University of Calgary


Submitted by alumni on Thu, 11/03/2016 - 20:32.


Any group of subversive students can wrap campus trees with toilet paper. These UCalgary pranks went above and beyond, and that’s what makes them the stuff of mischief legend.
By Deb Cummings • Illustrations by Jason Esteban

Be Careful What You Teach

On April 3, 1988, an engineering prof used the university’s iconic red arch as an example of something that would never support a car. His students proved him wrong. The next morning, a red Honda Civic was suspended from the arch, dangling over the traffic. Since no one had, until that moment, figured out the calculations needed to safely raise the car, no one knew of a safe way to lower it. What took the students mere hours to accomplish took more than a day for the “experts” to undo — with the help of a crane.

What the Cluck?

Fondly dubbed the Prairie Chicken, this 18-ft.-tall, 4.5-ton stainless steel sculpture by George Norris sits atop a grassy knoll in what’s known as the Swan Mall area on campus. Originally left unnamed, some thought it resembled an opening rose, others an Indigenous headdress, but, at some point after its inauguration during Calgary’s Centennial in 1975, it became a chicken, and that’s when the pranks began.

Legend suggests it was once tarred and feathered by students. Another tale reports that the metal runner around the edges was added to prevent drunken students from impaling beer cans on the spokes.

Rock of the Ages

As far as we know, you can’t actually major in pranks at UCalgary. But, if you were an engineering student in the 1970s and ’80s, you may have come close. Back then, the rivalry between UCalgary and the University of Alberta was legendary — epic enough that “The Rock” was actually stolen a couple of times by marauding U of A engineering students.

At one point, UCalgary said “enough!” and put a stop to the late-night heists by pouring concrete around the rock’s base, turning it into a steadfast cube. Undaunted, the U of A students attempted to free the rock from its concrete cage with explosives. They failed. Today, if you look at the base of the rock, you’ll spot a square shape — a leftover of the day the students cemented their beloved boulder to the ground.

Social Climbers

Some pranks make you grin in quiet awe, while others make you laugh out loud. The day a group of students pressed squash balls into the side of the Social Science Tower back in the 1970s was one of the latter.

Attempting to use the squash balls as hand- and toeholds as they scaled the tower seemed like a brilliant idea until the pranksters realized the top half of tower had a different texture than the rest.

Splayed out on the wall, the students ran out of places to insert handholds and had to be rescued by the fire department. Look above the “E” and “N” letters in the Social Science Tower sign today, and you’ll see the rubbery evidence.


Most university pranks have trivial consequences, but legend has it the swirly piece of public art known as the Zipper isn’t as benign as its smooth exterior appears.

If you spin the cylinder before an exam or presentation, it’s known to bring you luck — not, however, if you’re in engineering. Besides coating it in Saran Wrap, stealing it and building a car around it, the Zipper finally snapped back at an engineering student when said student stuck his hand into it while it spun. He broke his arm in three places.

Plants are Addicts, Too

In the atrium at the heart of the Administration Building stand the statues of three philosophers — Plato, Socrates and Crito. Although today the atrium is a lovely indoor oasis, its past was a smoky one.

However, that changed in the early ’90s when the university banned all indoor smoking. The bizarre bit is that, as tough as it was for the smokers, it was harder on the plants inside the atrium. So addicted to nicotine had they become, they all withered and died of withdrawal, leaving the philosophers to ponder silently.

The Story of Joe Pillar

Decades ago, a group of engineering students schemed up a fake student by the name of Joe Pillar. Groups of students took turns posing as Joe Pillar, attending classes, completing his assignments and even writing his exams.

By all accounts, Joe was a 4.0 student. Eventually, university administration caught on to these shenanigans and put an end to Pillar’s academic career, but not before he came within three classes of completing his degree.

Hop to It

Anyone who’s slogged up the 13 flights of the Social Science stairwell has read the words, scribbled on the risers, by a group of arts students from the ’70s. Known as the story of Leon the Frog, his bizarre journey was hatched in Dinnie’s Den and reflects his existential quest for identity, ending in light (at the top of the stairs).

A metaphor for students “lost in space,” Leon escapes dissection, crucifixion and sexual harassment. It’s not too late to read about Leon’s saga as it remains painted on the risers today.

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

Back in the ’70s, UCalgary’s mainframe computers were housed in a central spot — smack dab in the middle of the basement in the Math Sciences Building in what was known as the machine room.

In the summer of 1971, a few junior program analysts had the job of lugging 20-lb. boxes of punch cards from the Admin Building and the MacKimmie Library over to Math Sciences. However, a certain boss by the name of Noel had the bright idea that these guys could use his green, fold-up Raleigh bike to transport the boxes. They did exactly that, but then found themselves waiting around for the results.

So, with time to kill, the oblong hallway that wrapped around the machine room became a velodrome where nightly time trials were held between the analysts and the machine operators. With all corners being square, there were plenty of skid marks that baffled the custodial staff for weeks.

To this day, both the program analysts and the machine operators have remained friends and maintain it was the best thing they ever did to develop esprit de corps.

Who, Exactly, was Bob Boston?

Rumoured to bring gifts to weary students during final exams, this Santa Claus-like man allegedly blessed readers whose heads fell asleep in their textbooks, with the power of osmosis. All that Bob required was a platter of cookies and milk, left out at exam time. U

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