- Published on Wednesday, 05 December 2012 18:14
By Daniel Perez
UTEP News Service
The University of Texas at El Paso offers Gator Camp as part of its fall orientation program to encourage new students to make their mark on campus as a handful of undergraduates did 60 years ago this month.
Those students “borrowed” a live, 6-foot, 400-pound alligator from San Jacinto Plaza in downtown El Paso and left him in the second-floor office of Howard E. Quinn, Ph.D., professor emeritus of geology, during the overnight hours of Dec. 10-11, 1952.
While a legend in some campus circles, many of today’s Miners, including faculty who are alumni, are unfamiliar with the tale of Oscar the Alligator and how he made a brief but memorable visit to what was then called Texas Western College.
Bianca Rodriguez, New Student Orientation coordinator, said camp leaders put a positive spin on the incident that has been described as foolish, illegal and dangerous. Rodriguez and her peers tell the students they can make their marks through participation in University activities that will enhance and benefit their college experience. As the leaders share the gator story, many of the campers smile and laugh while others stare back in disbelief.
“They wonder if we made the story up,” she said.
The identities of those involved and the background remained a mystery for more than two decades until Samuel E. Vandiver, the last surviving participant, wrote an account that was published in the March 1973 edition of Nova magazine, the predecessor of UTEP Magazine. Vandiver earned his bachelor’s in English from TWC in 1953. The former Marine taught English at colleges and universities in Texas, Arkansas and Colorado. He died Jan. 5, 1997.
According to Vandiver’s story, Dale Brittan – a skiing, surfing, rock climbing free spirit – worked on the plan the afternoon of Dec. 10 at the Kern Place Tavern. Seven students including Vandiver went to the plaza that evening to get the beast, but were deterred temporarily by a holiday crowd enjoying the lighted Christmas displays. A talkative night watchman told Brittan that the crowd would die down after midnight.
After regrouping in Juárez, the students returned to the plaza after midnight. Vandiver occupied the guard with small talk while the others fished Oscar out of the pond and tied him up. Brittan, soaked to his knees, continued to chat up the guard as Vandiver helped his co-conspirators jumpstart the stalled getaway car – a Studebaker. Huffing and puffing, the students carried the alligator to the car, placed him in the trunk, and headed for campus under a waning crescent moon.
Vandiver wrote that he wasn’t sure why they had decided to put the gator in Quinn’s office. “Certainly there were other, more appropriate recipients for a live, thrashing, biting, cantankerous ‘gator,” he wrote.
The University named what was then the Geology Building after Quinn, a faculty member from 1924 through 1965, in 1981, five years after his death. It originally was the Chemistry Building and was built in 1917.
The pranksters entered the Geology Building through an open first-floor window, but Quinn’s office was locked. The only option was Quinn’s second-story window. With a boost from a fellow prankster and his rock climbing skills, Brittan made it onto the building’s broad Bhutanese windowsill. Fortunately, the window was unlocked. He opened the office doors and the rest of the plan went smoothly.
Vandiver alerted an editor at the El Paso Herald-Post, the afternoon daily newspaper, about what was going to happen. A photographer was there waiting when Quinn showed up about 15 minutes before his 9 a.m. class and found Oscar in his office. Reports of the professor’s reaction ranged from startled to unruffled.
But Eleanor Duke, Ph.D., professor emeritus of biology, recalled that the incident upset Quinn, who wanted the perpetrators punished harshly because their prank could have damaged an expensive microscope that was in his office.
“Quinn wanted to know who done it and fail them, kick them out (of TWC) and make sure they didn’t live to do it again, and used other choice language,” said Duke, a 1939 alumna of the College of Mines (now UTEP) who served on the faculty for 48 years. “He didn’t think it was funny. He had no sense of humor, but everyone on campus was laughing. Even his wife (Mary Kelly Quinn, professor emeritus of sociology) thought it was hilarious.”
Duke said she was teaching a freshman biology class that morning on the third floor of what is now the Psychology Building when she became distracted by the numerous police and city parks vehicles that set up outside the Geology Building. She said she heard from others that Quinn tossed a notebook at Oscar, which elicited a few grunts from the animal.
Nancy Hamilton, an author and retired journalist who held several positions with the University including media relations, recalled sitting next to Vandiver during an early morning English class on Dec. 11, 1952. She said Vandiver told her what Quinn was about to find in his office. As they left the college library, which today is the Geological Sciences Building, she noted a big city parks department truck and enough men to arrest the alligator.
“The night before it had only taken a few intoxicated APOs (Alpha Phi Omegas, a social fraternity for science and engineering majors),” said Hamilton, who earned her bachelor’s in journalism in 1949 and a master’s in English five years later.
She said some people were indignant because they thought it was an affront to Dr. Quinn, but she always considered it a harmless prank by students enjoying their college years. In a story to mark the University’s 90th anniversary, Hamilton called the alligator incident a symbol of lighter times after years of depression and war.
Vandiver stressed in his article that there was no malice involved in the joke, which was done in a spirit of love and comradeship.
To read Vandiver’s story, visit http://bit.ly/utepalligator.