PRANKS (ALSO KNOWN IN THOSE EARLY DAYS AS RFs) were a creative art form at Harvey Mudd, the kind of release to be expected from such an incredible concentration of brainpower, stress and loosely supervised youth. A true [prank] had to have a victim, and in the case of the VW in the East Dorm breezeway, the victim was Gary Jahns ’66, whom Terry Needham ’66 described as “a good sport and a very nice guy … also gullible, (with) a car that could move around in mysterious ways.”
Gary: It was a Friday or Saturday night in my sophomore year, and I had a date. After having dinner (or going to a movie, or bowling, I don’t really remember), we went back to my dorm room in East Hall. We were having a terrific philosophical discussion when my phone rang. The caller was another East resident (I wish I could remember who), and he said, “I thought you’d like to know that your car just went by my room.” After making sure my date had a relevant philosophy book to keep her occupied, I streaked down the stairs and found that the gang in the famous photo had rolled my 1954 VW bug from the parking lot to the breezeway (don’t ask me how). Apparently, they decided that when I had a woman in my room was a great time to re-park my car. They wanted to eventually embarrass me in front of my date, but the phone call thwarted their plans. I don’t remember how I was able to get in the car, but I did. Charlie Brown took the picture, and then I gunned the car forward, out of the breezeway and down the lawn to the driveway.
Charlie: I think this [prank] came about due to the first law of thermodynamics (or was it the second, or the nth?—I could never get them straight), where objects just need to settle into their natural resting positions. (Or was it increase or decrease their entropy or enthalpy? This King James stuff is still confusing to me.) Translating into basic English, the VW just needed to come to rest in that precise, immovable position in that hallway to be at peace with the world.
So some of us helped speed up that physical reaction. Anyway, I am innocent, as I was never the instigator of any of the pranks that occurred during our occupancy. I was only along to photograph what happened (although I may have offered a few suggestions). I would look to Dennis [Rich ’66] or Wolfgang [Pflaum ’66] as the usual ones who excelled in creating unique solutions to difficult problems.
The issue of how to get the VW into the hallway was simple—just drive it in (there was just enough clearance to do so). But how does the driver get out, as there is not any clearance to open the door? Turns out this VW had a roof hatch that fully opened, and the driver could easily get out and slide the hatch closed. But then Gary (the owner), if he examined the situation in enough depth, would discover that he could simply slide the hatch open, get in and drive out. Not good. We needed a way to drive in, get out and lock the car securely.
The intuitively obvious solution as I remember was that we somehow “borrowed” Gary’s keys, drove the car most of the way into the hallway up to the door (or possibly just took the car out of gear and pushed it all the way to the hallway), then the driver set the brake, got out and locked the car. Finally, since VWs were fairly light, we enlisted several other helpers to lift the car and carry it fully into the hallway.
Even though Gary had his keys, there was no way he could get inside the car to start and move it. After much pondering, Gary was able to find others to carry the car to safety!
By the way, this same group placed the same VW into the tree planter area of Platt Center. And stole the dean’s door.
The only reason this group took such actions was due to the motivation speech we as freshmen received during Orientation week in the dining hall at Claremont Men’s. The spokesman (maybe [Dean of Students Eugene] Hotchkiss) told us about [pranks] and to think of creative things to do that were original, reversible and not harmful—such as his example of stealing the town’s barber pole.
We later applied that principle to stealing the dean’s door, for which we were charged with “conduct unbecoming a Harvey Mudd gentleman.” And for which we were found “not guilty” (of course) by the Student Judiciary Board.
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It must have been a full moon or a solar eruption the Friday night of Jan. 17, 1964, as several RF’s (pranks) happened that night. After putting Gary Jahn’s VW in the inside hallway of East Dorm (and helping him get it out), the crew, which included chronic ringleader Dennis Rich, Ernie Sullivan, Terry Needham and Charlie Brown, decided around 1 a.m. on the 18th to steal the Dean’s door.
This event was actually precipitated by Ernie. Earlier in the afternoon, Ernie had been summoned to the dean’s assistant’s office (Hilda Larson) for some sort of an award (or was it a warning?) from the dean. While Ernie was waiting in her office in a chair by her window, the idea of opening the transom window just enough to first turn the handle back horizontal and push the window almost closed (3/8” +- 1/16”) against the latch mechanism occurred to him. If the staff checked the window during lockup, it would appear closed and locked to the untrained eye.
