Pranks: Good, Bad, and Ugly

In Fall 2015, Features by Aleisa Dornbierer-Schat

On the morning of March 26, 2006, students stumbling sleepy-eyed through the Campus Center were greeted by a giant, grinning Calvin and his sardonic side-kick, Hobbes. The characters from Bill Watterson’s famous comic strip had materialized overnight, rendered entirely in Post-it Notes.

It was weeks before the identities of the pranksters became widely known on campus. In the meantime, the mosaic of sticky notes was tolerated with mostly good humor by college authorities.

Brian Mellema, who has served in the Dordt maintenance department for 26 years, recalls walking along the path toward the center at night and seeing the brightly lit mural through the building’s big, east-facing windows. “That was awesome,” says Mellema. As one who often has to deal with the aftermath of student pranks, some of them verging on vandalism, Mellema appreciates student cleverness with a conscience: “Those students put a lot of thought behind that prank. That was pretty cool.”

The mural remained intact for six days, until a student violin concert in the space justified its removal. As much an installation as a prank, the mural disappeared on April 1, reduced to a pile of crumpled squares in an anonymous campus recycle bin.

Behind the prank were sophomore engineering students Ben Lehman and David Ellerie, who would go on to establish a reputation as the team of masterminds behind a series of campus hijinks. Working methodically into the early hours of the morning, the two affixed 3,200 Post-its—$40-worth—to the Campus Center wall.

A YouTube video posted after the fact shows the two students posing proudly before the completed, 25-by-8-foot mural, grinning as broadly as Calvin. The video has received 119,467 views since it was posted, and the prank even garnered mention in a documentary celebrating the comic strip’s creator titled Dear Mr. Watterson.

Pranks like this one become part of the campus mythology, stories that are passed along and embellished, acquiring legendary status over time. According to Robert Taylor, dean of students at Dordt, pranks like Lehman’s and Ellerie’s, when thoughtfully executed, can help to unite a community around stories of campus mischief and shenanigans. “We want to encourage a vibrant culture at Dordt,” says Taylor. “We want our students to have a ton of fun here. Pranks are a part of the fabric of the experience; they become shared stories that help students feel like they’re part of a community.”

“Anyone can lean a garbage can against a door to make a mess when it’s opened,” says Ellerie, “but that’s not clever or funny except for the guy who put it there. We don’t get our kicks by being jerks.” When it comes to campus pranks, both Lehman and Ellerie were committed to a “nondestructive code of ethics,” which required any prank they devised be easy to undo and cause no damage. Lehman recalls that the only time he used the interlibrary loan system on campus was to obtain a book about the culture of elaborate yet principled pranks, called “hacks,” at MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology).

Not all pranksters in Dordt’s history have exercised such rigorous scruples, however. Mellema points out that pranks can be surprisingly costly, and students, swept up in the thrill of their own conniving genius, sometimes fail to consider the fall-out: costly repairs and replacements, not to mention the time and resources of those who have to clean up the mess.

For many, it’s a simple failure of foresight rather than outright inconsideration. For enterprising pranksters, the challenge of accessing unauthorized places, at unauthorized times, can become an end in itself. As a result, some don’t stop to consider the safety of the people who must climb up on rooftops to fetch out-of-place objects, or perch on high ledges to undo clever installations.

Mellema tells the story of a time he and a new member of the maintenance staff went to retrieve a bike from on top of the B.J. Haan Auditorium: “While we were up there, the guy walked on a bar joist and fell through a false ceiling. He fell about seven feet—broke a shelf on his way down.” The man wasn’t injured, says Mellema, but he narrowly missed landing on a sharp object.

When asked to recount stories of pranks that turned criminal, Mellema mentions stolen sign-letters1, tampered-with mailboxes2, even grand theft auto3. And that isn’t the half of it: there have been acts of trespassing, stolen farm animals, “borrowed” business signs, and herbicides deployed to unlawful ends.

Don’t even get him started on the Canadian flags.

However, Mellema is quick to point out, “I was a kid, too. I was a prankster myself. It can be fun being on this side of it.”

Mellema has even made a game of foiling some pranks before they begin, drawing on his own storied past to put himself in the mind of would-be pranksters on campus. “In order to catch one, you need to think like one,” says Mellema.

More than one group of students has taken to the network of tunnels beneath campus in the middle of the night only to be startled by a wild-haired Mellema, crouching near the light switch as they creep along with their flashlights. Years ago, he rigged up a motion sensor in the underground passageways connected to the campus boiler plant, hoping to catch rogue students red-handed before they had a chance to see their plots through. “Students would get in there,” says Mellema, “and they’d track mud

all over the place; later I’d notice that some of my tools were missing.” He was also worried about students’ safety, noting the danger of hot steam under pressure.

Seeking a deterrent, he brought his concerns to then Vice President for Student Services Curtis Taylor, who replied, “Wouldn’t you rather catch them?”

Before word got around about the sensor, the tunnel system had been a favorite among pranksters seeking subterranean access to campus buildings after hours. Mellema remembers one group of students scheming to enter the library with a box of chickens.

