In February 1979 an astonishing sight appeared on Wisconsin’s Lake Mendota. The top of the Statue of Liberty seemed to emerge from the icy water. Astonished local residents flocked to the lake to witness the bizarre spectacle. It was not a mirage. It was, instead, one of the most famous college pranks of all time.
The presence of Lady Liberty on Lake Mendota was the handiwork of Jim
Mallon and Leon Varjian. They were the two leaders of the “Pail and
Shovel Party” that had gained control of the University of
Wisconsin-Madison’s student government in the Spring of 1978 — much to
the surprise of everyone, including themselves.
For years the affairs of the university’s student government had
attracted little interest. Turnout for elections was invariably low.
Mallon and Varjian decided to shake up the status quo by running an
absurdist campaign. They made outrageous campaign promises. For
instance, they promised to convert the entire student government budget,
all $70,000 of it, into pennies and allow the students to dig into it
with pails and shovels. (Thus, the name of their party.) They promised
to order all campus clocks to run backwards so classes would be over
before they could begin. They said they would put dormitories on wheels
and roll them to different parts of the campus each morning to provide
students with a new perspective. They pledged to flood Camp Randall
Stadium and wage mock naval battles. And finally, they said they would
buy the Statue of Liberty and move it to Lake Mendota.
That year’s election saw the largest voter turnout of any for the
past five years. Mallon and Varjian swept into office with 1510 votes
out of 4529. Varjian commented, “The students felt we had the best
campaign platform. We built it in front of them on the mall with 1,000
The Pail and Shovel Party proceeded also to win all of the senior
class officer seats, five student senate spots, and posts on the boards
of the student newspaper and yearbook. This gave them the ability to do
almost anything they wanted. And they proceeded to do exactly that.
As soon as Mallon and Varjian were in power, they began implementing
their plan of absurdity. They threw campus-wide toga parties, and bought
toys to occupy students during the boredom of registration. But their
masterpiece was their fulfillment of their campaign promise to move the
Statue of Liberty to Lake Mendota.
The statue appeared on Lake Mendota in February of 1979. Varjian
claimed the statue had been flown in by helicopter, but that the cable
holding it had snapped causing Lady Liberty to crash through the ice
until only the top of her head and her arm remained above water. In
actuality, the statue had been constructed in a woodworking shop out of
chicken wire and papier-mâché at a price of $4,000. Or 400,000 pennies.
Although an instant hit, the statue was destroyed by arson its first
year.(Apparently not everyone at the University had a sense of humor.) A fireproof version replaced it in 1980 and 1981, but it didn’t
appear for some years thereafter, in compliance with state regulations
for removing structures on the ice. It remained in storage in a
Barneveld barn, at one point suffering damage by a tornado.
In late 1995, an anonymous donor covered the cost of replacing the
torch and touching up the crown, and the iconic statue returned to
the ice from time to time, notably in 2009 on the thirtieth anniversary of the original prank.
All I can add is, "Take that, MIT pranskters!"