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U of T’s Oddball Charms

16 unusual, outrageous and delightful tales of campus life

The University of Toronto is a bustling centre of serious thought, innovation and research excellence.

But that is not our concern here.

Join us for a detour off the academic turnpike as we explore the unusual side roads of U of T.

We’ll make stops at the sentimental, the supernatural and the sanguinary (that’s bloody, literally) in celebration of the people and places that make the university a more fun and interesting place to be. Our list is not exhaustive, so if we’ve missed something, tell us. That’s something we are serious about.

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
Every January, U of T’s engineering students blow off steam with a week-long celebration of high-concept goofiness known as Godiva Week. “It’s a whole second frosh week for engineers,” says Chris Anderson, co-chair of the engineers’ Blue and Gold Committee, which organizes the week’s events. Highlights of Godiva Week, which takes its name from Lady Godiva – one of several mascots claimed by engineering students – include the Mr. Blue and Gold Pageant and Godiva’s Crown, a women-only lumberjack contest.

One of the most eagerly anticipated events is the chariot race, a dash around King’s College Circle on jury-rigged sleighs. Each engineering discipline fields a “chariot” team with a helmeted rider and squad of pullers and pushers. Teams are encouraged to attack and dismantle other chariots during the race, so “defenders” are deployed to keep their sled in one piece. Crossing the finish line first doesn’t guarantee a win; by tradition, the declared winners are the team that bribes the judges most creatively. The week of gleeful mayhem is capped off by the more genteel Cannonball, the engineers’ annual semi-formal dance and dinner. Anderson says it’s “one of the times during the year when we actually dress up and look presentable.”

School of Hard Knocks
Students in Professor Rick Halpern’s American Studies seminar “Hellhound on my Trail: Living the Blues in the Mississippi Delta, 1890-1945,” don’t spend all their time with their nose in a book – they learn the history of the Deep South by listening to such blues greats as Muddy Waters, Ma Rainey, Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf.

“Most blues songs aren’t about historic events,” says Halpern, the Bissell-Heyd-Associates Chair in American Studies. “They’re more about love gone wrong.” But Halpern wanted to approach blues songs as texts that would help his students understand African-American history in the segregated south in the real voices of the people who lived it. His students have required readings each week, but they also have required listening. “The blues can be used to capture the voices of many black southerners who don’t appear in the history books,” says Halpern, who is also director of the Centre for the Study of the United States and the American Studies program at U of T.

Students often find a particular artist or song that resonates with them. “I got really attached to the Skip James song, ‘Hard-Time Killing Floor Blues,'” says Erin Mandzak, a fourth-year history and political science student. “It expressed the despair of the blues, and for me was the clearest link between African-American life under segregation and blues music.”

Dance Me Inside
If you dream of dancing like Fred Astaire but have the feet of Fred Flintstone, U of T’s Only Human Dance Collective is there for you. “Everyone’s really nice and welcoming,” says Kelly Stewart (BEd 2000), who has been with the collective for most of the time since its start in 1999. “It’s very inclusive.”

The collective, which doesn’t hold auditions for company pieces and is open to all members of the U of T community, stages a popular annual spring show at the Isabel Bader Theatre featuring more than a hundred dancers and a range of styles – from African and Indian to jazz and hip-hop. The all-comers philosophy usually means a few toes twang rather than twinkle, but the enthusiasm of the show is infectious. “It’s amazing,” says Stewart. “I just feel lucky to be a part of it.”

It’s Only a Paper Moon, Hanging Over a Cardboard Sea…Actors don’t get more two-dimensional than this. U of T’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library is home to one of the world’s largest collections of toy theatres, the Desmond Seaton Reid Juvenile Drama Collection. Totalling about 6,000 pieces, the collection consists of printed sheets designed to be coloured, cut out and mounted on card. Sets of the sheets were bought for Victorian children who assembled them to make tiny cardboard stages, scenery, backdrops and actors.