“They had thought it all out—it was like something out of Mission Impossible,” says Mellema. “They even had bags on their feet so they wouldn’t leave any footprints.” He got a call on his phone at 2 a.m., alerting him to the boiler plant break-in. He raced to the tunnels, and with the help of campus security, caught the students before the chickens could be let loose among the stacks.

Mellema has foiled more than one prank-in-progress over the years, and he maintains a wry sense of humor about the midnight wake-up calls, despite the inconvenience. “It’s the middle of the night,” laughs Mellema. “I’m down there waiting to pop out and surprise them. I’ve really freaked some students out. My hair is down; I just woke up. The students are like, ‘Does this guy live down here, or what?’”

A golden rule for pranking

In his 26 years as boiler room operator and campus electrician, Mellema has seen student cleverness at its best and worst. In telling the story of pranks on Dordt’s campus, Mellema constructs a history of odd congruencies: a proliferation of bikes on rooftops, calves in bathrooms, and a lawn full of silverware, glittering at sunrise. He recalls unbolted chairs piled high in front of classrooms and underwear inscribed in magic marker and flapping in the breeze.

In Dordt’s 60-year history, there have been Volkswagons in lobbies, a piano suspended from the ceiling, and students rappelling from rafters above an open-mouthed crowd.

A story that might be more urban legend than actual prank lives on in the stories of an unlikely circulator: Dordt College President Erik Hoekstra likes to tell incoming students about the time four piglets were let loose in one of the girls’ dorms, each with a large, red number painted on its side. College authorities were able to round up piglets numbered 1, 2, 4, and 5, but spent more than an hour in fruitless search of missing piglet number 3. Finally they realized their mistake: there had never been a number three to begin with.

Hoekstra considers pranks a formative part of the college experience. “At Dordt,” he says, “we want to encourage a playful culture. As long as a prank doesn’t incur bodily or fiscal harm, we’re all for it.”

Mellema echoes this sentiment, adding that when it comes to animals, proceed with caution: “Have you ever seen a calf let loose in a bathroom?” he asks. “It’s a mess.”

As dean of students, Taylor has been approached by many students over the years inquiring about his policy on campus mischief. “When it comes to pranks,” says Taylor, “the criteria that I always give to students is this: everybody involved has to think it was great. That includes maintenance, grounds people, and the people who had the prank executed on them—if they all think it’s great, then that’s a great prank. There are plenty of those in Dordt’s history.”

“The best prank in the history of Dordt”

Perhaps the most celebrated prank in the history of Dordt took place in 1997 and involved a group of 14 co-conspirators and 13,000 Styrofoam cups of water.

An English professor at the time, Dr. James C. Schaap, was the first to come upon the cups, each filled two-thirds-full and arranged in impeccable rows along the hallway and stairwell leading to the faculty office complex.

“I’m an early bird,” explains Schaap. “I had an eight o’clock class, and I always went in at six thirty to be sure I had myself ready.” When he came upon the cups, he had no choice but to begin the tedious task of clearing a path to his office.

”There may well have been thousands,” recalls Schaap. “They were parked so closely together that it was impossible for me to get my size 15s on the steps.

“I had no cell phone,” says Schaap, “so I couldn’t call anyone.” He recalls soon seeing others “trickling in” to help clear the cups, carefully dumping their contents in a 55-gallon Rubbermaid trashcan as they went.

Mellema remembers the phone call to maintenance that morning enlisting help with the clean-up. “I quickly grabbed my camera. I thought, ‘I’ve got to document this stuff,’” says Mellema. He confesses to admiring the students’ creativity and planning. The three engineering students involved had calculated the number of cups needed to fill the area in question, and to avoid detection, the pranksters covered all of the windows in the faculty office complex with dark, heavy paper. Mellema refers to the stunt as “by far the best prank in the history of Dordt.”

Schaap also admits to being reluctantly impressed, and while he remembers some grumbling among those tasked with clean-up, he recalls laughter, too, as staff and faculty banded together to painstakingly remove the cups. “It really was great fun. I was frustrated by how long it took to get upstairs, but I had to admit it was a great prank. I remember being mightily impressed.”

Student Piet Westerbeek (’98) was involved in the prank’s planning and furnished some of the supplies. According to him, the prank was originally intended for another night, but the students were foiled by a former Dordt psychology professor, who camped out in his office until 2 a.m. that morning.

“We went that first night to scout it out, dressed in all black,” says Westerbeek. “Some of us kept eyes on security. We didn’t have cell phones back in those days, so we used CB radios to communicate,” he says. To this day, Westerbeek is unsure if Schaap, now his father-in-law, knows of his involvement in the prank.

The night the stunt was finally pulled off, Westerbeek had to bow out because of a speech he was scheduled to give early the next morning. Several of the collaborators were caught, however, after maintenance staff called around to area businesses and discovered the student purchasing industrial-sized boxes of Styrofoam cups had signed for them with his own name.

By the time graduation rolled around, the seniors who had not yet been caught revealed their identities at the ceremony; upon receiving a diploma, each guilty party handed President Zylstra a Styrofoam cup.

1. Did you know a single letter on the Dordt sign costs $250?

2. This is a federal offense.

3. A Dordt security car was taken over spring break one year; it turned up many years later at the bottom of a drained pond.

4. If you sneak into the campus tunnel system, Brian Mellema will catch you.