Mount St. Helens Erupts on Commencement Day 1980

Posted by - - 1980s, Revelers

Commencement day is always momentous for Whitworth’s graduating classes, but a volcanic eruption on May 18, 1980, made the Class of 1980’s graduation day one for the history books. Students learned before the ceremony that Mount St. Helens, in Western Washington, had erupted earlier that morning; as graduates took their seats in the Whitworth Fieldhouse for the afternoon ceremony, clouds of ash barreled into Spokane. Many attendees noted that Spokane’s skies were eerily dark, but graduates like Shannon (Williams) Flora, ’80, just enjoyed the moment they had been working toward for the last four years. “We just figured everyone was there paying attention to us,” she said. “Actually, many in the audience were wondering what in the world was happening outside when it got so dark, and the school administration was doing work behind the scenes to figure out what to do once the ceremony was over.”

After the 1980 graduates had heard that year’s speaker, Senator Mark Hatfield (R), of Oregon, and had received their diplomas, Whitworth President Ed Lindaman made an announcement: The residence halls at Whitworth would reopen until further notice, because Interstate 90 and the Spokane airport had closed. Many of the undergraduates who did not stay for commencement had left campus that morning, and many of their panicked parents called the residence-hall phones, searching for information.

Everyone was grounded for the next few days as the ash settled, and people across the state were advised to wear masks while outside. Graduates and their families were forced to take hours-long detours to return home, stopping to shake out vehicular air filters along the way. The commencement after-parties and gatherings for graduates were cancelled, but, as Flora recalled, “It was kind of fun to have an opportunity to hang out with friends in the dorm one last time with no homework, finals, or other obligations to worry about.”