Share / Discuss


A tribute to some of the College’s memorable larks and pranks

Swarthmore students have often turned their creative and intellectual powers to the commission of pranks. Engineering especially has a long history of pulling off remarkably clever and creative stunts—check out our gallery—but the mischief-making gene spans the College’s entire population. Seats in a lecture hall have disappeared, Adirondack chairs have hung from trees, and Clothier’s bell tower has chimed erratically.

There’s a healthy aspect to the benign pranks. Swarthmore is such an academic pressure cooker, it’s a rare student who doesn’t look for occasional relief. 

The roster of memorable pranks offered here is not exhaustive, of course. Many exist only in oral legend, and some alumni, nominated by classmates as notorious pranksters, declined to respond to queries for this story, perhaps out of modesty or a more mature sense of judgment ... 


Up the Flagpole

Like moths to a flame, swallows to Capistrano, and Elvis fans to Graceland, generations of student pranksters have been drawn to the forbidden territory atop Parrish Hall. 

Perhaps most memorable was April Fools’ 1997, which dawned with the Canadian flag flying high above Parrish, announcing a revolutionary development: Swarthmore had been taken over by the Canadian government.

With signs around campus declaring the school “under new management,” Swarthmore would be known as “McGill South” and offer free tuition for Canadian students, not to mention socialized medicine for everyone, and a better brand of beer at College events (Moosehead over Milwaukee’s Best). In a surrender ceremony documented in the April Fools’ edition of The Phoenix, President Al Bloom graciously posed with the Canadian flag.  

The “Most Arduous Effort Producing a Disappointingly Ephemeral Payoff” is the prank reported by Bob Norman ’49. He and a 6-foot-9 classmate somehow managed to hoist a bicycle onto Parrish’s roof and raise it up the flagpole. However, shortly after daybreak, maintenance workers had taken it down. 


Fried Petrina?

Never let it be said that physics students lack a sense of humor. Petrina Albulescu Dawson ’76 reports this one from April Fools’ in the mid-’70s: 

“Professor Paul Mangelsdorf ’49 had worried the previous year, in the electromagnetics lab, when I pointed too close to one of the high voltage plasma tubes: He could see a fried Petrina in front of his eyes! So we made a full-size person by stuffing clothes, a pillow, and a hat with newspaper and posed her as ‘electrocuted’ by the tube.” She writes that it was one of many physics pranks and puns committed in the lab that night. (We understand that Schrödinger’s cat was not harmed during the event.)

Speaking of risks in electrical experiments, for her class’s 50th anniversary yearbook, Sandra Dixon ’61 fessed up to dissing Benjamin Franklin, who back then was honored with a bust in Dupont science library. She swiped Franklin’s bust and replaced it with a black cape, some frayed string, a key, and a placard saying, “Benjamin Franklin After Kite Experiment.”


Those ‘Worshippers’ Were Nuts!

A prank-as-performance-art satire was reported by Bulletin designer Phil Stern ’84.

“Posing as expert anthropologists/art historians,” he writes, “two students from the Class of 1984 ‘discovered’ evidence of a tribe of squirrel-worshippers who lived in the College heat tunnels.”

The two—who shall remain nameless to protect the guilty—held a carefully advertised “reception” in those steamy warrens, complete with warm wine and melting brie, drawing a crowd of about 50 sweltering Swatties to marvel at the tribe’s wall paintings.

The affair went “swimmingly,” says Stern, until it was interrupted by College security, who were alerted by a gullible student asking where to find an entrance to the underground tunnels.



High-tech High Jinks

What is a Swarthmore term paper without a raft of those learned-sounding academic buzzwords, like dichotomy, hegemony, deconstruction, and postmodern? 

Students in 2002 found out, thanks to prankster Gabriel Rosenkoetter ’02. He hacked a couple of libraries’ public printers and programmed them to delete a list of more than 200 “typically Swarthmorean” words. 

Upon finding their intellectual handiwork pocked with blank spaces, desperate students fell into a frenzy that left tech-support gurus baffled. Hours of anxious chaos ensued until normalcy was restored. 

Rare among the pranksters featured here, Rosenkoetter publicly claimed credit in The Phoenix—and paid a fine for the staff time spent trying to fix the printers. 

On April Fools’ Day in 2001, an unnamed hacker sent an all-campus email in Associate Dean Tedd Goundie’s name, reminding students about daylight saving time, but advising them to turn their clocks back instead of forward. The Phoenix reported that Goundie called it an “elegantly understated prank.” 


