21 Days of the Gerbil: Wimpy and the 1981 USG Elections, a Tale of Two Campaigns
The following story was written by a former devoted member of the Wimpy campaign upon finding our post on March 24 about how Wimpy the Gerbil almost became USG President. Wimpy Poster (above) is ©1981 Jon Pinchock used with permission.
by Dan F. Conrad ’81 L.A., ’88 History (and Wimpy’s West Halls Press Secretary)
Thirty-five years ago last April 2, 25% of the voters in the 1981 Penn State Undergraduate Student Government (USG) election voted for a rodent as their student body president. Wimpy the Gerbil and his running mate Fred Schiller, regarded by many as a protest candidate and symbolic nexus against the banality of collegiate student government received 1,432 votes out of 5,802 cast, defeating three other slates. Bill Cluck and Ken Reeves won the election with 2,299 votes — or at least, that is the official story.
Wimpy originated from a 1980 article in the Penn State humor magazine Froth entitled, “The 80s: A Look Back at the Tumultuous Decade 1980-1989,“ which was a parody of a book of the same title published by Workman. Froth predicted that Wimpy the Gerbil would win the USG Presidency in 1986. It was early February 1981, and Norman Rule, Matt Williams, and their leader, who would be known only as the enigmatic “Colonel,” decided to advance Froth’s timetable. Wimpy would run for USG President this year, a full five years before his expected ascension to the presidency.
The full name of Wimpy’s owner is lost with time, but I remember his first name was Joe. When not in his “bulletproof” transport aquarium, Wimpy lived in a larger cage with his mate, Blinky. Monty Python Society (MPS) President Jon Pinchock used all of his professional resources and fifty tons of patience to position Wimpy properly for the photos for both the campaign poster and the button. He actually lived (illegally) in East Halls; the R.A.’s looked the other way. Wimpy died about a year after the campaign under circumstances too sad for inclusion in this article.
The Colonel formed Wimpy’s Elite Security Team (WEST). During the campaign, he tirelessly organized the campaign appearance schedule, with constant drop-ins at concerts and fraternity parties. Security was provided by appropriately coiffed, Ray-Ban clad WEST “agents” who escorted Wimpy’s bulletproof transport aquarium. This anonymous Colonel, the all-knowing, all-seeing mind behind the cage reminded me of the Soviet “Chief Designer,” credited with designing Sputnik and Soviet rocketry, a man who inspired fear throughout the West during Sputnik scare of the 1950s. I would later learn that the senior staff of the campaign did contain at least one aerospace engineering major; consequently I may not have been the only person associated with the campaign who knew about the Chief Designer and the fear he inspired. In the context of the Wimpy campaign, I found this to be equally ridiculous and hilarious. WEST was drawn from MPS and Froth, though not all campaign workers were in WEST, and not all WEST members were in Froth or MPS. We even had badges which featured a stylized carrot over a badge insert that looked real when a student ID card was placed in its holder.
Of course, there was an Oath of Office:
” I, <name> do solemnly swear to do my utmost to protect the life of Wimpy the Gerbil and, what the heck, Fred’s life too, I guess, against all enemies foreign and domestic just so long as I don’t get hurt in the process because I mean, let’s face it, this is a joke after all, and I would be crazy to put my life on the line for it, especially with my whole future ahead of me.”
The founding triumvirate also tapped the MPS for financial support and Pinchock for logistical support. In an age before QuarkXPress and Photoshop, Pinchock, a skilled layout artist and photographer, made Wimpy look good in print and added a professional tone to our campaign poster and button — our chief propaganda items. His MPS perennially ran Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Grail) in the Forum to packed audiences for revenue. WEST Press Secretary Steve Luttrell was the other prime mover of the campaign. He filed press releases with Penn State media outlets and filed the statement of candidacy with USG. Anne Conners, in the March 18 Daily Collegian, quoting from a Luttrell press release, wrote:
Wimpy the Gerbil (no term standing) and Fred Schiller (9th-business administration) have announced their candidacy for president and vice president of the (USG) amid dispute over the legitimacy of their campaign.
