NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - At first, there were some concerns.
By 8 a.m. Saturday, the skies were cloudy, the weather cool and the ground muddy. Planners for the 10th-annual Rutgers Day were putting down hay at the Voorhees Mall on College Avenue and throughout the campus where thousands of attendees were expected to visit beginning by 10 a.m. There were tents set up for performers in case of rain and plenty of crossed fingers that the sun would shine through.
Somehow, as if Col. Henry Rutgers ordered it himself, the skies parted by 10 a.m., breaking way for incredible sunshine and weather in the 60s, as the six-hour festival became the place to go around New Brunswick, as well as campuses in Newark and Camden. University officials estimated 106,000 people took part.
"If New Jersey has a town square -- a space where all people can converge and celebrate -- it's Rutgers University-New Brunswick," said Deba Dutta, chancellor of Rutgers University-New Brunswick. "And Rutgers Day is the Garden State's day of public celebration of how one of our country's greatest innovations, public higher education, continues to improve lives inside and outside the university."
One highlight of the day was Eric LeGrand's flag football tournament in the Rutgers bubble on Busch campus, open to the public, with proceeds supporting Team LeGrand of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation. There was also plenty to showcase on College Avenue, such as The Yard - a residential, retail and outdoor space on the former site of grease trucks, and the Honors College, both of which are welcomed additions for alumni who haven't visited in recent years.
As Rutgers' flagship university, the New Brunswick campus is 54 years into an awesome responsibility given to us as a land grant university by President Abraham Lincoln: to educate, train, and serve the residents of New Jersey, the chancellor said. And one way the university fulfills that charge is Rutgers Day, a free showcase of the work done on behalf of New Jerseyans as a premier national research institution, he added.
According to Dutta, Rutgers Day brings more than 100,000 people to New Jersey's "town square" to see how their public university impacts their lives through research, teaching, health care and service and as an economic engine for the state.
On Saturday, there were more than 700 hands-on programs and exhibitions in the sciences, arts and humanities by accomplished professors and students.
"Rutgers-New Brunswick is educating nearly 50,000 students -- the workforce of tomorrow -- and has educated nearly 500,000 alumni for leadership and success in New Jersey, the nation and the world," the chancellor said. "Our doctors heal the sick. Our research leads to cleaner air, water, and land. Our engineers partner with state agencies to strengthen roads and bridges. Art is brought to life from studio to stage. In innumerable ways, we do what you expect your state university to do - and more."
Those successes were on display at Rutgers Day, such as university solar farms supporting carbonless vehicles and researchers helping shore communities adapt to climate change. Visitors saw how Rutgers historians, philosophers, and other liberal arts faculty are engaging in conversations vital to shared humanity and common political life, Dutta said.
He said Rutgers faculty is now developing technologies to help physicians see beneath a patient's skin and how university engineers are enabling the U.S. Navy to use robots and drones in search and rescue missions.
"There is so much more amazing work at Rutgers that I could mention," the chancellor saiod. "But it all points to the message I hope New Jerseyans take away from Rutgers Day -- that their state university delivers real-world results for them not just one day a year, but every day. Together, we are educating our sons and daughters to build a stronger innovation economy for the state and a stronger, more vibrant democracy that benefits all."
Rebecca Hand, a 2005 graduate, towed her napping 1-year-old in a wagon down College Avenue as her husband, Chaim Cohen, also a 2005 Rutgers alumnus, trailed behind with their 4-year-old son. The couple has participated in Rutgers Day since its inception, alternating campuses each year. College Avenue has changed considerably in the two years since the Highland Park residents have taken in the festivities in New Brunswick, she said.
"It's nice to see the growth and change," Hand said as she watched the alumni parade. "The old buildings are coming down and new pretty ones are going up. It means the university is thriving."
There were belly dancing, hip-hop, virtual reality and drone demonstrations. And for those who wanted to do it themselves, they had the opportunity to perform surgery on a Jell-O brain; tie dye shirts, pet animals, climb a famous Rutgers red oak and snap photos of their children dressed as future Rutgers graduates.