Paper, Paper Everywhere …

A surprising number of pranks involved a fairly primitive technology, invented millennia ago in Egypt. 

Back when students were required to attend campuswide Collection several times a year, it often meant surrendering precious free time to listen to a boring minor-league speaker. A favorite form of protest was for students to whip out copies of The New York Times and rustle the papers en masse. 

Mimi Siegmeister Koren ’60 made use of these papers when she and her pals pranked a dormmate who was away for the weekend by filling the victim’s entire room up to the ceiling with crumpled wads of newsprint. 

Then there’s Bill Schmidt ’76, who confesses to leading the Great Toilet Paper Heist of 1975. Like locusts stripping a field clean of crops, the pranksters methodically plundered every common dorm bathroom and public restroom for toilet paper. The heist happened on a Friday after maintenance staff had clocked out and locked up replacement supplies for the weekend. The campus was wiped out until Monday morning, when supply closets reopened and the conspirators revealed where the stash was hidden. 


Name Games

Melissa Morrell MacBeth ’99 fondly remembers the prank her senior year when hundreds of the black name plates identifying specimens in the Scott Arboretum were simplified to labels such as “Green Plant—Greenus Plantus,” “Small Shrub,” and “Short Tree.” 

When France failed to support President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, some U.S. lawmakers protested by symbolically renaming the french fries served in the congressional cafeteria as “freedom fries.” That bit of patriotic absurdity inspired Raghu Karnad ’05 to perform some relabeling work at the department of modern languages. Using stickers, he converted all occurrences of “French” to “Freedom.” (He notes he was mocking the war hawks, not the French.)

Swarthmore pranked itself during the Sesquicentennial celebration in 2014, producing an official-sounding April Fools’ news release declaring, “Swathmore Drops ‘R’ from Name to Fix 150 Years of Pronunciation Confusion.” 


Au Naturel? Oh No! 

Swarthmore students love to do things in public without their clothes on. The rugby teams’ naked coed fundraiser, the “Dash for Cash” through Parrish Hall, is a legend in its own right. 

In our clothing-free category, the best prank was described in a 2009 Phoenix article by Kendal Rinko ’09. As a tour guide led a group of prospective students into her dorm, they encountered a group of students, all in the buff, having tea in the lounge.  

Rinko wrote, “A shocked mother replied, ‘Oh, my stars! Is this normal?’ To which the tour guide replied, ‘Would you care for a cup?’”    


Weathering Academia

Many students had trouble returning to campus from spring break in 1993 after a blizzard blanketed the region on the Saturday before classes resumed. Monday morning, Joanna Vondrasek ’94 left Sharples for her 8:30 a.m. class when she saw official College letterhead notices posted on several doors declaring that classes had been canceled for the day. Only after spending the morning holed up in the library did she learn that the notices were bogus and classes had gone on as normal.


Oh, What a Beautiful Prank!

One of the more legendary highbrow pranks had a musical theme. In the 1950s, during a campuswide Collection, noted lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II spoke. When it was time for the hymn, a cabal of students instead started singing “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma! 

“Eventually the organist gave up and joined in,” Peter Van Pelt ’54 says. “Everyone was singing like crazy. Hammerstein said it was the best welcome he ever had.”


Lowbrow Cultural Commentary 

John Fischer ’81 cops to being in the group that planted a pink flamingo in Wharton Quad and chuckled as maintenance crews struggled to extricate it, because the conspirators had anchored the bird in place with concrete. John Bowe ’83 reports that the flamingo later made appearances all over campus, most notably on President Theodore Friend’s windowsill.


From the Awesome-if-True Archives

Some stories of long-ago epic pranks remain unconfirmed despite diligent digging.

 A couple of early 1970s alums mentioned a legendary episode in which students supposedly raided Sharples for a huge stash of butter and applied it to the train tracks at the Swarthmore station. As the locomotive arrived, so the story goes, it hit the butter and slid past the station. (If true, it proves that some things are not better with butter.) 

No one wrote in to claim credit for the time the clock face on Tarble was turned into a Mickey Mouse timepiece, but several alums remembered seeing that one circa 1980. 

Joyce Klein Perry ’65 recollected seeing treetops on Magill Walk toilet-papered (presumably, Swarthmore’s own Scott brand), reputedly scattered there by a student piloting an airplane. 

