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Odd Wisconsin Archive

The (Non-)Politics of Pail & Shovel

For at least a century, Madison has been identified in the public mind with leftist politics.

The nation's Progressive movement first stretched its muscles here in the opening decades of the 20th century. When the Depression paralyzed the nation in the 1930s, many of the country's remedies, including Social Security, were crafted by Madison-trained policy makers. After World War Two, one of the first to speak out against Sen. Joe McCarthy was Capital Times publisher William T. Evjue. In the 1950s, a coterie of UW historians led by William Appleman Williams were among the earliest and most vocal opponents of what became known as U.S. imperialism. Their seed bore fruit in the following decade during the city's now-iconic anti-Vietnam protests.

By 1978, Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Dreyfus was getting significant mileage out of his campaign remark that Madison was "30 square miles surrounded by reality."*

In fact, by 1978 Madison's political intensity had begun to wane. After a decade of polarization -- the race riots and assassinations of 1968, the atrocities and tragedies of Vietnam, the betrayal of public trust at Watergate, the humiliating exposure of Richard Nixon – perhaps people were simply getting exhausted. In the early eighties we were told that you could get 200 people to demonstrate for any issue in Madison – but they were always the same 200 people. The Saturday Night Massacre had been replaced in the popular mind by Saturday Night Live.

The same year that Dreyfus coined that memorable definition of our capital, an absurdist contingent of UW-Madison students won control of student government. They campaigned in the spring of 1978 on a promise to convert the University's budget into pennies to be dumped on the UW's Library Mall where students could use pails and shovels to take what they wished. From that pledge came their name, The Pail and Shovel Party.

Much to their own surprise, the majority of Madison students preferred them to parties with a more traditional approach to student government, and Pail and Shovel took 29 of 36 student senate seats. Party president James J. Mallon and vice-president Leon D. Varjian found themselves in charge of an $80,000 budget allotted to student government (funded primarily through tuition fees of $2 per student).

During the campaign they had promised to flood Camp Randall Stadium for mock naval battles, buy the Statue of Liberty and move it to Wisconsin, and change every student's name to Joe Smith, "so that professors in large lecture courses would know everyone by name." They ended up spending it on such events as a Little Feat concert, toys to occupy students during the boredom of registration lines, a toga party for 10,000 people (blessed via telephone by Animal House star John Belushi), and erecting a partial replica of the Statue of Liberty placed on the winter ice of Lake Mendota.

Their best-remembered prank, however, was to cover the University's most famous landmark, Bascom Hill, in pink flamingoes. As sleepy students made their way up the hill on the first day of classes in 1979, they were greeted by 1,008 plastic pink flamingos covering the hill in front of the dean's office. Members of Pail and Shovel had begun planting the birds at 8:00 a.m., and by 2 p.m. that afternoon the ephemeral wonder had disappeared, the birds taken one-by-one by students who displayed them for years afterward in their dorm rooms, apartments, and elsewhere around campus. Mallon and Varjian salvaged one flamingo, donating it to the Wisconsin Historical Society to preserve it for posterity.

They ran for office again in 1979 with the slogan, "Are you nuts enough?" but stepped aside in 1980. You can read more about their pranks and see pictures of the pink flamingoes and the Statue of Liberty replica here.

* As journalist Doug Moe pointed out in The Capital Times (July 29, 2005), that remark passed through many iterations, nearly all of them citing the city's area incorrectly. Depending on what one measures, it's actually about 76 square miles.
:: Posted in Bizarre Events on July 8, 2007

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