“This really is a record of performance in the 19th century,” says Fisher Library director Richard Landon, explaining that the most elaborate sets were exact scale replicas of real productions and their actors, and sometimes included costume changes. Many were packaged with an abridged, half-hour script so children could perform the play at home. “It was the kind of thing you’d buy as a Christmas gift because it seemed like an improving activity for children,” says Landon. “But no child has that kind of concentration. It’s the model train syndrome – you buy it for your kid but end up doing it yourself.”

Life on Mars?
“There are students who come to this course wanting to know if the pyramids are evidence of aliens visiting Earth,” says Professor Chris Matzner, who teaches the U of T astronomy course “Life on Other Worlds,” “but we try to get students to take a scientific view.” That means bringing the discussion back down to Earth, by focusing on how life developed on our own planet, and what that indicates about how life might form elsewhere. “Although you’re always left with the same unanswered question,” says Matzner, of whether or not extraterrestrial life exists, “what’s surprising is how much we do know.” Biologists, for instance, have found life flourishing in some of the Earth’s harshest environments, and since the early 1990s astronomers have discovered more than 150 planets outside our solar system. Matzner says that while we’re not likely to find life on other worlds anytime soon, “these recent discoveries have really increased the level of interest in astrobiology.”

Gaudy, but Never Tacky
“Ghosts are alive and well at Massey,” says John Fraser, master of the U of T graduate college. But the red-letter day for Massey’s scholarly spectres isn’t Halloween; it’s the college’s annual Christmas Gaudy, a night of food, drink, song and storytelling to mark the end of the fall term. Massey has so many phantoms because its founding master, Canadian literary giant Robertson Davies, was constantly inventing new ones. Each year he concocted a ghost story, usually featuring the spirit of an ancient scholar – Gutenberg, Aristotle or Newton – haunting a Massey student or faculty member. Fraser’s style is different. “I never tell ghost stories because I won’t put myself up against Robertson Davies in that department,” he says. Instead, Fraser, a former editor of Saturday Night, narrates from the perspective of animals in and around the college – ducks, rats, raccoons – to create what he calls “bedtime stories suitable for adult ears.”

Rope Charmers
Forget everything you think you know about skipping rope. The four members of U of T’s competitive jump-rope team, the Varsity Ropers, appear to defy gravity as they run, jump and flip through the air to perform such acrobatic manoeuvres as the Transient Extended Neck Wrap or the Suburban Hemisphere. “If it uses ropes, we do it,” says team member Lindsay Williamson, who counts the Two-Footed Double Frog among her specialties. Last year the U of T team ranked first at the Ontario championships, and third nationally. Although the Ropers have proved their competitive mettle, they’ve begun organizing a recreational program for beginners. “It’s an excellent cardiovascular workout, and it’s fun,” says Williamson.

Bells of the Ball
U of T’s prized carillon in Soldiers’ Tower can be heard all over campus, so most listeners never get close enough to see that the real show is how the 51-bell instrument is played. The bells range in size from 23 pounds to four tons and are controlled by a six-foot-wide keyboard of wooden levers. Performers get quite a workout, explains Michael Hart, U of T’s official carillonneur. “It’s physically demanding. Because the clappers all vary in weight, you have to adjust the pressure you use on each key.” During carillon concerts, a staple of many U of T summer evenings, a closed-circuit TV was set up, Hart says, “so people on the ground could have a view of what we do.”

Cake and Ice Cream (and Chicken and Sardines and…)
As cakes go, it’s not exactly worth fighting for. But Trinity College’s annual Cake Fight has nothing to do with eating.

“The female head of first year makes the most disgusting cake possible,” explains Ashutosh Jha, one of Trinity’s co-heads of college. “This year the cake was made with chicken, cake mix, leftover food and pork chops. But we check for food allergies first.” In a throwback to Trinity’s sex-segregated days, the college’s first-year men must retrieve the revolting dessert from the quad through the east gate in under a minute, while the second-year men try to block their path. “It’s kind of a rivalry,” says Jha.”It brings the first years together.” Last September, the frosh retrieved the cake in 38 seconds, which Jha says is “a decent result.”

