Busting campus myths
I’ve always been into mythology. As a child one of my favorite books was a thick volume called something like “Gods and Heroes of Ancient Greece” by some guy with a Germanic name and Edith Hamilton’s classic “Mythology.” I was enthralled by Arthurian legends and modern works with a strong mythic dimension, such as “Star Wars” and “The Lord of the Rings” exerted a great influence on me.
For a long time, I thought myths were things of the past, consigned to fantasy and science fiction in this modern and supposedly enlightened age. I guess it just goes to show that you need neither gods nor Greek men being rubbed down with olive oil to make a myth, because the University of Massachusetts is full of them.
Last Halloween, I wrote an article on ghosts at UMass with information generously supplied by the UMass History Club. I even walked around campus with a giant camera from the journalism department at night to take pictures of some of the places mentioned. I didn’t see any ghosts, although Stockbridge House/the University Club and the Old Chapel are really creepy at night, especially since there was some sort of faint red light coming out of the Chapel. I think it was an exit sign, but I much prefer to imagine that the reason it’s been closed forever is because a bando stumbled upon the Gates of Hell down there. On some days, it can certainly seem as though the campus was designed by some baleful demonic influence.
Anyways, the first myth I heard was on a campus tour during my orientation. The tour guide explained that Fine Arts Center was a) shaped like a piano and b) had originally been intended for a college in Arizona. I believed it then and I wish it were true today because the exterior of that building is so ugly that a fin de siècle aesthetic poet would commit suicide upon seeing it. Harsh, perhaps, but all too true. Speaking of the FAC, I can’t be the only person on campus who thinks that upside down face that was painted on it last year looks more like a giant bird flew over campus and relieved itself there.
But back to the point: The FAC neither looks like a piano (and was never intended to) and was not supposed to go to Arizona. The Collegian put together a glossy magazine some years ago and talked to the architect, John Dinkeloo and no, I’m not making that name up.
One of the other early myths I encountered as a freshman was the famous “Scooby Doo” legend. According to this myth, the creator of “Scooby Doo, Where Are You?” was a UMass alumnus and he based the five main characters of the cartoon show on the stereotypes of the Five Colleges. To wit, Freddie, as upper class and well-educated, represented Amherst College; Daphne, as beautiful and upper class, was Mount Holyoke; Shaggy was a hippie and therefore stood for Hampshire; Velma was smart and stood for Smith; while Scooby, the animal, indicated ZooMass. It goes without saying that these stereotypes are a load of bull, but there are versions that identify Velma with Smith not because she was intelligent but because some viewers thought she was a lesbian. Personally, I always thought she had a thing going on with Freddie because they seemed to be the only ones ever to solve any mysteries.
But, this too is false. For one, Hampshire College didn’t open until after “Scooby Doo” had premiered, as Snopes.com pointed out and for another, you could take any five colleges and match stereotypes to characters. It’s like the guy who claimed he could predict the future using a computer program that analyzed the Bible when you can use the same program to pull out “predictions” from any long work, like “Moby Dick” or “War and Peace.”
Some myths, however, are true. In my sophomore year I began hearing all sorts of stuff about Butterfield dorm – that in the ‘70s, its kitchen was shut down because they were making more money than any other dining hall or store on campus because they were using it to sell drugs and that they seceded from the United States afterwards. The jury’s still out on the drugs, although it wouldn’t surprise in the slightest, but in my sophomore year I did discover that Butterfield had in fact, seceded.
I tracked down Marc J. Randazza, who is now a lawyer, but in the early ‘90s was president of Butterfield. He said they seceded in response to the Gulf War and the UMass administration came down hard. He said they were free-spirited and formed an actual community, but administration officials quoted in a UMass Magazine article said they intervened for two reasons: One was that they had reports that there were high school students at Butterfield parties and two, a student was injured trying to replace a pirate flag the administration had taken down. After that, everyone was removed and Butterfield was converted into the freshman-only housing it is.
Today, the Free Republic of Butterfield lives on in MySpace, if you can call that living. But that’s the way things are: The dreams die while the myths live on.
Matthew M. Robare is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.