SDSU community continues Hobo Day pride despite politically-correct arguments

IAN LACK Reporter

Across the country, people have begun to reexamine old symbols, traditions and celebrations in a new mindset while raising concerns about inclusion and diversity. 

Over the years, SDSU has also taken steps to expand diversity with a Multicultural Center, diversity-focused events and the Office of Diversity, Equity and Community.

In his inauguration as president of the university, Barry Dunn pledged to make SDSU “a place where an imagination can be the foundation of a future — regardless of ethnicity, race, belief system or station in life.”

Some within the campus community and outside have voiced complaints to the Hobo Day Committee, saying the Hobo Day homecoming tradition does not fall in line with this inclusion.

These arguments are centralized on the belief that Hobo Day makes light of homeless populations within the community and when participants in the celebration dress as hobos, they are appropriating a way of life that is not desired by homeless people. 

Corey Chicoine, 2016 Hobo Day Committee grand pooba, doesn’t see it that way.

“It has a really rich history and tradition that brings everyone together,” Chicoine said. “This day isn’t at all about homeless people — we focus on ‘the hobo.’ We celebrate the wandering and that sense of adventure that’s tied to the history of hobos.”

Today, SDSU is the only university in the country that celebrates Hobo Day as a homecoming tradition. The tradition began in 1912 after the university administration called for a change from the college’s previous homecoming tradition, the “Nightshirt Parade.”

Raymond Adams Dutcher, a graduate of the University of Missouri, stepped forward and recommended the university adopt Hobo Day for its homecoming tradition after seeing the theme attempted at UM for their homecoming traditions.

The celebration was considered a success. According to the 1914 Jackrabbit Yearbook, “The campus was transformed into a hobo camp. There were ‘bos’ slim, fat, tall and short, and Indians from many tribes.”

Over time, dressing up as Native Americans became obsolete, but other traditions remained. 

Students dress in pins and secondhand clothing. Men grow beards as part of One-Month Club. Hobolympics, Bum-a-Meal and driving the Bummobile are among other significant celebratory practices.

Junior computer science major Chris Tudehope said he would describe Hobo Day as a gray area.

“The difference between hobo and homeless isn’t as well-defined for people. I think there are a lot of similarities between the two,” Tudehope said. “But I think the intent is that hobos are more about traveling and wandering.”

Kas Williams, program adviser of African American Programs and Black Student Alliance, said that when she leads tours for new students across campus, she often gets questions such as, “Why do you celebrate homeless people?” when introducing them to the Weary Wil and Dirty Lil statues on the north side of The Union.

“This is a tradition that has been built for years, and I think that the understanding of the word ‘hobo’ has changed more to represent homeless people,” Williams said.

If people really were hobos, they wouldn’t have the means to eat or live adequately and so no one would really want to be a hobo, Williams said.

Williams said even with the discussion about Hobo Day, she still participates in many of the Hobo Day celebrations and purchases a pin every year to partake in the tradition.

Although the origin of the word “hobo” is debated, it is generally understood to have come from the term “hoe-boy,” according to a 2014 Washington Post article.

According to Pennsylvania State University history professor Todd DePastino, “hoe-boy” was a term that came about in the late 19th century, meaning a young man who traveled across the country searching for work in the agricultural section of the American West. A hoe was commonly used in their work.

Hobo Day events such as Rally at the Rails point to this historical sense of traveling. When the Great Depression began in 1929, the visibility of these hobos increased, according to the Wessels Living History Farm’s records. Hobos traveled the country, hitching a ride on railroads and looking for work when the railroads stopped at a new location.

When complaints against Hobo Day are made, they are typically on social media from people outside the community who do not realize this history or that the committee volunteers for Brookings Habitat for Humanity, Chicoine said. 

The committee attempts to explain the description of what they say a hobo is, emphasizing the traveling nature of hobos.

Sam Smith, instructor and lab coordinator of the non-majors biology series, said these traditions are out-of-date and insensitive to the community’s homeless populations.

“Coming here, my instinctual reaction was that it was a strange thing to see people dressing up as people of a lower socioeconomic class and then reveling in it,” Smith said. “I understand that this is a tradition, and I am sensitive to that, but I don’t think it’s great optics when we buy secondhand clothing to dress up in whereas homeless people depend on handouts and this clothing for survival.”

Derek DeBates is an SDSU alumnus and volunteer coordinator for the Bishop Dudley Hospitality House in Sioux Falls. The non-profit organization offers shelter for the homeless as well as vulnerable men and women.

“I don’t see a lot of our clients wearing anything like that, like ripped jeans or raggedy-type clothes like the clothes worn for Hobo Day,” DeBates said. “I think the word hobo is outdated but with the tradition at SDSU, I think it’s fine to keep it as Hobo Day.”

Hobo noun | ho·bo |

– a person who has no place to live, no money & who travels to many different places

– migratory worker

– a homeless & usually penniless vagabond


noun | home·less |

– having no place to live

– having no home or permanent place of residence

Bum  noun | bum |

– one who sponges off others & avoids work

– one who performs a function poorly

– one whose time is devoted to a recreational activity

– vagrant, tramp