by Randy Bytwerk
There were giants on campus in those days. These were not professional giants since retired, replaces by those hardly fit to stand on their shoulders, rather giants who reached to the ceiling of the Fine Arts Auditorium to unscrew every one of the 1400 light bulbs, who attaches the huge signs to the sides of buildings, who raised campus artworks to the roof of the science building.
Calvin has a long history of pranks. John J. Timmerman's Promises to Keep records examples ranging from slapstick to elegance. President Stob once opened a door only to meet the contents of a bucket of water. The statue of Moses, before it began the migratory life that led to its destruction, was sometimes graced with a cigar, a bra, a bottle of scotch or a peculiar hat. In the 1930s, the college chairs were varnished one night, with unpleasant circumstances for the unwary the next day (as well as for the culprits, who left fingerprints). Several later-prominent alumni moved a "Model T" to the lobby of the Administration Building (with Moses as the driver). Calvin's current Dean David Hoekema was part of the notorious Bananer, and being slow to learn even participated in 1995 in producing a spoof of the annual Chimes spoof issue. Even current President Gaylen Byker faced the disciplinary attention of then-President William Spoelhof for removing toilet seats on the Franklin campus.
The College, naturally, must discourage such enterprises. The janitorial staff conceals the results of pranks as rapidly as possible. When, for example, students sawed off the ball atop the cupola on Franklin Street, the maintenance staff promptly replaced it with a device constructed with a toilet tank ball until the original could be retrieved. Students who have worked industriously on a prank are often saddened to see the results of their work vanish in less time than it took them to do it. Even if the maintenance staff does its work with great efficiency, however, the pranks go down in college lore.
But what of the present? Is the age of giants behind us?
Calvin's tradition of practical jokes has been moribund of late. It's not that students don't perpetuate them, but there has been a lack of inspiration among the campus pranksters. It may be because students are busier that in the past (I think they probably are.), or because it is a period when the mists of mood inclines students more toward activities that will earn jobs than the attentions of Campus Safety. Whatever the cause, there has not been a prank in the last ten years or so that has gone down in college legend. Calvin's pranks come in bursts. Some institutions manage a steady flow. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, has a long history of elegant and elaborate pranks (check out the web site at http://hacks/mit.edu/Hacks/). Pranks there make national news. Recently, a full-sized model of a police car, complete with blue flashing light, appeared on the top of a campus dome.
Neil Steinberg's If At All Possible, Involve a Cow: The Book of College Pranks has a wealth of ingenious deeds. My favorite comes from the University of Wisconsin, where enterprising students put a large-scale replica of the top sections of the Statue of Liberty atop the frozen campus lake. The story was that they had "kidnaped" the statue with a helicopter, only to have the cables break over the lake. Alas, the Steinberg records not a single Calvin story.
We are failing in our duty to transform every area of culture. Surely Calvinists ought to redeem the practical joke as well as the rest of Creation.
I've made an effort to encourage pranksters at Calvin through the Moses Award (http://www.calvin.edu/academic/cas/news/moses.htm), which gives an elegant gargoyle and a cash prize from the Moses Endowment (currently $1.80) to those responsible for the best prank of the year. Last year, alas, there were only honorable mentions.
Perhaps the college needs to provide more incentive. Many past pranks were occasioned by policies that no longer exist (e.g., compulsory chapel and curfews for women). A return to such policies might encourage the rebellious Calvinist spirit. I wonder how compulsory chapel would play in the 1990s? Or how about bringing back curfews, but this time allow women students to stay out later than men?
What can alumni do about this lamentable situation? Encourage your offspring, relatives or acquaintances who attend Calvin to put their minds to work to amuse and astound the campus. Some creative people need encouragement. Alumni may even set an example. The Moses Award is open to alumni, as long as the prank has some connection to Calvin College. And if, like David Stravers in this issue (see "Letter" column), you feel the need to confess misdeeds of long ago, do so. Be assured that there is a statute of limitations on pranks, and that the dean can no longer come after you.
Randy Bytwerk is a professor of communication arts and sciences at Calvin and chair of the department.