And then there’s the distant legend of the cow that was led up to the president’s second-floor office in Parrish and refused to go back down the stairs. Fran Brokaw ’76 says it happened, citing her grandmother, Class of 1909, as the source. 

True or not, generations of Swarthmoreans have milked that story for all it’s worth.


Did we miss any mischief? Let us know in the comments or by emailing us your additional College capers!


+ View a slideshow of recent April Fools' Day pranks by Swarthmore engineering students.

Extra Mischief, Extra Pranks

We heard from so many creative Swarthmore pranksters that we couldn’t fit all of the stories in the printed magazine. Here are some of the ones we had to leave out.


Water Tower Twitter

The old water tower behind Dupont was a ripe target for short protest messages and other pranks. In his 50th anniversary yearbook, Hap Peelle ’65 confessed to painting a “Big Brother Eye,” labeled In Loco Parentis, up there—his way of condemning the College’s system of parental-style rules and oversight.


Not-So-Ivory Tower

Clothier, though locked and rickety for much of the College’s modern history, has not always been secure against attention-grabbing pranksters.

Indeed, it could get crowded at the top. On another April Fools’ Day, in 1975, The Phoenix reported that students decorated the tower with flags sympathetic to three left-wing causes (the Symbionese Liberation Army, the Venezuelan government, and the Viet Cong) and one from the Phi Psi fraternity.

A Sunday morning in spring 1979, David Sahagian ’79 and some pals adorned Clothier tower with a large banner featuring an “Easter” bunny of the Playboy variety. He and his co-conspirators performed an encore for graduation, but this time the Playboy bunny atop Clothier wore a graduation cap.


Hostage Negotiations

A late-1970s caper was inspired by the admissions essay required of students from that time, describing a prominent figure in history they would have liked to have known and why. David Sahagian ’79 says he was among the handful of pranksters dressed in leather jackets, their faces covered by stockings who barged into President Theodore Friend’s office and held him “hostage” until he produced his own version of the essay. In keeping with Quaker pacifist values, and perhaps as a rebuke to the implied threat confronting him, Friend wrote about Mahatma Gandhi.


Merry Christmas and a Dry-Clean New Year!

Jane Srivastava ’63 writes, "In fall 1962, my dorm room was Parrish 302(?) East: on the front of the building overlooking Parrish Beach. There was a big vine going past my window, and at Christmas time I stuffed my red winter underwear—adding a head and my red stocking cap—and attached it to the vine to look like Santa climbing in the window. The night watchman came around the first night it was up (in those days visits to female dorms were VERY restricted) to see who was climbing in my window.


Not really an intentional prank, but here's another brush with the night watchman: I collected drycleaning from the women’s dorms for the village dry-cleaners all through college, and sang a little ditty as I entered each floor. (In those days a lot of women sent their things to the dry-cleaners, frequently.) Senior year. my roommate Polly’s fiancé, Fred, was often visiting Sunday afternoon, and stayed on in the lounge of our dorm, Robinson House, then a senior women’s dorm, into the evening. (Since it was the dorm lounge, that was allowed, up to a point.)  He was a folk singer, and one Sunday evening I invited him to come with me to Worth to play along, troubadour style, as I collected the dry-cleaning. We attracted the night watchman that night, too, and I was not popular with the senior women who had men in their rooms past the 6 p.m. curfew and were afraid the watchman might discover their visitors…  I laugh now as I picture all those visitors jumping out the back windows of Worth as the watchman pursued Fred and me up and down the stairs in Worth.


Too Far?

No doubt the pranking impulse produces many that are simply sophomoric or mean.

And it’s certainly possible for pranksters to cross the line separating a tolerably amusing caper from outright vandalism, as in 1975, when some students stole the card catalogs from the library. In the analog era, that was the equivalent of swiping a master hard drive with the College’s entire holdings.

One year, students essentially vandalized an iconic campus sculpture—the Alexander Calder mobile—taking parts of it up to the roof of Parrish. That caper provoked a thundering editorial condemnation by the editor of The Phoenix, Jay Herrick ’94.

Another year, some fraternity pledges were caught breaking into a building at Haverford, a lark that produced sanctions against the fraternity for hazing. And in the cyber era, many April Fools’ Day pranks involve sending fake emails in others’ names, often filled with inappropriate and offensive remarks.

