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One night the boys got going . . .
(and other unscholarly pursuits at the University through the years)

Long after the past pluperfect subjunctive (or whatever it is) of irregular French verbs and those immortal words of Milton have been relegated to well-deserved obscurity in the depths of a University graduate's mind, recollections of student buffoonery survive. More than survive: they become better loved and more embellished with age.

The record of individual nonsense at The University of Alberta is at least as long as the list of students who ever set foot on the campus. Some of the foolery began as innocent experimentation, such as the arts student who threw a super-efficient rubber ball down the Cameron Library stairwell from the fifth floor to see how efficient the ball really was. Its efficiency was unquestionable, but its accuracy left something to be desired. Instead of bouncing back to the fifth floor, it flew through the door of the Rare Books Room in the basement, ricocheted off walls, display cases, venerable books, light fixtures, and desks, with the Librarian in baffled pursuit.

Human failings have invited all sorts of pranks, horsed rooms, and tubbings. A residence student who lived in fear of catching some dread disease was set in a panic by another student decked out in red ink spots, and spent two weeks making daily visits to the infirmary. Reg Lister, guardian angel of the old residences for forty-five years and patron saint, aider, and abettor of generations of campus pranksters, wrote in his memoirs of a handsome but vain med student in the thirties whose portrait, framed by a toilet seat, was hung in state above the entrance to the Athabasca dining room.

At least two elaborately staged pranks in the 1920s involved mock shoot-outs and much red ink and strawberry juice. Both fooled everyone completely for a time, and one fooled the city police for several days. Athabasca Hall was surrounded by detectives and police dogs looking for both the murderer and the victim. When one of the perpetrators of the ‘horse’ hopefully suggested that the stains in the dirt looked like red ink to him, the investigating officer barked, ‘Nonsense. I know blood when I see it.’

Ceremonies and civic pomp had their attraction for University students. The High Level Bridge was unofficially opened in 1913 by erstwhile student, poet, and Gateway staffer Sandy Carmichael aboard a donkey, leading the annual initiation parade across town.

Shortly after World War I, Wop May and some cronies appropriated a cannon from one of the local armories. Using old newspapers, buckets of water, and broomhandles, all cheerfully supplied by Reg Lister, they set off a series of salutes (in honor of the forthcoming Armistice Ball) that were heard all across the city and shook University windows. ‘There was quite a fuss over town about stealing the cannon,’ Lister wrote, not quite comprehending why anyone should be ruffled by such harmless boyish pranks.

Official sod-turnings for new buildings became so commonplace in the sixties that no one watched except the construction workers, provided they had nothing better to do. In other times, though, these were grand events. In 1948, a cornerstone was to be laid for Rutherford Library, the first major new University building in thirty years. The Premier, E. E. Manning, LLD '48, The Lieutenant-Governor, John C. Bowen, LLD '39, and a cast of dignitaries were invited, and a fine, elaborate cornerstone was carved. Two days before the big event the cornerstone disappeared. After a mighty administrative flap, the contractor produced a makeshift plywood cornerstone, which was worse than no cornerstone at all. Twenty minutes before the ceremonies were to begin, the original cornerstone was found wedged in one of the cylindrical fire escapes behind St. Stephen's College.

Hazing was a charming old barbarism borrowed from British prep schools. It involved sophomores harassing new students, a process intended somehow to introduce them properly to university life.

Freshmen were usually awakened at four or five o'clock in the morning for a forced march. Throughout the day they polished shoes as ordered, warmed seats, ran tedious errands for the second year students, and served as a cross between slave and scapegoat. They wore odd socks, one green and one yellow, bibs, numbers, beanies, and hair shorn down the middle of their heads. They had a strict curfew of seven o'clock, imposed by the sophomores, and even then they weren't left alone. They were dragged feet first down halls in ‘chariot races,’ risking slivers and red posteriors; hauled half-asleep from a warm bed to a tub of icy water; and generally abused according to the sophs' whims.

After perhaps two weeks of this treatment, they were brought before a mock court such as Kafka might have invented, and found guilty of whatever offences the court fancied.

Mass punishment followed, differing little from year to year. Each freshman was blindfolded and examined for fitness by an officious med student. With the help of several upperclassmen wielding paddles, the freshman climbed to the top of a rickety ladder (or was hurried along a plank leading off the Convocation Hall balcony). He was then made to jump from the ladder (or the balcony), still blindfolded, to be tossed in a blanket by sophomores below. Occasionally they missed. After the blanket, the freshman was rolled in a barrel down an incline to a home-made electric chair, which gave him a suitable jolt and propelled him to an operating table. A mock operation followed, usually performed with a sliver of ice drawn across his bare middle, which was then bandaged with warm fly paper. At this point most of the ordeal was over, although there might be a ritual tubbing. His blindfold finally removed, the freshie was decorated with calcimine and other ‘war paint,’ and left to recover while others received the same treatment, until all were ready for the grand march past Pembina Hall and across town.