The USG Elections Committee dismissed us as a joke because the campaign originated with students whose common trait was a love of satire — a very imprudent miscalculation. USG Elections Commissioner Rob Fanning declared Wimpy to be a non-candidate because he was not a full-time student, though his running mate was. However, USG Supreme Court Justice Gary Kazmer rendered an ex parte opinion in the Daily Collegian that Wimpy could receive write-in votes, though the ticket would be disallowed to take office if it won, a promulgation that would have far-reaching consequences.
It was the night of Friday, March 13. I was a member of the Penn State Monty Python Society, and that night we had two screenings of Grail at 7 and 9 p.m. I skipped the earlier show. Before the feature began, Luttrell screened his one minute campaign film as the official kickoff for the Wimpy Campaign. Wimpy stood on an American Flag while a narrator extolled his virtues and called the student body to action. Response was immediate, positive, and the applause at the end of the film was explosive and filled with cheers. That last sentence was not hyperbole. There was passion in the audience…over a gerbil. For a brief second, the enthusiasm approached the inchoate emotionalism one sees when watching old films of Nazi party rallies. Fortunately, that brief second was ONLY one second.
When Grail finished, I stayed in my seat and watched in utter amazement, and, please forgive me for using this word, but it is appropriate, awe. Fred Schiller, senior WEST staff, and President Pinchock dealt with hoards of enthusiastic supporters while four stern-looking WEST agents protected a central table bearing Wimpy’s aquarium. I was witnessing the inception of a genuine charismatic mass movement — presided over by a Gerbil running for USG President! I had to get in on this.
As an historian in training, I knew I could help nurture this incipient cause. (Sometimes, History majors are inclined to do more than just write about or reconstruct events. Our occasional desire to shape them can be compared to an insurance investigator who dabbled with arson during his youth). As the crowd thinned out, I introduced myself to the Colonel and President Pinchock. I volunteered my time — as much time as the campaign required — and they had an important task for me. In order to qualify officially for a place on the USG ballot, a slate consisting of a President and Vice Presidential candidate had to file a Statement of Candidacy (already done by Luttrell) and file nominating petitions with 25 names from each resident district. I explained that I had time to spare as I needed only three courses to graduate, including Wine Tasting. I added, “The dorm lines are this weekend. I know I can get at least 400 angry students to sign our petitions.” Appreciating my enthusiasm, they gave me a stack of blank petitions and ordered me to run with it. Realizing that a nerve had been hit that night, I would now mine it for all it was worth.
In 1981 there was an institution at Penn State known as the dorm lines. After persistent allegations of impropriety regarding dorm room assignments, The Association of Resident Hall Students and the Office of Student Affairs devised a system where returning students who wanted dorm rooms had to queue up outside for an entire weekend, much like the lines you see at various downtown apartment complexes today at the beginning of rental season. After sufficient time was wasted, their applications were taken in order. The lines were strictly managed by line monitors, described as frustrated high school hall monitors on steroids. By a magnificent stroke of luck, Wimpy’s campaign triumphantly began in the Forum that night before dorm line weekend.
Several weeks earlier, a revised student government proposal known as PSUSA was withdrawn after the referendum failed to attract the required 25% turnout of the student body. Worse, the majority of votes were against the proposal. I did not need to look up Jurgen Habermas’ seminal work to realize that student government at PSU had its own looming legitimization crisis. In the manner of Zippy the Clown, I would exploit this by asking the victims of the dorm lines if they were having fun yet, before offering an alternative — a protest candidate for USG President — Wimpy The Gerbil and his running mate Fred Schiller.