The Doctor Will Feed You Now
For a cookbook written by people who are supposed to look after our health, it sure contains a lot of brownie recipes. Eating Well: Favourite Recipes from the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Medicine contains 80 recipes submitted by med students, faculty, staff and alumni, including three for brownies. Marilyn Heng, who is in the third year of her medical degree, edited the inaugural edition last year. “I’d say I tested half the recipes,” she says, adding that she was a particular fan of a pasta recipe from a classmate’s grandmother and a South African dessert called melktart.

The cookbook includes recipes from some of U of T’s most notable medical researchers, such as Dr. Tak Mak (who contributed an Italian-Chinese chicken stir-fry) and Dr. Catherine Whiteside (a cheeseburger casserole). U of T’s new president, Dr. David Naylor, provided a recipe for vegetarian stuffed peppers that he used to make while he was a student at Oxford University. “I tested that one out,” Heng says. “It was really good.” Proceeds from the sale of the $10 book support a senior citizens’ outreach program.

Deliciously Diabolical
The gruesome tale of Diabolos and Reznikoff, the stonemasons who fought to the death in the hallways of the half-built University College, is well known to U of T students and alumni. But the legend isn’t all that remains: two gargoyles at the west end of the main UC building are reputed to be likenesses of the feuding colleagues, forever grimacing each other.

For years, a popular UC café has kept Diabolos’s name alive, while Reznikoff lingered in obscurity. But in September 2005, a new café called – you guessed it – Reznikoff’s opened on the ground floor of Morrison Hall, UC’s new residence on St. George Street. Now the rivalry goes on, albeit in a friendlier and more delicious form.

The Lies of the Land
The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming! Or so you’d think from looking at a Red-scare map of Europe published in Time magazine in 1952. But to the students in Professor James Retallack’s first-year seminar course, “Telling Lies with Maps,” the picture isn’t so simple.

Retallack, who teaches at the Munk Centre for International Studies, wants his students to think critically about the maps they see in books, on the wall or on TV.

“We try to run the gamut,” he says, “from the good elements of graphical display to the bad and the ugly. We look at spy maps, satellite maps, maps in advertisements, maps in literature and fiction…” The list goes on. “Map projections tell interesting and nuanced stories,” he says.

Aces High
When Clayton Babcock was a student at the University of Toronto at Mississauga in the late 1970s, he was one of a notorious group of students called “the loungers.”

Babcock and his fellow loungers didn’t take much about university seriously – except their card games. They played Hearts, mostly, and a game of their own invention called Doughnut. “There was a little gambling going on,” says Babcock, “a nickel here, a nickel there.” The only hitch: individual loungers would sometimes forget their cards. “Then it dawned on us that we could just jump up on the radiator, punch out the ceiling tile and keep the cards up there.”

Babcock isn’t a lounger anymore (he graduated with a BSc in biology in 1981), but while visiting UTM a few years ago, he checked out his old haunt and couldn’t resist a peek above the ceiling. “There was our deck of cards!” he says. Babcock adds there may still be one or two decks stashed in the ceiling, should any current students care to restart the tradition. Texas Hold’em anyone?

The Plot Thickens
“It looks pretty small,” says Caroline Xia, surveying the community garden in front of the Students’ Administrative Council building on Hart House Circle, “but we really pack the vegetables in.” Xia is the founder of the Ontario Public Interest Research Group Equity Gardeners, the volunteer group that tends the small plot of land and encourages anyone to harvest what they’d like from it. This year’s harvest included lettuce, beets, Swiss chard, four kinds of mint, beans, kale, oregano, chives and even two small bushes growing hot peppers. “It produces a humongous amount of food,” says Xia. “People are constantly harvesting.” The garden is pesticide-free, and the group provides most of its own compost and even some of its own seeds, sprouting them on the third floor of SAC over the winter. “We make a point of planting vegetables that grow quickly and are super producers,” says Xia. Regularly during spring, summer and fall, the volunteers harvest a crop to donate to The Scott Mission, and they’re planning an expansion next summer so they can grow more. “We just grow vegetables and people can harvest them,” says Xia with a shrug. “It’s a pretty simple concept.”

