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  In the Finest Tradition

From the sublime to the ridiculous, when it comes to ritualistic behavior, Johns Hopkins can rub, chug, and slide with the best of them.

By Jim Paterson, SPSBE '04 (MS)
Illustrations by Wally Neibart

Johns Hopkins would seem like a good place to find tradition. It has an impressive academic reputation. It has that collegiate atmosphere — the ivy-covered buildings, the tree-shaded quadrangles crisscrossed by brick walkways, big games on Saturday afternoons. Even the name sounds serious and sturdy and auspicious, preceded, of course, by that definite article symbolic of importance: The Johns Hopkins University.

So, then, where are all the traditions — you know, pep rally bonfires and silly hats and rubbing the statue of the founder for good luck? All that stuff that brings wistful expressions and a tear to the eye of alumni young and old?

"Hopkins doesn't do well with traditions," says Ross Jones, vice president and secretary emeritus for Hopkins — and a man reputed to know more university history than just about anyone. "It has a wonderful student body, but if there has been a tradition, it is about the academic enterprise." In other words, no silly hats except at commencement.

Jones is not the first — or the last — to notice. John Bader, the Krieger School's associate dean for academic programs and advising, was in charge of a search-and-rescue mission for lost traditions. Going in, he didn't buy the idea that Hopkins didn't have any. "I thought it was clearly an over-generalization," Bader says. "But I'm afraid our research has proven the general point. A lot of traditions are just forgotten, and there haven't been many to begin with."

Bader thinks the school's history as a research institution may be the culprit. With all the focus on graduate work, especially in science and engineering, the school in the past might have attracted "less social" students (an admirably tactful choice of words). "This institution has no history of having silly rich people here. Hopkins, to its credit, has always been a place of merit by achievement," he says, noting that students with such a mindset might not have the time or inclination to mess around with less-serious pastimes.

Call us school-spirited, or perhaps hard-headed, but we couldn't let it go. After all, there are a few traditions here that everybody knows about — like laying a wreath on Johns Hopkins' grave every Christmas Eve, or not stepping on the seal in Gilman Hall foyer — so there must be other, more obscure examples, right?

Right! With Bader's encouragement, we combed the archives, worked the phones, and blasted e-mails, and managed to dig up a handful of customs and rituals that may put to rest once and for all this crazy idea that there are no Hopkins traditions. We also may dispel the notion that our students are serious all the time, because wait till you see some of the goofy things they've done in their off hours. In fact, we were so amused by some of their shenanigans that, in the spirit of fun and a commitment to serious journalism, we made up a few traditions of our own. (Try to spot them, but if you're fooled, all is revealed at the end of this feature article.)


Meet the Prez

We've come to expect each academic year to kick off with university President William R. Brody and wife Wendy greeting new freshmen while zipping around on whatever wheeled conveyance is currently the rage. But their Rollerblades, scooters, and Segway thingies are but the latest iteration of one of the school's oldest traditions — the presidential greeting.

Hopkins' first president, Daniel Coit Gilman, tried to meet each and every one of the new students during his 26-year tenure. (The 1876 class had 77 grad students and 12 undergrads.) Isaiah Bowman (1935�1948) played touch football with new students in the fall — something we wish we'd been around to witness. His successor, Detlev Bronk (1949�1953), began a tradition of welcoming students when they first moved in, with a formal get-together at Levering Hall. In the late 1950s, Milton Eisenhower held a freshman reception at the president's house, and he left the light on over his library door at Nichols House to indicate when students could stop by to talk.

In the early '90s, William C. Richardson (1990-1995) asked all new freshmen to sign a guest book. He also started a tradition in which a gavel was given to each new class to use throughout its four years, to be returned at graduation. That custom seems to have stuck around only as long as he did.


Kicking Up Their Heels

"They were just dreadful shoes — the ugliest shoes you could imagine. Brown tie-up oxfords. It was wonderful to see seven or eight pairs of mine floating in the Chesapeake."

That's Charlotte Mitchell, Nurs '60, talking about a tradition spawned by sheer hatred — for the nursing students' required footwear. Each year around graduation time they would take the shoes, which they indignantly called "duty booties," and either toss them in the harbor (for a brief period in the early 1960s) or display them on fence posts around Hampton House.

The 1941 student handbook describes the shoe requirements in what, for the nurses, must have been painful detail: "plain brown, with 4-6 eyelets" and "without buckles, tabs or fancy stitching" — a description that barely changed for 30 years. "With our brown uniform, shoes, and hose, the group of us probably looked like one big dark cloud in the hospital halls," Mabel Gerhart, Nurs '53, recalled in a school publication.