ON March 14-15, I was working the dorm lines. We did a land office business. Students were angered at the whole dorm line process. My friend Walter Knights and I collected twice the necessary signatures and returned them to Wimpy’s Central HQ Sunday evening. A senior staff meeting took place in the Colonel’s room. Campaign stops at fraternities were scheduled and plans for selling campaign buttons were made. The Colonel looked at me and says, “Oh yes, our volunteer historian, how did your theory about working the dorm lines work out?” I smiled and made a flourish with my hands toward Walter. “Walt,” I implored, “Show them, please.” In contrast, he unceremoniously pulled a large stack of petitions out of a small briefcase and dropped them onto the Colonel’s desk, making an uncharacteristically loud flop.”I still remember the widened eyes dropped jaws. I continued, “I got twice the number we needed for all of the districts, just to make sure we have enough genuine signatures. Everyone wanted to sign them. I had to turn people away once we had fifty signatures from their district.” Someone asked, “My God, what did you do?” I answered, “What have we done? We’ve just positioned a rodent to become the next USG President.“
Later, I was able to get The Colonel alone, and I made a personal request. “So, do you think that my actions warrant an appointment to WEST?” “Of course,” he said, “Where do you live?” After I told him that I lived in Tamarack House, Hamilton Hall, he officiously decreed, “I hereby appoint you as Wimpy’s West Halls Press Secretary. You know that you will have to take the WEST oath of office.” “Of course!” I answered, now grinning ear to ear. He pulled a blank WEST badge from his desk and filled in my new title. I did not realize until recently the honor he was bestowing upon me. Steve Luttrell was the Chief Press Secretary, and my actions were seen on the level of Steve’s contributions, his media work, and the campaign film. The Colonel then wrote out a special version of the WEST oath for me to repeat. My oath was different, and reproduced below is the original written out by the Colonel. Note the changes from the full WEST oath.
All of the language regarding how “the campaign is a joke, after all” had been redacted. I now was sworn to actually protect the little guy, all of the language about “only as long as I <am not personally imperiled,>” had also been deleted from my oath. It was not that I was being held to a different standard — the Colonel knew that this was too important to joke about, at least with me. After all, I had ensured that fewer people would be laughing at us from now on. I raised my hand and affirmed the oath. “Congratulations,” he said.
From that moment foreword, even thirty-five years later, I address him primarily as Mon Colonel, and though I know his real name, I will never disclose it. In retrospect, I cared far too much for the campaign. Walter and I had collected more than 800 names on the nominating petitions. Each signatory had to produce their ID card and give us their student number and telephone number along with their signature. Although we had in our possession approximately 400 working telephone numbers of girls from the dorm lines that we actually had something in common with (support for Wimpy), no one connected with the campaign thought of using the petitions for “other” purposes. It would have been so easy: “Hi, remember me from the Wimpy campaign? You gave the campaign your signature and your phone number; I have two tickets to xxxxxxxx, what are you doing Friday night?” If that is not the definition of too much dedication, I don’t know what is.
It no longer mattered that Wimpy could not win because he was not a full-time student. It did not even matter that election commissioner Rob Fanning refused to accept the nominating petitions; they would remain in the background. Wimpy had become less a three ounce gerbil than an 800+ signature gorilla. At the very minimum, the petitions changed how everyone, including us, viewed the campaign. Wimpy now had what would one day be called “street cred.” He was metamorphosing into a symbol. USG began to realize they had a problem.
March 18: the USG Elections Committee realized what we were about and specifically banned what they called “Joke Candidates like Wimpy the Gerbil.” They still did not fully get it. Wimpy was now a legitimate protest candidate, validated by the signatures on his nominating petitions. In what can be described only as an homage to us, the Elections Committee said that they were going to check random samples of the nominating petitions of the official candidates. This was a strategic blunder that could only lead to the disqualification of an approved slate, while we actually qualified, but could not get placed on the ballot.
With plenty of time to spare after the nominating petitions, and revenue from the Wimpy campaign film/Grail screening, we made campaign buttons and sold them for fifty cents each.