That evening, while the group was sitting around, Ernie disclosed his risk-taking feat, and an opportunity immediately arose. But we weren’t sure what to do with this newfound access capability to the building. What could we do that wouldn’t be destructive? The idea of taking the Dean’s door evolved. But this wasn’t just as simple as going in and taking the door—where were we going to hide it? And what if someone saw us? However, plans were made and at 2 a.m., the crew descended on Kingston, making sure no one else was around.
Ernie was the thinnest one of us, so he was able to wiggle through the window with Terry’s help [Picture DD01]. Once inside, he let the rest of us in. So now both the building’s door and the dean’s office locks had been “defeated,” a soon-to-become crime of major concern. Oh, by the way, Ernie relocked the window, so the entrance method was not detectable.
Tools had been brought along to remove the door, but it was discovered that the ball bearing hinges did not have removable pins [DD02]. So the complete hinge (4 of them) had to be unscrewed from the jamb [DD03]. While that was happening, others swapped the Men/Women restroom signs [DD04], and inverted other office signs (including the dean’s office sign as seen in picture DD05).
The next step was very risky. We had to walk from Kingston to east of East dorm without being discovered [DD06]. Somehow, nobody really saw us. It was reported that someone returning with a date had seen a group carrying something, but were too far away to recognize who or figure out what it was. The door was stored in the old Water Tower across Mills Rd. We went to bed.
Saturday morning at 7 a.m., the dorm proctors woke everybody up to attend emergency dorm meetings. They stated that somehow Kingston had been broken into and the dean’s door had been stolen. There was concern that sensitive documents had been compromised. Anyone with information needed to come forward immediately. The police suspected students were involved (duh!! Again intuitively obvious.) and put on the pressure, but nobody cracked.
Then an ultimatum was issued: If the door wasn’t returned by noon, the FBI would be called in to investigate due to classified documents that were stored in a professor’s office. (Hmm. When I later worked with classified documents, we were taught that they could only be stored in a secure [guarded] facility. This was not a guarded facility!).
So it was eventually deemed prudent to return the door. The crew of three started at the east end of the campus, covered the door with a blanket as it was raining, and marched toward Kingston [DD07]. Since the whole campus now knew about the caper, word immediately spread of the door traveling west carried by the suspected culprits. When we arrived at Kingston, most of the campus had joined in the march [DD08].
Outside the Dean’s office, people helped dry off the door [DD09], quickly observing (through the conveniently open doorway) that the dean was not in a good mood. In fact, he was much upset! [DD10]. Since this was a potential crime, the Student Judiciary Board Chairman Don Priest had been summoned earlier to the dean’s office. The dean was so upset that he couldn’t talk, but he was able to sputter the words “Don, do your duty!”
Don wasn’t sure what crime we had committed, but he had to do something to appease the dean. So the four of us were charged with “Conduct unbecoming a Harvey Mudd gentleman,” an Honor Code violation subject to suspension, and we were sentenced to trial early the following week.
We were very frightened and solemn at the start of the trial [DD11]. We obviously were guilty of taking the door, but didn’t feel we had violated the Honor Code or anything else. We needed to prove our RF prank’s innocent intent. So the pictures were developed, and we printed a story book to prove our case. During our trial, we admitted to the act, but claimed the conduct was a pristine example of what Dean Hotchkiss had told us at orientation and was in fact a perfect example of Conduct Becoming a Harvey Mudd Gentleman.
His orientation speech was intended to inspire our class to be creative, think outside the box, and as far as RF’s go, to always do something that has never been done before and was not damaging or irreversible. He gave the stealing of the town’s barber pole story as an example. So the fact that this RF was unique, didn’t break anything and was reversible, meant that we were following his specific guidance and were innocent of the charges.
Fortunately, the Judiciary Board was very wise and prudently found us “Not guilty.” Afterward, we celebrated with Don and the rest of the Judiciary Board [DD12].
Wonder if the Dean ever gave that orientation speech again? To this day, we are not sure he forgives us.
Gary Jahns ’66: My car’s unusual parking spot was only a small precursor RF to the biggest RF of the year, with a much higher-ranking victim. It is pure speculation on my part that the carjackers felt cheated by their RF not turning out as gloriously as they planned. They needed to do more…
Early the next morning, an emergency meeting was called in all dorms. Jerry Fields, our dorm leader, opened it by saying, “Somebody stole the Dean’s door last night. He’s pissed, and he wants it back pronto or else there are dire consequences for everyone.” Predictably, this was followed by great hilarity. Nobody came forth immediately. Search parties were organized but found nothing. I am not sure how much time passed, but I remember I was in my room when I heard a huge commotion outside. Going out to the railing, I saw Dennis Rich, Ernie Sullivan, and Terry Needham solemnly carrying the Dean’s door on their heads, slowly marching through the dorms and back to Kingston Hall, collecting a noisy entourage as they went.
