Send in the Clowns
When Brilliant Thinkers Have Time on Their Hands
Brother Raphael Patton ’63, who has some experience in shaking things up, claims there’s just one prank in the world.
“You take the outhouse and put it on the roof,” he says. “All the others are just variations on that one. Put the outhouse on the roof and you turn the world upside-down, and that’s funny.”
As a modern-day Saint Matthew might say, man does not live by Collegiate Seminar alone. Turning the world upside-down has been the arguably distinguished goal of some of the best and brightest to grace the hallways of Saint Mary’s College.
Replacing milk with beer, stuffing a phone booth to overflowing, stranding livestock in dorm rooms and keeping rival colleges on their toes are all part of the College’s rich legacy of hijinks. Here are the stories of how some wily Gaels have turned the world upside-down over the past 80 years.
When 22 Gaels jammed into a phone booth in 1959, it was a landmark event in American cultural history. Photographer Joe Munroe’s picture of the event ran in Life in March 1959, and appeared briefly (among other places) in the opening credits of the long-running TV show “Happy Days.” The 1984 re-enactment also received enormous national exposure, including coverage by “Good Morning America.” However, neither was the first phone booth stuffing at Saint Mary’s.
“Let’s get something straight,” Ted Tsukahara ’62 says. “The College has gotten all its publicity from the Life magazine photo, but that was also a re-enactment. It would not have happened without the first event the previous fall.”
In fall 1958, an old-fashioned wooden phone booth graced the first floor of Aquinas Hall. Father Patrick LaBelle, then–sophomore class president and Aquinas resident, was making a call one evening.
“I was on the phone during this little 9-10 o’clock break we had each night, and a couple of guys were fooling around outside the booth,” he remembers. “After a while people started piling in there with me.”
The impulse proved contagious, and students began climbing in on top of each other.
“At one point somebody says that this must be more people than have ever been in a phone booth before,” Father LaBelle says.
Coming in an era when college students countrywide tried to break oddball or useless records, the students decided their feat needed documentation, so they dialed the Oakland Tribune, which sent a reporter and photographer. More students were recruited into the booth before the newspaper folks arrived.
“School spirit was very high, partly because we had our strongest basketball team in years,” says Tsukahara, who joined the effort. “We wanted to be noticed, and we were sure we could break the record, but it was really just an after-dinner whim.”
By all accounts, 1962 graduates Joe Siler and John Macken were grandmasters of College shenanigans. They smuggled food to financially challenged comrades, used their chemistry skills to create explosives and stink bombs and, perhaps most famously, fought Oliver Hall tyranny by serving up adult beverages at lunch.
“SAGA provided the food and drink, and it wasn’t exciting stuff,” Siler recalls. “So John and a few friends decided to liven things up.”
Brilliant pranks like this one require teamwork and access, and Brother Raphael notes, “It was all students working in the cafeteria back then. One of those guys must have been responsible for the milk, which was kept in big metal tanks.”
After decades of secrecy, it’s come to light that Paul Kreeb ’62 appropriated an empty tank and a cafeteria worker jacket. Siler and Macken bought as many cans of Brown Derby beer as they could afford and emptied them into the milk tank. Macken, displaying both poise and upper-body strength, snuck the tank into Oliver Hall in a duffel bag and hid it behind the milk machine. When lunchtime arrived, Kreeb, wearing the pilfered jacket, replaced a depleted tank with the makeshift keg.
“My memory says it was near-beer,” recalls Tsukahara, who was then dining in Oliver Hall.
Connoisseurs proclaimed it the genuine article, however, and soon entire tables of students were swilling down glasses and hurrying back for refills.
“The run on milk that day was fascinating,” Tsukahara remembers.
College students have traditionally pulled pranks on rivals, and Saint Mary’s is no exception, taking on Santa Clara, USF, Cal and Stanford with particular glee. In 1945, some Gael football players painted Cal’s “Big C” Saint Mary’s red, and the 1950s and 60s witnessed a stream of scarred lawns, oddly colored swimming pools, stolen banners, putrid odors, insulting cheers, dead sea creatures and cricket infestations. In the mid-60s, the rivalry with Santa Clara briefly took to the skies.
“Once, an airplane flew over campus, and it was a guy from Santa Clara dropping leaflets saying they were gonna kick our butts,” says veteran prankster Ken Dothee ’67. With limited options for retaliation, Dothee and friends quickly arranged themselves on the ground to spell out a certain disdainful two-word phrase. One overzealous Gael fired a rifle at the plane.
“The interesting thing was that nothing happened to us, but the Santa Clara guy got in trouble with the FAA for throwing stuff out of the plane,” Dothee says with a chuckle.
Students weren’t the only pranksters. More than one caper was orchestrated by College authority figures. With faculty help, Father LaBelle — a surprise candidate for all-time SMC shenanigans maestro — engineered a noteworthy prank against Santa Clara: creating a dead ringer for The Santa Clara, the Bronco newspaper.
“When I was dean of students and Brother Raphael was on the faculty, we wrote a complete Santa Clara newspaper — all the articles, all the photos, printed on a Santa Clara masthead,” says Father LaBelle. “We announced the dismissal of women and Santa Clara’s return to being a single-sex school and all these other things.”