Bert and Eerie
Many students call Hart House a favourite haunt, but a former caretaker of the building seems to really mean it. Bert (last name unknown) handled custodial duties at Hart House for several years in the 1960s, until he died suddenly on his way to work. It seems he came in that day anyway and never left. “My own experience with the ghost was five or six years ago,” says Hart House Theatre manager Paul Templin. Working late one winter night, Templin decided to sleep in his office and asked the security guards not to wake him. “Sometime during the night, the door swung open and hit my cot. The door is glass-paned, so I could see there was someone standing behind it. Then the door closed again.” Templin got up to investigate and found that the room was full of smoke, the result of an electrical fire in an adjacent wall. He gathered with Hart House’s overnight staff on the sidewalk outside, and asked if anyone had been to his office; no one had. “All I saw that night was a silhouette of a person,” says Templin, but he is convinced Bert roused him to the danger. “I’d say that he saved my life.”

Wood Is Thicker Than Water
The ornate gryphon coiled on top of the banister in the east stairway of University College once disappeared from its perch.

During a university-wide blood drive in the 1950s, UC students had the worst participation rate at U of T. To punish the college, a group of engineering students barricaded the stairwell with the gryphon, sawed the creature from the banister and took it away. According to George Mastoras, vice-president of the UC Literary and Athletic Society, the engineers later sent UC students a message: if they wanted their beloved gryphon back, they would have to donate more blood to the drive than any other college. Which they did. “So it’s literally been paid for with the blood of UC students,” Mastoras observes. To this day, the gryphon is an academic totem for UC students, who rub it for luck on their way to exams.

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  1. 3 Responses to “ U of T’s Oddball Charms ”

  2. Scott Anderson says:

    Fond memories flooded back while reading about engineering students' annual chariot race.

    I was reminded that the genesis for this singular annual event probably dates back – way back – to the late winter of 1948. All faculties were challenged to a one-lap race around the front campus with beds on casters as chariots.

    Six students pushed each bed with a seventh aboard in a highly competitive jostling event marked by cheers, jeers, outrageous tactics and general mayhem. Or was it bedlam? In comparison, the running of the bulls at Pamplona would have been a walk in the park.

    As one of engineering's six "horses" in that inaugural year, my recollection is that meds and engineering led the pack as the finish line approached. And if memory is not clouded by bias, engineering won by a footboard.

    William A. Dimma
    BASc 1948

  3. Scott Anderson says:

    Under the heading "Deliciously Diabolical," writer Graham F. Scott asserts that the U of T historical figure Reznikoff "lingered in obscurity" until an eponymous café opened last fall.


    One of the U of T colleges hosted a regular pub/dance in the 1980s called "Reznikoff's." Not yet being of legal drinking age, my friends and I used to sneak in sometimes to enjoy the dancing. Your "error" brought back some happy memories.

    Peter Murphy
    LLB 1993

  4. David Melville says:

    I'd like to voice my support for Caroline Xia, the founder of the community garden described in "The Plot Thickens." She overcame, and continues to overcome, obstacles that the "status quo" places in front of her: that she is crazy to want change, that it can't be done or can't be done as she wants.

    Keep up the good work, Caroline! You have helped feed many. I hope you have "strong teeth," because social and cultural activists are all too often kicked in the teeth. Sometimes the hardest kick comes from people from whom you expect support and understanding! At least that has been the experience I've had sometimes.

    We have to concentrate on the positive while also being realistic. We all face challenges, and the most vulnerable do best working together.