before George Mason College skipped Founders Day altogether and celebrated only Mason Day on Friday of that week.
The entire campus was involved in those early Mason Days. Classes met on Mason Day, but only for about 30 minutes each, according to McDermott.
“So by noon, school was over and everyone gathered in the quad for a speech by the chancellor,” he says. “It was leisure, refreshments and jollity.” And he is talking about the old quadrangle, the small lawn area between the buildings now known as Finley, East, West and Krug.
During the 1970s, Mason Day moved away from soft drinks and informal speeches and became a mini-Woodstock, where bands played nonstop and the beer flowed swiftly.
Because the campus was still quite small, “the classes were all within earshot of the festivities,” says McDermott of those early days. Over time, some people moved to cancel classes on Mason Day. Although that never came to pass, many, including staff, were driven away by the noise. By 2 p.m. on Mason Day, it was impossible to try and work in Krug Hall. The music was just too loud.
In the late 1970s, there was a push to include Thursday night as part of the festivities, and though this was never official, students could be found camping out the night before.
By this time, Mason Day had become an event, at least for Northern Virginia. Even people who weren’t attending the university showed up for the all-day party. “I suspect we attracted a lot of high school students in those days,” says McDermott.
The 1980s brought changes to Mason Day. In 1987, Virginia raised the drinking age to 21. By 1988, beer was no longer served at Mason Day, but the bands played on.
In the 2000s, the festivities moved to Lot L on the Fairfax Campus to better accommodate the crowds.