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On the night before Oberlin College’s May commencement, Tappan Square is aglow with thousands of Japanese lanterns as students, faculty and residents stroll through the park eating pie and listening to the steel drum band and other musicians.

“Illumination is my favorite night in Oberlin. It’s not just for the college it’s a time for the whole community to come together,” says Kim Preston, Oberlin College alumna (1970), Oberlin resident and Kendal Social Services associate.

An Idea to Keep the Lights Shining

With the 2020 commencement virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Kim came up with an idea to keep the lights shining:  What if Kendal at Oberlin held its own illumination to celebrate its deep ties to the community and college (about a third of the residents are alumni, former staff or faculty).

Kim brought the idea to Nancy Lombardi, one of the residents on Kendal’s New Normal Planning Committee. Nancy was less than enthusiastic but the committee loved the idea. Battery-operated tealights were distributed, Christmas lights brought out of storage, luminaries made, and candles collected for the light extravaganza Sunday, May 24 at 9 p.m.


“Our hundreds of lights sparkling in the warm evening air, sharing with our neighbors recreated some of the enjoyment of campus Illumination. It felt as festive with the hanging lights (Christmas lights), music (courtesy of neighbors’ percussion), mingling crowds (staying 6’ apart yet with as animated conversation) and cherry pie with ice cream. It felt a little like Kendal before Covid-19.

Mary Behm, OC class of 1966

Residents in the Stephens Care Center had a celebration too, with an indoor Disco Ball, colorful paper globes and assorted lights hung in various sections of the center. “The idea sparked rich reflections among residents for several weeks. All the talking was as much a part of Kendal’s illumination as the lights that night,” Kim said, adding, ““I’m all about creating moments of joy – it was a moment of joy.”

Oberlin’s Long History of Illumination Night

Oberlin’s illumination has a long history. According to the college, “the first illumination in Oberlin occurred in November 1860 to celebrate the election of Abraham Lincoln as the 16th president of the United States. However, the longstanding tradition began in May 1903 during the inauguration of Oberlin College President Henry Churchill King. Frederick O. Grover, professor of botany, helped mark the occasion by stringing and lighting Japanese lanterns around campus. The former Harvard professor suggested it after a custom he had witnessed of illuminating the Harvard Yard. The college purchased several thousand lanterns to string along the posts on campus and several streets of the town.”

In 1932 the annual event was canceled for financial reasons, but there was such an outcry that the college re-instituted it the following year. For 2020, the college put together a slide show of past Illuminations.

Says Nancy, “Despite my original cynicism, I think it was a really good way to kick off the summer.”

Author Molly Kavanaugh

Read more stories by Molly Kavanaugh on the Kendal at Oberlin blog.

In the past, Molly Kavanaugh frequently wrote about Kendal at Oberlin for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, where she was a reporter for 16 years. Now we are happy to have her writing for the Kendal at Oberlin Community.