"I have no idea how the tradition got started, although I know it goes way back. It always happened at graduation because we were so happy to get rid of those shoes," says Fran Keen, Nurs '70. "We wrote something profound on the soles of the shoes and placed them on the fence. No ceremony. It just happened."

When the hospital-based nursing school shut down in 1973 (it would be re-established as a division of the university 11 years later) the student nurses left Hampton House — and their shoes — behind.


Signing Out. Far Out.

Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) has been launching spacecraft into the great soon-to-be-known for decades. And for nearly as long, they've been sending them off with little personal touches — like signing various pieces of flight hardware late in the assembly process, before installation on the spacecraft. The staff believes the tradition started in 1961, when the poem "A Message to the Gods" was included on a navigation satellite. One welder in the 1960s was notorious for signing every weld he made during assembly.

These days, APL staff often add their signatures to the fairing, which protects the craft during launch and as it leaves the atmosphere. Last January, when the New Horizons team sent its craft hurtling on a 3.3 billion-mile trip to Pluto, it carried lots of signatures, including an entry representing family members who had supported the team throughout the craft's construction. New Horizons also contained a CD bearing the names of more than 430,000 people around the world who responded to an invitation on the Web site to be part of the mission, and one more thing: the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh, the American astronomer who discovered Pluto in 1930.


Bedtime for Big Shots

The Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) plays host to plenty of visiting dignitaries — foreign ministers, ambassadors, prominent journalists, U.S. cabinet secretaries, and so on. The school always makes sure to arrange for a basket of fresh flowers to be delivered to the visitor's hotel room. And since 1964, SAIS graduate students have always made sure to have one of their own, usually posing as a driver for the florist, sneak into the room and short-sheet the bed. In 1974, a visiting distinguished political scientist from Oxford University kidded about it at a breakfast reception the next morning, perplexing SAIS administrators, who were not in on the joke. In 1982, Henry Kissinger actually caught the student in his room but was so amused by the stunt and impressed by the student's wit, he arranged for the culprit to land an internship with the State Department. Not so amused was former U.S. Secretary of State (and former SAIS student) Madeleine Albright. Says one SAIS staffer, "I'm sure she must have been tired, because ordinarily she's really a lovely person. She's a diminutive woman, as you know, but when she's mad? Whoa."


Ah! There's the Rub

We knew somebody had to be rubbing something for good luck...

At the Peabody Institute, nothing causes anxiety like the senior recital — the moment that sums up your work and makes your statement as a musician. So when you're peering in the doors at Griswold Hall, checking to see if the audience is friendly and trying to keep your mind off that one part of the piece that always seems to slip you up, you rub a little man's nose. No, not just any nose — the one in the middle of Griswold door. It's a half-size copy of Lorenzo Ghiberti's Porta del Paradiso, and it's been at Peabody since 1879.

In Remsen Hall, chemistry test scores are often determined — or so it is believed by students about to take such tests — by the lucky ashes of the building's namesake. A plaque on a staircase landing marks the spot where the ashes of Ira Remsen, university president from 1902 to 1913, are interred. Remsen, an internationally known chemist who founded the American Chemical Journal, was one of the school's initial eight faculty members. Though forced to step down as president due to illness, he was honored with a new chemistry building bearing his name in 1927, and he asked that his ashes be placed there. Over the years, the plaque has been rubbed shiny and smooth by students hoping for a little intervention from the afterlife.

At Johns Hopkins Hospital, a copy of sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen's Christus Consolator is believed to bring luck to patients, doctors, and staff members alike. The sculpture was just what Gilman had in mind in 1896, after being criticized for not even having a benediction at ceremonies marking the opening of the hospital. So local businessman Williams Spence came to the rescue, spending $5,360 to acquire a replica of a Danish sculpture of Christ. Today, the 10-foot-high marble statue stands under the hospital's dome and has become a talisman. Patients and their families pause to pray or talk to it or rub its toe as they wander by. Surgeons have been known to touch the hem on the statue's garment before an operation. Civil rights advocate and surgeon Levi Watkins, associate dean for postdoctoral affairs at the medical school, brought Rosa Parks to see it. One 6-year-old patient — who had successful surgery after various trips to the statue by himself, his family, and medical staff — left a simple note at its foot: "This is Grayson. If you could, just heal the other kids."


Two Words: Beer Slide

The Greek word pithotomy roughly translates — no doubt real roughly — "to tap a keg," which explains why the Pithotomy Club's official symbol features one. The club's constitution, written in 1897, states its mission thusly: "the promotion of vice among the virtuous, virtue among the vicious, and good fellowship among all." Hell, we'll drink to that.