Saint Mary’s students hauled the ersatz publication south in the dead of night and replaced every copy of The Santa Clara they could find, causing consternation among the Bronco faithful who read it the next day. Santa Clara’s vice president called Father LaBelle about the shocking incident, unaware that he was speaking to the rogue publisher.
“I said, ‘Oh, what an awful thing,’ and we would certainly look for the people responsible,” the good Father says.
’Til the Cows Come Home
Residential pranks are a time-honored practice, whether they involve relocating a student’s belongings to shower stalls, rooftops and tennis courts, or toilet-papering a room. Lisa Moore ’96 and her suitemates in Ageno C once barricaded their RA into his room.
“We filled the entire doorframe with toilet paper and duct-taped trash bags over the whole thing,” she says. “When he opened the door, all the toilet paper fell into his room, and of course he couldn’t get out.”
Some residential pranks are a cut above the ordinary, and a certain escapade involving a cow achieved mythic status. There’s disagreement over the details, but no doubt that the essential story is true.
“It was a small cow, taken up the steps into Augustine Hall,” says Tsukahara. “It was tied to the door of Brother Carl’s room.”
“The cow was in De La Salle Hall,” insists Brother Donald Mansir ’72.
“We took a cow up to Brother Ralph’s room on the third floor of De La Salle Hall,” remembers Father LaBelle.
Good prank stories evolve with time and memory, so the multifaceted nature of the cow story is not surprising. Some believe the unfortunate bovine had to be slaughtered right there in the dorm, while others disagree. It’s possible that the stunt was carried out more than once, and that one cow met its demise while others did not.
“The bad part was that cows can’t walk downstairs, so they had to actually slaughter it up there,” says Father LaBelle.
“There’s a commonly held misconception that the cow had to be slaughtered in order to get it out of the dorm,” Brother Donald says. “The cow was fine.”
Bring Me the Head of Brother Mel
Mystery still shrouds the 1998 abduction of the bust of Brother Mel Anderson. Commissioned to celebrate his 25th year as College president, it occupied a place of honor on the library’s second floor.
“I was editor-in-chief of the Collegian, and the day after the bust first disappeared I found a letter on my desk,” says Renee (Sando) Pearl ’98. “I thought it was just another letter to the editor.”
Instead it was a kidnap note, complete with a Polaroid of the bust with that day’s newspaper to verify the date. Pearl notified the library of the heist, prompting a stir and a police visit.
Some 30 letters with various student demands were sent to the Collegian, each heightening the absurdity of the situation. After commencement, the bust was returned as mysteriously as it was taken. Legend has it that Brother Raphael found it in the Chapel and left it on the Brothers’ dining room table before their morning coffee and Danish.
“There’s something to be said for the execution of the kidnapping,” Pearl says. “It’s not easy to get something that heavy down from the second floor and out the door without being caught.”
The College Prank — R.I.P.?
Until the 1970s, SMC students and faculty regularly pulled pranks, many highly sophisticated. Some say the drop-off in effort and number may be due to the College going co-ed in 1970.
“There were a lot of men on campus, and I think they were a little bored,” Lisa Moore speculates. “During the day they’d go to Collegiate Seminar and have these brilliant academic conversations, but at night they just tortured one another. Admitting women may have civilized things.”
“If you’re embarrassing yourself in front of a bunch of boys, who cares?” Dothee confirms. “If there are girls around, though, you don’t want to embarrass yourself in front of them.”
National security issues have also changed dramatically, and it’s hard to imagine students pulling off a stunt like the one in 1966 when Dothee, Steve McFeely ’69 and pals took an Air Force recruiting plane for a stroll around campus. They took the plane off its blocks in front of De La Salle Hall, pushed it around the edge of campus and left it by Lake LaSalle. Unamused, the recruiters called in the FBI.
“The first person they talked to was Dennis Thompson, who was working the switchboard,” McFeely recalls. “Ironically, he was also the guy who took pictures of the stunt.”
The pranking downturn may also stem from the end of the 10 p.m. curfews, stern Brotherly supervision and a surfeit of free time, which have disappeared along with the phone booth and the milk machine.
“We were way out here in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do,” Brother Raphael says. “We had to make our own entertainment. Now everybody has a car, a TV, a cell phone, and you can be in Berkeley in 10 minutes. Every once in a while you see a kid with a little fire in his eyes, and you think ‘oh, maybe something’s going on,’ but mostly not.”
Then comes a day like May 14, 2008, when the noon bells were followed not by “The Bells of Saint Mary’s” but by the 1978 Bob Marley reggae classic “Is This Love?” Seniors Connor McNeill and Morgan Veyna pulled off what Brother Donald says was once a traditional senior prank.
“We had no clue that it was an old tradition; we just knew that nobody had done anything in a long time,” McNeill says. “Everyone really liked the idea, and I’ve heard that even the Brothers were really impressed.
“It was a fun process, and it’s also fun knowing that when we talk about college, or come back to visit, we’ll be able to tell that particular story.”
Got a prank story of your own to share? Send it to us at [email protected] and we’ll post it on the SMC website.