The Secret Beginnings of Pinwheel Day

Read on for—spoiler alert!—the story and people behind campus’ mysterious springtime tradition.

For years, the origins of Pinwheel Day have been kept secret. Who started it? When was the first Pinwheel Day? How did it become an annual tradition? This year, in honor of our first #virtualpinwheelday, we connected with a person who can credibly claim that she established Pinwheel Day as we know it, and she shared her story. Do not read any further if you prefer your tradition shrouded in mystery…

Pinwheel Day feels like such an intrinsic part of springtime at Haverford—waking up to Founders Green blanketed by pinwheels that appeared as if by magic overnight—that it’s hard to believe it is little more than 20 years old. But the tradition was born, at least as a recurring annual event, in spring 1998 thanks to a conversation between a stressed-out first-year and a kindly alumnae admissions officer.

“It was the era of the Clinton–Lewinsky scandal. Of El Nino wreaking havoc. At Haverford, Skeeter’s breadsticks were getting bigger and cheesier,” remembers Mairead (Widby) Reinhard ’01, who now celebrates Pinwheel Day in Northern California. “I was a freshman living in Gummere. The dawning of spring was utterly magical to a California girl who’d just gotten through her first winter on the East Coast.”

With her mother visiting, Mairead dropped into the Admission Office to visit with then Assistant Director of Admission Sarah (Ketchum) Baker ’91, who mentioned that a year or two earlier on a beautiful spring day someone had planted pinwheels on Founders Green. Wanting to mark the new season’s arrival and warm weather, Mairead hatched a plan.

“Visiting Sarah’s office was always a spot of calm—she is just the most effusive, kindest, wisest friend,” she said. “It made perfect sense that a conversation in her office led to years of magic every spring.”

Mairead and her mom headed to nearby Mapes and bought them out of pinwheels. After pulling the labels off of all 200 of them after dinner, she set them out on the green overnight, ready to greet the sunshine and all of her fellow campus denizens.

“I woke up early the next morning to watch for a bit and it was magical,” she remembered. “I was so glad that the weather cooperated. With all the spinning and sparkling, it seemed like there were more than 200 pinwheels. The day was  calm, happy, filled with beautiful spring vibes. At twilight, I headed back out to pick all the pinwheels to store them for the next year.”

Mairead (Widby) Reinhard ’01 with the pinwheels she purchased for her first Pinwheel Day in 1998 with her Customs Person Johnny (Marples) Galang ’00.

She put those pinwheels in campus basement storage, and, inspired by the good feelings they’d delivered to her fellow Fords, determined to set them out every year since. For three more years she continued the tradition, hauling pinwheels out of storage, buying dozens of Hope’s Cookies and leaving them out on Founders Porch, and inviting a few friends to help her put out and clean up the pinwheels at the beginning and end of the day.

“[The] pinwheels were a gift to Haverford,” said Mairead, who took no great pains to keep it a secret that she was the person behind pinwheels.

Before graduating it was important to Mairead that she pass the torch so Pinwheel Day could continue on at Haverford after she was gone.

“My senior year, I approached three different juniors who weren’t close friends with one another but were very involved with campus life and asked each of them to continue the tradition,” she said. “I figured that I’d spread out the ask because I really wanted the tradition to continue. I left my bags of pinwheels in a campus basement for them and crossed my fingers. After I graduated, I used to send pinwheel care packages to friends each spring. Pinwheels are still in my life every spring.”

And, all these years later, pinwheels are still an important part of Haverford’s campus life every spring. Though we still don’t know who placed the very first pinwheels in Founders Green in the mid ’90s—the ones that inspired Sarah to encourage Mairead in 1998—no doubt Pinwheel Day owes its recurring annual legacy to Mairead and her desire during her first busy spring at Haverford to take time out and celebrate the changing of the seasons with her new community.

“It’s been 22 years since I started Pinwheel Day and I’m thrilled that the tradition continues,” she said. “It speaks to a special trait of Haverford that the tradition continues in a shroud of secrecy and surprise. Life should be filled with joyful surprises, and I’m happy that Pinwheel Day continues to delight and entertain.”