Even Reg Lister, who generally favored hazing so long as no one was hurt, wrote, ‘You can imagine a bunch of young freshmen, the first time away from home, huddled together in a corner of a corridor, and a bunch of sophs hanging around with little sticks.’ Each year's initiation brought a round of criticism, often in Gateway editorials. One, in October, 1926, branded hazing ‘obnoxious, primitive, unsportsmanlike’ and called for its abolition, which finally came in the early thirties. A lawsuit which cost the University $100,000 brought the old initiation practices to an end. A much kinder welcome was arranged for freshmen thereafter, although the parade ‘over town’ was a regular feature until sixteen years ago.

The ‘snake dance,’ which began as a parade of bedraggled freshmen, grew longer and longer as the student body grew. In the mid-fifties there were up to three thousand in a line.

University Archivist Jim Parker, BA '61, MA '67, remembers being among the first twenty in one of the longer snake dances. The line trouped through the Rainbow Ballroom on Whyte Avenue, stopped a bus for half an hour while it poured through the front door and out the back, paraded through the old Capital theatre giving the varsity yell (the manager hadn't locked the door in time), and snarled traffic on Jasper Avenue for two hours. ‘There was one fellow in an Austin who was getting a bit ruffled, so we picked up his car with him in it and turned it to face the opposite direction in his lane of traffic. I always wondered how he got out of that.’

But the traffic jams, the invasion of cinemas and restaurants, the damage, and the nuisance prompted President Andrew Stewart, LLD '59, to quash the snake dance once and for all after 1957.

The Athabasca Hall dining room tried to maintain some semblance of academic dignity with neat white table linen, crested china, real silverware, and family service. Slices of bread winging across tables didn't help the image, though, and on at least one occasion in the late thirties the whole room went literally to the dogs.

The laboratory dogs had been raising more din than usual in their pens behind the old Medical Building and caught the attention of a band of students who thought ‘they might be hungry.’ Their ringleader lifted the open padlock that fastened the pen door, and a dozen or more woofing, leaping, and yapping prisoners stormed out. The boys manoeuvred the lot of them over to Athabasca Hall and the beautifully prepared dining room. The dogs bounded onto the tables, smashed crockery, muddied linen, terrified the waitresses, and attacked the loaves of bread that had just been neatly set out. Reg Lister and Jessie Mitchell, the head housemaid at the time, finally chased the animals out with brooms, but not before the place was a shambles.

Residence raids have declined in proportion to the increase in co-ed living. As Provost A. A. Ryan, BA '39, MA '40, commented, ‘Having women students mixed in the same building with the men takes all the curiosity away.’ Well, after you've seen one girl in rollers and floppy robe, you've seen them all (and perhaps wondered why anyone wanted to raid a women's residence in the first place). More than that, the women claim to have civilized the men, so that they no longer raid each other's residences either.

Reg Lister recorded in his memoirs a classic raid between University residences and St. Stephen's College. It occurred in 1914, but it had much in common with other raids over the next fifty years.

‘One night in March the boys got going. They raided Alberta College as it was called in those days, and dumped everybody out of bed and came back to residence here with lots to eat — sealers full of nice home-canned fruit, etc. I don't remember who got the bigger share, Athabasca or Assiniboia, but it tasted good.

‘This was a good start, and someone in Assiniboia got the idea to raid Athabasca. Well, they got into Athabasca, all the garbage was turned upside down, mostly on top of Assiniboia boys as they came up the stairs. This did not stop them so they turned on the fire hose. It was a nice fight while it lasted. After driving Assiniboia home, the boys from Athabasca went over to Assiniboia and got the same reception. I had never seen so much water coming down the stairs, and I had never seen the buildings so clean.

‘After they had had enough, most of the boys helped to shovel out and mop up the water. The front hall of Athabasca was covered with about two inches of water so we opened the front doors and pushed it out. Early next morning you could not tell there had been a raid as all the hoses had been put back tidily and the buildings were nice and clean.

‘Then Mr. Bowers, the University Librarian, opened the stack room that was in the north end of Assiniboia and found all his books were wet. The water had dropped from the ceiling. No one had thought of that. But it was a good night as far as the students were concerned; no one was hurt and everyone had a swell time. Of course, the students paid for their fun. And they were a good bunch; most of them left for France late in the year.’