And then there’s this perspective, offered by Glen Kanwit ’65. In 1990, he hosted a party for high-school students who’d been accepted to Swarthmore, including his son. Two recent Swarthmore alums, then in graduate school at Northwestern University, attended.

“It was a success,” Kanwit writes, “until one of the high schoolers said, ‘We know that Swarthmore is a great college academically, but do you have fun there?’ 

“The graduate students looked at each other, completely baffled by the question. It took them a full minute to figure out an answer.

“And in that minute, my son—and I suspect many of the other high-school students in the room—had crossed Swarthmore off their list. 

“So yeah,” Kanwit writes, ‘it’s important to remember the fun times at Swarthmore.”  


Additional Pranking Reading

Two of the most epic pranks in college history—renowned for their intellectual brilliance and difficulty in execution— have been featured in the Bulletin.       

The July 2012 issue details the 1959 “Sherkite hoax,” wherein students tricked a history professor into trying to track down an obscure religious sect of their own invention.

The December 2002 issue details a controversial 1965 campus Collection, held amid the Cold War, featured an unapologetically repressive but fake Soviet bloc official named Nesmeyanov, the “Hangman of Hungary,” speaking in Russian. The impostor delivered belligerent remarks amid a storm of protest.


Adlai Prexy: The Phoenix Caper of 1953

One legendary prank, involving a U.S. presidential candidate from the 1950s, drew national media attention. Peter Van Pelt ’54 sent in this account, which was so well-written that we’re including it here in full:

At the start of the 1952–53 academic year, President Nason announced that he would retire in June 1953, and a search committee was formed. In the presidential election that November, Eisenhower beat Adlai Stevenson, to the sorrow of the campus. In January seven of us hatched a plot to put out a fake issue of The Phoenix announcing that Stevenson was to be the new president of Swarthmore College. 

The front page banner headline was ‘ADLAI PREXY!’ We wrote three articles: a front page news article announcing Stevenson’s appointment, a feature article describing how the Search Committee had come to its decision, and an editorial congratulating everyone on such an outstanding choice.  

After the regular Phoenix staff had "put the paper to bed" on Monday afternoon, we went to the printer and said we had important late-breaking news, and we would have to tear down and rebuild the front page, feature page, and editorial page. They took it in stride.

On Tuesday afternoon, we picked up the printed papers and drove back to campus. We entered the Parrish mailroom through an unlocked window (preplanned) and quickly thrust a copy into every mailbox. 

We walked around the building, entered, and joined the queue for the dining room, which was in Parrish in those days. The place was in an uproar. Everyone was busy speculating about whether it was true or a hoax.

That evening President Nason announced it was a hoax—and he wanted the perpetrators in his office by noon the next day. The wire services had got wind of it, and the news of Stevenson’s "appointment" appeared in several newspapers. (Stevenson was vacationing in the Caribbean; when contacted by reporters, he said that he was flattered, but no, it was not true, and he hoped that the College would "not go too hard on his young friends.")

The next morning the seven of us went to President Nason’s office and gave him the full story. He thanked us for coming in, and said the next steps would be decided shortly. He was clearly unhappy about the matter, but he actually said that the manner in which the articles were written and the smoothness with which the scheme was pulled off "excited his admiration."

At a joint meeting of the Student Affairs Committee and the Men’s Judiciary Committee, we were asked to describe how we had accomplished the hoax. They fixed our punishment: apologize to the Search Committee and the Phoenix staff, and pay for having the paper reprinted with the proper articles.

President Nason attended that meeting and called us "The Seven Little Dwarfs," which got a good laugh. So after the dust settled, and because we regretted the inconvenience that our caper had caused to this fine man, we wrote him a letter of apology and added the dwarf names (Dopey, Grumpy, Bashful, etc.) to our signatures.

The day after our appearance before the Search Committee, each of us received an identical letter in our mailbox:

Dear Dwarfs:

Dean Hunt and I very much appreciated your apology of Feb. 13. This was a work of supererogation on your part but nonetheless appreciated. 

I hope you did not feel disappointed with your reception by the joint Board-faculty-alumni committee to select a president. I thought your statement to the committee was excellent, and the committee was disposed to let the matter rest with that.

I suppose that in all consistency I ought to sign myself “Snow White” Nason, but that involves a set of assumptions, which even my vanity cannot stomach. 

Yours sincerely,

John W. Nason  (signed: “Prexy” Nason)

A thoroughly satisfying and generous wrap-up to the caper.