Bull completes mission, college alums pull off 50-year-old prank
MIDDLEBURY — Stationed on the roof of the Middlebury Beef Supply in East Middlebury, a lone bovine figure kept a watchful eye over the parking lot and the passing traffic on Route 7. For more than 50 years, the bull remained at its post — that is, until last week.
With the help of some Middlebury College alumni, “Ferdinand,” as the bull is known, finally completed a trip to the interior of Forest Hall on the college campus, a mission five decades in the making.
The story of that journey requires understanding that back in 1965 college pranks were often intricately planned operations that energetic students sometimes raised to a hilarious art form.
One must also understand that in the mid-’60s Middlebury College adhered to a different set of rules, the strictest of which dictated the interactions between men and women in the student body.
Men were not allowed above the first floor of the women’s dormitories, and students were expected to remain in their dorms after an established curfew. College Street served as a dividing line between the men’s and women’s sides of campus, and the two genders were to remain ensconced on their respective residential campuses after curfew.
Overseeing these rules was Dean of Women Elizabeth “Ma” Kelly, who had a reputation for zero tolerance of fraternization.
“As far as the women were concerned, she was Public Enemy Number One,” said Joe McLaughlin, a member of the class of 1965.
As a form of symbolic justice, McLaughlin and a group of fellow seniors back then hatched a plan to infiltrate Forest Hall, then the dormitory for senior women, and install the Middlebury Beef Supply bull for the dorm residents to find in the morning.
On a Saturday night, a group of five borrowed a truck and left campus. Under cover of darkness, they climbed to the roof, freed the bull from its wooden platform with a crowbar, and lowered it to the ground.
For a group of senior boys in the Reserve Officer Training Corps, the exercise amounted to a thrilling simulation.
“We were playing soldiers,” recalled McLaughlin, who was in town last week for his 50th reunion. “Later, we got the chance to be real soldiers.”
With the bull on the ground, the next step was to wait for the getaway car, which was nowhere to be seen. Afraid that police would notice a loitering pickup truck, the group had instructed junior Willie Sumner to drive a short distance down the road, wait for 30 minutes and then return when the gang was ready. But Willie had fallen asleep at the wheel of the truck and missed his cue.
While the group sent someone to wake him, the remaining culprits positioned the cow behind a fence and hid themselves. They figured that to a preoccupied driver at midnight, the sight would’ve been perfectly normal for the Champlain Valley: a motionless cow — albeit shorter and stockier — standing in a field.
The group finally drove back to campus and carried the bull to the to the back door of Forest Hall, but lacked a key to get in. Their plans thwarted, they abandoned the bull outside, where the college’s lone security officer — who generally only worked days back then, and never on weekends — discovered it in the morning.
The culprits anonymously donated money to have the bull returned. Richard Ide, head of the student judiciary board, came forward and told school officials that the petty criminals had approached him and offered the funds if they could remain anonymous (he didn’t divulge that he was among the cattle smuggling gang).
Since most of the activity occurred under the cover of darkness, the student body never learned of the nighttime caper — McLaughlin and the rest of the gang remained quiet about the affair.
But, of course, the gang of five never forgot the foiled plot, and dreamed of a successful re-enactment.
“That’s where the obsession started,” McLaughlin said.
Fifty years later, the group decided the time was right. With reunions bringing them back to campus, last week was zero hour.
After some complex pre-reunion planning, Operation Ferdinand began with the bull’s removal from the Middlebury Beef Supply roof on the night of Wednesday, June 3 — this time by professional contractor Mark Raymond and his crew and, crucially, with permission from the owners.
On Saturday morning, McLaughlin and the original bull-moving group crossed the threshold and entered the Forest West Lounge. The bull, wearing a blanket embroidered with the year 1965, greeted the Class of 1965 Women’s Conversation Breakfast, which started at 7:30 a.m.
Later that morning, the bull received his official Middlebury reunion nametag: “Ferdinand Fronz, 1965,” and a better place to hang out than a dorm lounge.
For the rest of the day, Ferdinand attracted the attention of passersby on the lawn between Old Chapel and Mead Chapel. McLaughlin said current students and younger alumni were not aware of Middlebury’s historical separation of men and women — the bull was able to impart some college history. A note on the bull explained the story and also included a nod to the inspiration behind the 1965 attempt:
“Thanks, Ma Kelly for making this bull’s life more interesting,” the note said.
At 4:30 p.m. on Saturday the reunion classes began the walk from Old Chapel to convocation in Mead Chapel, with the class of 1965 last in line. As the class banner moved by the bull, the veterans in the group, on the commands of “Eyes right” and “Present arms!” saluted the bull.
BACK IN THE DAY
Beverley and Fred Hansen of Leicester, who owned Middlebury Beef Supply from 1955 to 2000, were on campus to see the bull. The two still recall the night Ferdinand went on his first nighttime trip, but were good-natured about the incident.
“We were young back then too,” said Beverley Hansen, who is 73. “And they were very careful and didn’t damage it.”
Seeing Ferdinand on Saturday, she added, was a surprise.
“It put us into shock,” she said. “Who would have thought that 50 years later all of us would be back in the same place?”
With the success of Operation Ferdinand, McLaughlin and the rest of the 1965 crew aren’t giving any hints for their next homecoming feat, but said the planning will have to start soon.
“When you’re going into your 55th (reunion) it takes longer to plan these kinds of things,” he said. “We’ll have to start right away.”
MEMBERS OF MIDDLEBURY College’s class of 1965 squeeze Middlebury Beef Supply’s rooftop bull into the college’s Forest Hall Saturday afternoon. The move was part of a prank that was begun 50 years ago but never successfully completed.
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