A Somber Spartan Thanksgiving

As October gives way to November, many students undoubtedly have their thoughts on the upcoming Thanksgiving Break. Thanksgiving offers a welcome reprieve from the academic workload and a chance to go home to enjoy the company of family and good food. This year’s Thanksgiving has the distinction of being the 150th anniversary of the holiday’s official inception. In 1863, amidst the chaos of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln called for a national day of thanksgiving and unity.

The Spartans of East Lansing have been enjoying the benefits of this holiday for over century. The reports of the Michigan Agricultural College Record provide an intriguing glimpse into how past generations of students and staff were spending their holiday break. Many students took the time to go home to see family. Students were usually given only a few days off for break, and were strictly warned that no excuses would be given for arriving back late. For those who stayed there were a variety of parties and religious services from which to choose from.

The Thanksgiving of 1904 though saw a campus in mourning. The women students of the college had been treated to parcels from home and a formal dinner, before spending the remainder of the evening socializing and dancing with their male colleagues. A somber mood lingered on the festivities though on account of the recent death of a fellow student. Freshman John W. Burdette had just passed away from injuries incurred during a football practice. Despite being largely unknown to the student body, Burdette’s death was deeply felt by the class of 08′ along with the entire college.

Burdette came from Berea, Kentucky, and had enrolled that September to study mechanics. Burdette was a member of the second football team and it was on a November 16th evening practice game that he sustained his fatal injury. While playing Burdette received a seemingly harmless bump to his side. He played the remainder of the game without even informing his fellow players or coaches of his injuries.

That evening after supper Burdette began to suffer severe abdominal pains. By Saturday he was in the college hospital under the care of several physicians. Believing an internal rupture was the source of the pain, the skilled Dr. Darling of Ann Arbor was called for. The surgeon moved the patient to the city hospital for immediate operation. The operation revealed that Burdette had suffered a ruptured appendix and resulting hemorrhaging. Despite rallying from the initial surgery, Burdette’s condition declined until his peaceful passing on Friday the 25th surrounded by his parents and siblings.

John W Burdette
Burdette’s tombstone in Kentucky.

Members of the freshman class accompanied their classmate’s remains to the Lakeshore Depot. Burdette’s roommate and fellow member of the Columbian Literary Society accompanied the body home to Kentucky. Memorial services were held at Y.M.C.A. that Sunday. Burdette was remembered as a student who always listened to his fellow students and his fairness and sportsmanship on the athletic field. The president of the college praised Burdette for his bravery and kindness in his last hours of life.

The response of the student body to the loss of one of their own typifies the Spartan spirit of fellowship. When faced with grief or strife the entire campus rallies to support one another through the struggle. Burdette was described as a young man of strength in body, mind, and character; as fine an example of what it means to represent the values of our school.


Photo courtesy of Find A Grave.com

Thanksgiving facts courtesy of Encyclopedia Britannica 

Main body of text courtesy of the M.A.C Record-November 29th, 1904 edition. Held by the MSU Archives and Historical Collections, MSU Libraries


Author: Max Forton

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