Soon-to-be college students from coast to coast are probably getting busy, getting ready, getting boxes, getting advice, getting geared up for their new collegiate life this fall.

But only the incoming class at Whitman College, 400 plus, is getting a box of onions.

Maybe even at this very moment. The last shipment left recently for those living in Alaska and Hawaii.

A Whitman College tradition for many years has been to send each new student a gift box of one-pound jumbo-sized onions, hand-washed, groomed and packed in straw and boxed with a personalized letter and documents from a legendary onion farm here. These aren’t just any onions. Long before the Walla Walla, Wash., area was known for its multitude of vineyards and wineries, there were onions, specifically Walla Walla Sweet Onions — the state’s official vegetable.

Tracy Dahl
Tracy Dahl ’01

Tracy Dahl, a Class of 2001 Whitman graduate and  now a journalist, remembers it well, receiving her surprise gift box at her parents’ Portland, Ore., home. She retells the tale in a July 15 article in the Washington Post where she is a copy editor. Dahl’s food story also gives a fun read into the onion’s history, Walla Walla’s annual upcoming onion festival and a local chef’s use of the local treasure. And she relates her and a friend’s adventure in cooking up much of a 40-pound box of the onions recently as they tested recipes, and compared the flavor with the sweet Vidalia onion. Dahl determined her beloved “Walla Wallas” were “even sweeter and noticeably more delicate.”

Dahl, who was an award-winning college journalist and editor of the Whitman student newspaper, graduated with political science and German literature and language degrees and then left for Vienna on a Fulbright Scholarship, later returning to attend journalism school at the University of Missouri. She interned at the Washington Post and they didn’t want her to leave, offering her permanent employment. She said she has had a “really amazing, blessed life,” including experiences such as editing copy for the Post’s Pulitzer Prize winning business columnist Steven Pearlstein. And she has enjoyed having a desk near journalist Bob Woodward’s where international tourists will stop by just to see Woodward’s closed office door and a name plate.

Dahl said she considered Whitman at the urging of a friend’s mother who graduated from Whitman. She treasured the sense of community among students there. “Whitman attracts a certain type of student, very curious about the world, pretty adventurous,” said Dahl, a marathon runner. She said Whitman “teaches you how to think critically, how to think for yourself … You learn how to learn — and you can apply that to anything else you want to do in life.”

Home, sweets, home. Tracy Dahl ordered large recently, getting 40 pounds of Walla Walla sweets to use for recipe-testing for her news story.

Dahl ’01, now living in Virginia sees Vidalia onions everywhere in stores there, but wrote that “nostalgia leaves me longing for those jumbo globes pulled out of Walla Walla dirt.”  So she successfully pitched a Walla Walla sweet onion story to her editor and ordered a box from the 100-year-old Locati Farm southwest of Walla Walla started by an Italian immigrant, Joe Locati, and now owned by his grandson, Michael Locati, a third-generation onion grower who ships his onions all over the country.

Dahl knows the next class of Whitman is in the process of getting their onions. “How very sweet,” she concluded, ending her Post story.

Kevin Dyerly, Whitman’s director of admission, said that the onion gift box is a way of letting students know the college is excited about their coming to Whitman. And it’s a unique, distinctive and memorable tradition.

“And as the students are anxiously anticipating their arrival it’s a nice touch and really gives students, particularly those not familiar with the Northwest, particularly Walla Walla, a sense of the ‘flavor’ of our community,” he said.

Dyerly said the college always gets many thank-you notes about the onion gift from students and parents and the notes are already arriving. An incoming student from Los Angeles, Calif., wrote that she has recently started cooking a lot and the onion is one of her most commonly used ingredients and she wanted to “wholeheartedly” thank the college “for being amazing and helping me out with meals I’ve already made and so many that are yet to come,” citing her onion mushroom parmesan chicken and onion soup.

“I've been excited to get to Whitman for years now and am even more excited because I know I can get my hands on some delicious fresh foods; onions are highest on that list,” she wrote.

Another incoming student had this to say: "Initially, I thought someone had somehow managed to send me some sort of animal, seeing as the box was lined with holes and rebel pieces of straw stuck out the sides," said incoming first-year student Ariel Carter-Rodriguez of Portland, Ore. "I was even more confused when I saw that the package had come from Whitman."

She said the "whole thing was a very pleasant surprise.

"I greatly appreciated the fact that a prestigious college took the time to craft a clever, neatly presented gift, welcoming incoming students with both class and humor. The general image of a prominent school is a strict, almost robotic atmosphere, especially during the application process in which a student can feel lost in the tide with 20,000 other superb applicants. Having a highly-regarded school do something that was just plain "fun" was an unexpected relief, almost a figurative exhaling of some pre-college anxiety."

She said another reason it was appreciated was because her mother is from Peru and in the Hispanic culture "it is customary to present a gift when receiving someone into your home, food being a common choice of offering. Likewise, at a party or event, it is a sign of respect to bring a present for the host or hostess."

And coincidentally, onions are an important cooking element in nearly all traditional Peruvian dishes, she said.

Whitman College lore credits the late Carl Schmitt ’56 with the idea of sending incoming students a package of Walla Walla Sweet Onions. Schmitt, founder of a California bank and member of the college’s marketing committee in the early 1980s, had had a positive experience sending onions to his customers and suggested the onions would be a good way for the college to “send the flavor of Walla Walla” to incoming students, said Linda Hardy, former director of communications at Whitman, who also served on the committee.

Schmitt’s recommendation was carried out the first year by Vice President for College Relations Robert Gardner, and his lieutenant Ron Urban, director of institutional research. Urban still remembers wrapping individual onions, placing them in boxes and tucking in a short note of welcome from then-Whitman President David Maxwell.

— Virginia Grantier and Lenel Parish