friday, march 1, 2002 | vol. 3, issue 5

investigating the death of campus traditions

from greased flagpoles to josiah carberry

By Dan Poulson
Once upon a time, when the students at Brown University were significantly more na�ve, and when the Brown establishment didn�t take itself so seriously, there flourished a number of elaborate and well-attended campus traditions, as regularly anticipated and observed (and about as lame) as Waterfire is now.

A quick glance through the �Encyclopedia Brunononia,� the comprehensive record of University-related miscellany, reveals that from the school�s earliest years until the mid-fifties, students were given to fits of quirky and whimsical behavior, ranging from painting cows with the president�s initials to setting fire to oiled mattresses. While most of these traditions may strike us today as absurd, even stupid, they also inspire pangs of longing for a different time, a time when holding a funeral for one�s textbook wasn�t considered a sign of mental frailty.

The first officially sanctioned traditions at Brown invariably involved first years, who, in addition to run-of-the-mill hazing rituals, were also subjected to a variety of arcane rules and regulations. From the 1850�s onward freshmen were, among other things, not allowed to walk on the grass, sit on the steps in front of the Van Wickle gates, enter a building before upperclassmen, or wear straw hats before Memorial Day.

If that weren�t bad enough, starting in 1907, first years were required to wear brown Eton caps. Any unfortunate first-year who was caught on campus grounds without one was forced to endure any number of bizarre punishments, usually administered by sophomores. At the end of the year the freshmen organized a parade that ran through the streets of downtown Providence, eventually converging on Lincoln Field where the hats were burned in a bonfire. In 1929, when the University began to issue issue ties instead of caps, a riot broke out in the East Side Tunnel. Participants later claimed it was merely a �tie burning tunnel rush� but the police and firemen who arrived at the scene obviously thought otherwise. It�s rumored that during the frenzy that ensued, someone got shot.

Instances of student disobedience were not limited to the occasional riot, however. In the late 1800s, when students weren�t in class learning Latin or waxing their handlebar mustaches, they were busy burning everything in sight, including fences, gates, old mattresses and scraps of building materials. There were also more colorful customs involving various interclass competitions � usually between sophomores and freshmen.
According to campus historian Martha Mitchell, the annual �flag rush� and football scrimmage were notorious for the violence they provoked. During the flag rush, for example, the freshmen had to steal the sophomore class banner from a greased pole, around which the sophomores formed a human barricade. While there is no official record, it�s highly unlikely that any freshman ever succeeded in capturing the flag�the sophomores also went to the trouble of soaking the campus grounds with water to trip the freshmen up during their assault.

Aside from these testosterone-fueled outbursts, there were also more dignified, non-threatening customs, the most perverse and fascinating of which was the annual junior textbook �burial at sea.� During the 1850s, juniors at Brown held a public funeral for their rhetoric textbooks, but the the term �funeral� is rather misleading. The funeral march consisted of a jubilant procession through the main streets of downtown Providence with students carrying banners and torches, accompanied by the American Brass Band. It was only after the students reached Ferry Wharf that the books were loaded onto a ship and carried out to sea. Then, after the students held a complex ceremony involving eulogies, orations and poems, the books were thrown overboard. Even during the 1850s this sort of thing was considered really weird.

It wasn�t until the outbreak of the Civil War and the emergence of a more somber national consciousness, that the rhetoric textbook funeral, like so many other Brown traditions, died a quiet death. Other campus traditions have been more fortunate. The Spring Weekend concert, for example, began in the 1960s as a replacement for the junior dance. Among the notable performers who have contributed to Spring Weekend�s classy reputation are Ella Fitzgerald and Bo Diddley, who performed in 1965, and Janis Joplin, who made an appearance in 1969.

And the Encyclopedia Brunononia reveals that the tradition of Brown�s less than stellar football record dates back to 1889, the year a young John Heisman left Brown University after a two-year attendance without playing a single game. During that time, Brown was a member of loosely organized football association with MIT, Dartmouth and Amherst � but no actual football games were held from 1886 to 1891. Campus tradition also lives on in the quiet ritual of rubbing the John Hay statue�s nose for good luck during finals; his nose has been getting shinier and shinier for well over 90 years.

And then there�s Josiah Carberry.
By now everybody is familiar with lovable Josiah S(tinkney) Carberry, the peripatetic and legendary professor of psychoceramics (the study of cracked pots). Untold legions of anonymous writers, cranks and professors have contributed to his body of work ever since he was born in 1929, on a billboard in University Hall.

Over the course of his existence, Carberry has accumulated a list of accomplishments is as long as it is eclectic. He was referred to in 1974 as a consultant on protocol for the Nixon administration, he appeared in a student production of �Desire Under the Elms� (listed as a tree) and he was the recipient of the 1991 Ig Nobel Prize in psychoceramics, an award issued by MIT and The Journal of Irreproducible Results. And of course, the Brown community has him to thank for the Carberry Fund. The fund, started in 1955 with an anonymous donation of $101.01, intended to honor Carberry�s �future late wife� Laura�with the added stipulation that the money be used to purchase books that Carberry �might or might not approve of.� To show of appreciation for his valuable work, in 1966 Brown awarded him an honorary degree in Master of the Arts Ad Eundem, an accolade that University officials acknowledged he �neither sought, expected nor richly deserved.� As usual, Carberry was a no-show, although the University had advance warning of his absence, considering the Brown Daily Herald announced in its May 13 issue his death following a stay in a psychiatric hospital.

Carberry is perhaps the most distinctive and memorable campus �tradition� associated with Brown, but it has been some time now since students were last informed of his whereabouts. Brown has a snack bar and an upcoming music festival named in his honor, but Carberry, and to a certain extent the lighthearted and congenial academic spirit that spawned him, has more or less disappeared. True, Brown has its share of new traditions, but while such rituals as the naked donut run and sex on the 13th floor of the Sci Li are certainly raunchier than their predecessors, they don�t possess the innate weirdness of, say, burning neckties or burying textbooks. Then again, such wacky traditions wouldn�t be as warmly received now as then: with violent crime on campus on the rise and the University considering arming Brown police officers, life is surreal enough as it is.

dan poulson �04 doesn�t find the term �greased flagpole� inherently funny.

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