Probably not as much damage was done when ‘the boys’ charged Pembina. In fact, the damage was more likely to happen when they were being gallant.

‘On a certain Sunday night during the twenties,’ wrote Lister, ‘some senior students who had just come home from a night out got the idea of entertaining the girls in Pembina with a sing song. After some discussion, it was decided to bring out the piano from the lounge. The piano was equipped with glass casters and it was quite a trick to roll the piano without breaking the casters. But the boys were raring to go, and there were enough of them to move six pianos. The boys slid the piano across the lounge until they hit the steel threshold to the front hall breaking two of the casters. They kept pushing and the broken caster gouged the oak floor of the lounge in a good many places and left a track down the corridor. By the time the piano had been pushed over two more thresholds there were no casters left. Somehow the boys managed to get the piano into the bathroom on the first floor south which faces Pembina; then they opened the window and serenaded the girls across the way singing all the old songs from the first war-some of which were all right and some were not. Anyway they all had a good time; I don't know if the girls did. Then they pushed the piano back to the lounge and left it sitting there all lopsided and looking as if it had had a hard night.’

Their patients, clients, and even grandchildren might not guess it now, but most physicians and engineers who were students before 1938 gleefully took part in the annual med/engineer vendetta. The fight recurred over at least fifteen years on the muddy battlefield between the Medical and Arts Buildings. Usually it included faculty flag and sign stealing, fire hose fights, the throwing of mud, rotten eggs, and oranges, mutual territorial raids, and later fist fights, forceful removal of opponents' clothing, and a certain amount of damage to University buildings. One year the engineers tried to raid the anatomy labs and R. F. Shaner, LLD '71, now Professor Emeritus of Anatomy, narrowly prevented both the raid and the med students' proposed defence of throwing large ash cans of water down the stairs and onto the engineers. Another year, the engineers paraded the ‘first med student,’ a garter snake on a string, through the Arts rotunda. In 1927, the meds and engineers surprised everyone by joining forces and raiding the Arts Building.

By the late thirties each year became rowdier and involved more damage. Deans A. C. Rankin LLD '46, of Medicine and R. S. L. Wilson of Engineering were not amused, and between them put a stop to the old feud.

Thereafter a verbal war replaced pitched battles between the meds and engineers. Until they were moved into the Clinical Sciences Building two blocks away from everyone else, the medicine students took to raiding the Rutherford Library in search of the law students' Christmas tree. Scattered in three buildings over the campus, even the engineers are a little tamer now and Engineers' Week (mercifully) isn't what it used to be, although only a few years ago Gateway staff members and artsmen who were careless enough to short-cut through the Engineering Building were regularly dumped into a vat of purple dye for giving offense to the black-jacketed brethren.

At times the line between merry pranks and outright vandalism was obscured. Sign snatching over town is still a favorite pastime. The interfaculty stealing of flags, emblems, and queen contestants occurred regularly. The bronze Mercury from the Arts Building rotunda had a habit of turning up in all manner of unlikely places, until finally it didn't turn up at all. A waitress in St. Joseph's College cafeteria once obligingly wrapped for a group of seniors a portrait of a mountain scene which had been hanging on the wall. It decorated the residence room of one of the students for the rest of the term, and was returned to its old spot after final exams, leaving the college staff bewildered about where it had vanished and how it came back. More on the side of vandalism, some wit neatly cut an exact replica of his living room floor from the broadloom in the faculty lounge in the Henry Marshall Tory Building.

The sixties brought ban-the-bomb, student power, and don't-raise-the-fees marches, usually orderly and peaceful, and definitely a part of a specific period of campus life.

A very different torchlight demonstration erupted in 1923. Some 400 students, almost half the student body, marched on President Tory's house, singing university songs and chanting the varsity yell, to convince him not to accept a prestigious job offer in eastern Canada. After such a show of affection, what could he do but stay, at least for another half-dozen years. This may have been the only student demonstration in the history of this campus to have ever accomplished its objective.

Today foolishness almost has gone out of fashion. The last real show of spirit is the annual Bar-None, which has changed little in half a century. The Aggies still dish out pancakes from a chuck wagon, square dance in the streets and hallways, and trot horses and an ageless shaggy donkey through campus lobbies (sharing an elevator with a donkey before 8 a.m. can make you really wonder what you drank the night before).

Otherwise, students Do Their Own Thing. In fact, they have become so earnest and intent and deadly serious that they seem to have forgotten how to laugh at themselves. But perhaps this too, like raccoon coats, sock hops, carrying Volkswagens up the Library steps, and (if you were an Engineer) wearing your slide rule dangling from your belt, is just a passing fad.

Published Spring 1973.

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