In New Brunswick, the kick off began on College Avenue with a parade led by the sword-wielding Scarlet Knight mascot followed by students and alumni, including 1943 graduate Frederick Detrick Jr. and his wife Virginia Detrick, a 1945 alumna of New Jersey College for Women, now Douglass Residential College. From their perch on a motorized golf cart, the pair proudly counted off the number of children and grandchildren – nine in all – who earned degrees from their alma mater.
"We obviously love Rutgers!" said Frederick Detrick Jr. as hundreds of fellow Rutgers enthusiasts paraded through Voorhees Mall while the marching band played the “Rutgers Fight Song.”
Long lines already had formed at the Rutgers Cooperative Extension Master Gardner Plant Sale before the official 10 a.m. Rutgers Day start time. Early birds snatched up signature varieties developed at Rutgers, including the Scarlet strawberry, Rutgers 250 tomato, pumpkin habanero and the new Rutgers Scarlet Fire dogwood.
“I never thought I would be the person who had to get to the plant sale early, but here I am,’’ said Kim Weisner, a 1995 Rutgers graduate who had her hands full with a box of heirloom tomato plants.
“It’s a great day outside. It’s family bonding time and it’s educational,’’ said Weisner, of South Brunswick, who received grooming tips and learned that she should be planting her tomato seedlings deeper in the ground. “This is tradition,’’ she said. “I miss the school. It was a great experience.’’
At Rutgers-Newark, there was an activity for everyone, from Legos, face painting, raffles and performances at Samuels Plaza to panel discussions, cosplay, 3-D and t-shirt printing. The first-ever Newark Culture Con at Express Newark on Halsey Street was a popular stop.
“I’m going to be coming to school here, so I’m excited to visit,” said Kendra Valencia of Clifton, who toured the Rutgers-Newark booths with friends.
A young Rutgers Day participant enjoys one of the many craft tables.
Photo: Nick Romanenko
With the sounds of the Rutgers-Camden Beatlemaniacs in the background, visitors to the campus participated in a rock/paper/scissors tournament, learned about probability and statistics, dressed up like a judge at the Rutgers Law School booth and watched the Sikh Student Association’s turban-tying demonstration.
Sabrina Velasquez of Camden, a 2014 Rutgers New Brunswick graduate, brought her 6- and 7-year-old nieces, who had their faces painted with butterfly designs.
“I thought it would be nice to bring them to Rutgers Day because there’s a lot going on,” said Velasquez, who hopes the girls will consider attending Rutgers-Camden when the times comes.
History, archaeology and forensic science buffs learned about Rutgers' involvement in the excavation of historic human remains discovered at a Philadelphia construction site. Visitors to the booth had a chance to view and handle some of the artifacts recovered from site, which had been the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia's cemetery in the 1700s and 1800s.
Meanwhile at the 44th New Jersey Folk Festival on Rutgers-New Brunswick’s Cook-Douglass campus, Dana Fuchs, the student festival manager, was busy checking in performers and answering parking questions. As the music started, the sun came out and the crowds began arriving.
This year the New Jersey Folk Festival, the largest student-run event of its kind in the country, highlighted the heritage of the state’s indigenous tribes including the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation, the Powhatan Renape Nation, and the Ramapough Lunaape Nation. The theme was selected as a result of the Scarlet and Black project, which explored Rutgers ties to slavery and the displacement of Native Americans.
Although the morning was hectic, capping off months of work, Fuchs, a senior planning and public policy at Rutgers-New Brunswick major from Hillsborough, was enjoying the scene.
“It’s really cool to see it all come together,’’ said Fuchs, the festival’s student manager. “I was here at 5 a.m. It’s a long day and yesterday was a long day and so was the day before that. But I wouldn't trade festival day in for any other time. It’s awesome to see everyone enjoying themselves.’’
Learn more at Rutgers.edu