The Mason Spirit

What's the "Mater"?

By Traci Lyn Claar

The "mater" in question is George Mason University's alma mater. By all indications, the university does not have an official alma mater, but a newly created Traditions Committee hopes that won't be the case for long.

Convened by University Life last fall, the committee comprises representatives from various offices, student organizations, and faculty members. It was formed in response to a recommendation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools internal community subcommittee, which found that students desired more clearly defined and celebrated university-wide traditions. The committee's first project has been the alma mater.

During its research, the committee uncovered three songs claiming alma mater status. The song, written by Mike McDermott, associate professor emeritus of philosophy and religious studies and registrar emeritus, is sung to a tune similar to the Cornell Hymn. In 1968, while serving as the assistant to George Mason College Marshal Jim Jackson, McDermott wrote the song in preparation for the college's first commencement:

Where the Pohick seeps in silence
From the primal Fairfax Clay
There arises dear George Mason
Costlier each day.

Acres torn from gentle farming,
Destined soon to urban strife,
Now are saved at handsome ransom
For the learned life.

Down from high Rivanna's courses
Bring a drop of morning dew:
Eight in winter, seven in summer
Starts her day anew.

Hear the sound of future splendor,
Gurgle, chirp, and rustle hushed.
Crackle hear of pages turning,
Learning ever rushed.

Through the artful hours toiling,
Ordinarily she rests
Never, till the evening settles
her monoxide guests.

Lo! At night the silence presses
Where George Mason calmly byes
Long may honor dress our college
Even as she lies.

The stanzas recount George Mason's beginnings. Pohick Creek rises from springs inside Patriot Circle and flows to the Potomac River near Gunston Hall, George Mason's plantation home. "Costlier each day" refers to the then-increase in the cost per credit hour to $16. The 150 acres of farmland on which Mason was built was donated by the City of Fairfax. By purchasing another 500 acres with funds appropriated by the surrounding counties, the university had "saved" the land from commercial and residential development for the sake of higher education.

"Down from high Rivanna's courses" refers to the river that runs near Charlottesville and the University of Virginia from which George Mason got its start. "Eight in winter, seven in summer" was the start time for classes in earlier years. As campus construction continued, the "sound of future splendor" was the sound of saws cutting down trees and hammers framing new buildings. Farmland was disappearing, therefore the "gurgle, chirp, and rustle hushed," while being replaced by the sound of pages turning on this new campus.

The "ordinary" was the colonial-style name for the cafeteria, where students engaged in the "art" of card playing. At this time, evening classes were not available and on-campus housing had not yet been built, so as evening settled, the campus emptied of its "monoxide guests," or cars, as people went home. At night, the first six buildings lay silent, except for an occasional board meeting or the hearing of an Honor Code case.

McDermott says the song was written tongue-in-cheek and was meant to initiate the process of developing an alma mater. This version was sung informally at various faculty events, but students initially did not take up an interest in the song.

In 1970, Amanda Burt, a music director at the college, organized a contest to create an alma mater. The winning entry is the second alma mater the committee came across:

Hail, hail to Alma Mater!
George Mason we'll be true.

Now is the time to look ahead;
Watch what we can do!

This generation's bold;
Spirits are never cold
We'll conquer hell together
Rough though be the road.

Brothers run the path to glory
For the green and gold!

This alma mater was sung by small choral groups during graduation ceremonies for two years, but the audience response was less than enthusiastic. When George Mason became a university in 1972, the song was no longer performed.

In 1980, McDermott wrote the third song the Traditions Committee came across. This song had three verses each ending, "Alma Mater, dear George Mason." The song became well known to graduates, because McDermott, as university marshal, sang it every year through 1995 at commencement rehearsal. No class ever deemed it "ready for prime time, " according to McDermott, and it never became a part of the graduation ceremony.

In 1996, when Alan Merten came from Cornell University to become the new university president, McDermott revisited his first alma mater because it was reminiscent of the Cornell Hymn. He replaced the original third stanza with a more up-to-date version:

Years have passed. A generation's
Trickled down the Pohick stream.
Out from Gunston Cove we've paddled
Into global dream.

Patriots embarked in Freedom.
Ever learning, praising thee:
Alma Mater, dear George Mason University.

The stanza reflects the university motto "freedom and learning" and the team name "Patriots." As a second generation of students graduate, the university is moving toward global, not just regional, recognition.

Although creating an official alma mater was not what McDermott intended, it can be argued that this song has stood the test of time and is the closest thing George Mason has to a tradition.

It has been suggested that an official alma mater be composed to reflect the university's current vision and the diversity of its students. Therefore, the Traditions Committee is conducting a contest for an "official alma mater." Submissions are due by November 30, 2001, at 5 p.m. Send your submission (music and/or lyrics) to the Traditions Committee, George Mason University, 4400 University Drive, MS 2C4, Fairfax, VA 22030, or send e-mail For more information about the contest's requirements, visit the web site at