Except, the good fellowship did not always extend to the club's neighbors near the School of Medicine. "I am sorry to have to complain, but the behavior of the Doctor Club" — the neighbor, in the grip of his dudgeon and pique, may have misunderstood the club's actual name — "at 510 Broadway is scandalous," one sourpuss complained to the school in 1907, according to a history written by former club president Robert Harrell. "Their beer parties lasting all night up until 2 o'clock in the morning — keeping us up not getting sleep with their screaming and running and playing the piano ..." A party until 2 in the morning? Those animals.

The club, for students in their final year at the medicial school, had two traditions that lasted for nearly a century. The first was an annual burlesque show featuring raunchy sketches about the faculty, followed by a floor-soaking drinkfest that resulted in what they called "the beer slide." (No details of this survive, so let your imagination run wild.) The show, which was presented over four nights and enjoyed — for the most part — by students, faculty, and staff alike, offended one female faculty member in 1982 to the point that she threatened legal action (the club's history leaves out the pesky details on that one). That controversy dogged the club for a decade and reportedly contributed to its demise in 1992.

Though the Pithotomy Club is gone, its other tradition lives on — the Turtle Derby, which started in 1931 when a student asked Johns Hopkins Hospital doorman (and turtle farmer) Benjamin Frisby if he could borrow his 40 turtles and let them compete to lighten the mood. Apart from a brief hiatus in the late '70s, turtles have been racing every May around the time of the Preakness. The wildly popular derby generates posters, T-shirts, buttons, and cheers. Recent races have been held in the courtyard outside the Preclinical Teaching Building, with proceeds supporting the Child Life Program at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center, and the hospital-sponsored Perkins Day Care Center.


The Best of All Possible Worlds

At SAIS, two traditions have evolved as a way to raise money for student internships: one in which students display food and customs from their countries of origin to the warm reception of their colleagues, and one in which students display something a little more personal — to hoots and hollers and great delight. Each fall, the International Dinner features tables set up by countries or regions with traditional food, clothing, and items. It packs the Nitze Building auditorium with colorful garb and good smells. Each spring, a talent show (which one school official admits is pretty much void of talent) offers skits and songs and some jabs at the school and its faculty. A highlight is the "Mr. SAIS" pageant, in which eight to 12 male students vie in a bathing suit competition and in a sort of obstacle course, where they must lift an audience member and do a few push-ups.

Anything for a good cause.


The Breakfast Club

Salem Reiner has searched a certain bell carefully for signs of a unique and historical Hopkins connection. "I wish I could tell you the bell was made from Johns Hopkins' watch melted down, or that the wooden handle was made from Gilman's cane," says Reiner, Hopkins' director of community affairs. "But it appears to just be a bell."

Still, it's not just any bell, because for 30 years it has summoned Community Conversation participants to breakfast. Six times a year, about 100 people — neighbors, grassroots groups, politicians, businesspeople, and university representatives — gather at the Hopkins Club to discuss community issues. Often they get so caught up in their discussions that they can't be pulled away to eat. That's where the bell comes in. "[We] tried repeatedly telling them to move into the dining hall, but they were all so engaged in conversation it wasn't working," says Reiner, who admits feeling sort of sheepish about ringing the bell.

Ross Jones, who initiated the informal get-togethers, says the conversations led to the founding of the Greater Homewood Community Corporation, a nonprofit that aims to strengthen the neighborhood through education, youth development, economic development, and community revitalization. Once GHCC was up and running, Jones suggested the conversations be disbanded, but participants would have none of it — so the bell tolls on.


Den of Ubiquity

In 1921, public health student James Sweeney proposed a club with the lofty goals of "cultivating useful friendships; to broaden and develop minds; and to always stand ready to serve its members who might be in distant lands." The Ubiquiteers Club took its name from the ubiquitous nature of its members, who came from countries throughout the world and were training to be doctors, nurses, scientists, and engineers.

The club lasted more than four decades, through years of silly student pranks and sticky international crises. Members sent yearbooks around the world to former members, with letters from graduates reporting on their work. They held lectures, picnics, and parties. They also pushed boundaries: The club's diverse membership included women and minorities, and a 1936 photograph shows members hoisting mugs of beer while a female member chews a cigar.

One Ubiquiteers tradition was a regular happy hour. (We may discern a pattern here; see "beer slide".) Though the club disbanded by 1966, the tradition continues. Every Friday night, anywhere from 10 to 100 students, faculty, and staff from the Bloomberg School of Public Health gather together to raise a glass.