It is curious and amusing to me that the photo has become iconic in the intervening years—few people actually saw my car in the dorm, whereas everybody saw the return of the Dean’s door.
Dennis Rich ’66: One funny thing for me was that morning when the Dean called all the HMC elected students to his office. I was East dorm president so I was there. The master key was the big discussion as a janitor swore that he verified all windows were securely locked! I felt sorry for the guy but kept my mouth shut. The Dean was sure we would have to change all the locks on campus. I don’t recall anything about the FBI.
At the end of the day we decided enough time had passed so we brought the door back before anything might be done by the College. We felt like the pied piper as the crowd following us with the door grew and grew as we passed through the entire campus.
The facial expression on the Dean’s face as we reattached his door was priceless.
Ernie Sullivan ’66: The idea came to me from a “welcoming” speech by Dean Hotchkiss in which he declared that the door to his office would always be open to any student.
I was called to the Dean’s office for one of the dean’s little student “chats” during which he enjoyed playing mind games with the students. The game in this visit involved his having a broken toy car on his desk—he wanted to see which students would pick up the toy and try to repair it. In order to distract him while I defeated the window lock, I smashed the toy car with something on his desk. He was distracted.
Charlie took the pictures so that we could prove it was a joke.
Joseph Platt, then HMC President, has also written about this prank in a history he wrote about Mudd. Apparently, the administration was upset because they feared someone had a master key and could steal classified information about atomic testing stored in the building (hence the FBI).
One person did walk by us as we were carrying the door across the East dorm lawn—he “saw nothing” and will remain nameless unless he comes forward.
Terry Needham ’66: Why steal the Dean’s door? I vaguely recall there were incidents where students stole dorm doors of other students. And given those prank lectures by Keen Dean Gene, to the incoming students, any good prank would have to be on him. (By the way, the dean was well liked, despite the abuse of his name.) Mostly, I guess, it just sounded like a funny thing to do. In any case, I wasn’t at the initial meeting (bull session). I’m guessing Ernie, Dennis and Steve Dequer were there. A second meeting included me, and we got down to more specifics. We mounted an inspection expedition to the administration building (Kingston Hall) and tried to figure out some way to get in through a window. Nothing seemed promising, and we just left it at something to think about.
The next day a miracle occurred. I was walking across campus, and Keen Dean Gene walked across my path with a prospective student and parent in tow. The Dean grabbed me and asked if I would give these people a tour of the campus. Keep in mind that the Dean had never said a word to me in my whole Harvey Mudd career. I don’t know if he even knew my name. I said sure, and he told me to go wait in his secretary’s office, the very one we looked over the night before. Suddenly things were getting very interesting. There was only one little hitch. The secretary was there. Sitting at her desk. Seemingly watching me. But wait. Another miracle: She got up and walked into the dean’s office. If I weren’t so afraid of getting caught, I could go over to a window and unlatch it without opening it. I thought it unlikely that anyone would notice the difference when they shut down for the day. But the secretary came back. Too late. Wasted opportunity. But then, after a few minutes, she went out again, and then in again. She went out and in often enough that I finally got up my courage and unlatched a window.
Eventually, the student tour was cancelled, and I was free to go and find my co-conspirators and tell them the news. We went back to Kingston Hall some time after close of business to confirm that the window was still unlatched, but not open. It was. So we trundled back to our rooms and set our alarm clocks.
My memory of the events that followed pretty much agrees with what others have written. Here are a few additional notes:
- For some reason that I don’t recall, Charlie was (light heartedly) excluded from the group of thieves, but he really wanted to come along, so we designated him as official photographer of the caper—he could record events, but he wasn’t supposed to touch anything. As it turned out, Charlie’s pictures were the highlights of the prank. Plus, they saved our butts in the subsequent hearing before the Judiciary Board.
- Steve Dequer was supposed to be one of the perpetrators, but he had some sort of engagement that night that he couldn’t get out of, and thus he missed out on everlasting fame.
- We hid the door in a shack that sat on the other side of Mills Ave. on an open field. We called the shack “the Water Tower.” I never knew why it was called that or what it was for. In another year or so we called the field “Pitzer College.”