Hazed and Amused

True, just about every university in the world hazed its freshmen. But early on at Hopkins, battles between classes — which often took place on designated days such as "Class Day" and even "Hell Day" — sounded like outright warfare. Sophomores reported in the 1923 yearbook that they had "sent many members of the class of '24 home with blackened eyes and shorn clothing." A freshman class testified to facing in 1927 "a howling pack of roughnecks" and "thirsting for the blood of at least 10 sophomores." A yearbook in 1942 vividly recounts the Hell Day battles waged and the troops lost to kidnappings, de-pantsings, paddlings, and "all other sorts of mischief." By 1962, Class Day was described in less violent terms, though a muddy tug-of-war left all sides soaked and, according to the yearbook, "the only real winner was the laundromat."

At age 91, William Grauer, A&S '36, recalls during his freshman year being pushed into the pond behind Gilman Hall. "I got tossed in that damn thing so often," he says, "I had no dry shoes left."


Someone Has Sent You an E-vite!

Many know of the existence of E Level in the Milton S. Eisenhower Library, but few actually gain admittance. An undergraduate must maintain a GPA of at least 3.9999998 through the fifth semester. Then he or she gets the call. Once admitted to the E Level Society (the hazing involves No. 2 pencils and is described in the darkest terms), entrants are told the location of the top-secret underground entrance (don't ask, because we won't tell you), the wicked secret password, and the super-confidential handshake. E Level, according to a former Johns Hopkins Magazine intern who spilled the beans and now languishes in witness protection somewhere in Iowa, contains lavish private study carrels with personalized name plaques, a Red Bull and Mountain Dew bar, personal photocopiers with unlimited toner, and super-comfy foldout beds. And unlike the rest of the library, it's open 24 hours. "If I had gotten into the E Level Society, I might have really been someone," says one New York City alumnus and multi-billionaire. "I might be worth trillions now."


Raising Cane

In the late '20s, if you walked through the main quadrangle of the Homewood campus, you might see what appeared to be hazing gone wild — a flailing. It was actually just the initiation ritual where upperclassmen bearing their canes tapped the shoulders of new members who'd been invited to join the Cane Club.

Its history and founding are a bit vague — as is the reason for its members' fascination with yellow canes in particular. But the club's purpose was pretty clear: to promote "an atmosphere of gentility of bygone days" and participation in "the gentlemanly indulgence of forbidden beverages," according to the 1932 yearbook. (Yes, we definitely discern a pattern.) After knighting the new members, the whole group hopped in carriages and headed downtown, presumably seeking the illicit drinks.


Not Without Proper ID

Because so much of APL's work pertains to national defense, security on the Laurel, Maryland, campus has always been tight, with coded badges, guards at checkpoints, and prohibitions on items such as cell phones that incorporate digital cameras. During the 1970s and 1980s, APL research scientists made a tradition of pranking senior administrators by messing around with their security clearances. In 1971, an APL computer scientist named Jack Prangen was amusing himself at lunch with one of those kid's toys that uses a little magnetic wand to move around iron filings. He was putting a beard on a drawing of a man's face. When Prangen got the wand too close to a director of strategic planning's security badge, the next morning the badge would not open the parking gate. Word got around and from then on, year by year, the pranks got more sophisticated. One famous one added Groucho glasses to the chief of staff's photo ID. APL senior management tolerated the tricks with good humor. "It's important, in the high-pressure atmosphere of a place like APL, to let folks unwind a little," said one former assistant director. But then two incidents occurred only a month apart in 1988. In the first, a chief science officer's badge would not let him out of his building, which caused him to miss the last match of APL's bowling league, dropping his team from first place. The second incident led to the brief detention outside the main gate of U.S. Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci. The next morning, a memo from the director's office made clear there were to be no more fun and games with reprogrammed security codes or hacked ID badges.

Jim Paterson writes from Olney, Maryland. Senior magazine writers Maria Blackburn and Dale Keiger contributed — OK, made up some stuff — to this story. Special thanks to James Stimpert, MSE Library archivist; Andrew Harrison, material culture archivist at the Medical Archives; and Neil Grauer, A&S '69, assistant director of editorial services for Medicine's Office of Marketing and Communications. Without their knowledge — and infinite patience — this story would not have happened.

And now ... time to come clean about our fabrications.

To our knowledge, no one from SAIS has ever short-sheeted a bed. The Eisenhower Library does not have an E Level. If you've ever been to APL, you know that nobody there would ever monkey around with a security badge. And in the lacrosse sidebar — a coat made of blue jay feathers? Please. Finally, though you probably thought we invented the "Mr. SAIS" pageant, we did not. It really exists. As journalist Molly Ivins once said, "Y'all can't make this stuff up."

Follow this link to "A Tradition in Its Own Right"
Return to September 2006 Table of Contents

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