Walter and I took our shift in the basement of the Hetzel Union Building. Business was brisk. It took us only about two hours to sell our daily allotment. Our button supply was intermittent, as the MPS volunteers who made them did not want to over-produce them. The profit margin was minimal; they were distributed for propaganda purposes, not for campaign revenue enhancement. One day, what I could describe only as a stunning raven-haired beauty demurely walked up to the table and asked for a button. She gave me a dollar, and as I tried to hand her the change, she took and squeezed my hand for about five awkward albeit exciting seconds and said, “Keep it as a campaign contribution.” I handed her the button in a near state of shock. She happily pinned it to her blouse, thanked me, smiled, and walked away. Turning to Walt, I said, “I’m sure you understand how hard it is for me to remain in this chair at this moment?”
Over time, we became more sophisticated with the campaign stops. At first, if Wimpy was scheduled to go to a fraternity party, we would show up near the time the party began. Now we knew better. By allowing the audience to get a few beers into themselves before our arrival, our reception improved considerably. Wimpy was now beset by cheering crowds which became the cheering multitudes the closer we got to election day. Someone from the campaign, usually Schiller, would explain Wimpy’s platform per the statement of candidacy, though the audience really could have cared less.
Meanwhile, across campus at West Halls, I was running my own campaign. By March 20, the campaign had split into two divergent platforms. The candidacy statement outlined Wimpy’s official platform; it would turn the office of the USG President into a straw poll clearinghouse. Every decision would be taken after a poll of the student body. I realized that the system was patently impractical. Turnout for the referendum on PSUSA was low enough — I knew what would really happen if somehow we would actually be given the power to enact the Wimpy program as per the statement of candidacy. After the first few polls, students would tune us out, and the envisioned Athenian-style pure Democracy would be replaced by the tyranny of a dedicated minority, similar to what really happened in ancient Greece. Although in theory all land-owning free men could vote, in practice, only those landowning men wealthy enough to be at court could vote. WEST and Schiller consistently advanced this platform, emphatically stating that the Wimpy candidacy was not divisive, but designed to get students involved in the USG process.
In contrast, Walter and I quickly filled the nominating petitions by positioning Wimpy as a protest candidate. Remembering former Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill and his adage that “all politics is local,” I canvassed extensively West Halls. Taking meals as early as possible, I would pin on my Wimpy button, WEST badge, and use the remaining dining hall time to canvas support and distribute Wimpy posters to whomever wanted one. I never mentioned the official platform, but asked what USG had ever done other than spend about $2 of your tuition on trips for the officers to attend collegiate student government conventions. The existence of two platforms for the same candidate went unnoticed because the Collegian editorial staff also regarded the campaign as a joke and did not perceive the dichotomy.
The different platforms were headquartered at different ends of campus. The official program, based upon the statement of candidacy, was centered in East Halls, while I advanced the insurgent platform from West Halls. I answered my dorm phone, “Wimpy for President, West Halls Campaign Headquarters,” much to the disgust of my roommate, a good friend of Bill Cluck (He once called asking for Ted, and I admonished him to keep his conversation to a minimum because this line must be kept open for official Wimpy business). I put a call into Bill to get his perspective after thirty-five years; he never returned my inquiries.
March 30: The Collegian printed a letter by Amy Baggott, an MPS official, broke with the official platform when she eloquently affirmed that Wimpy was a valid protest candidate who should be on the ballot:
“The Collegian also mistakenly assumed that Wimpy is a joke candidate…This is not true. Wimpy the Gerbil is being run in all seriousness. Otherwise, why would the USG elections committee be afraid of him? That is how it appears, since they have barred him from the ballot in spite of the fact that there is no rule which says that a candidate must be a full-time student to run, only to take office…let <the students> decide for themselves on election day who is the joke.”
Pride swelled within me. I had absolutely nothing to do with Ms. Baggot’s letter to the Editor. Wimpy’s support grew exponentially with each appearance.
Although not staring us in the face, victory was looking in our general direction. A meeting of the senior campaign staff convened hastily in my absence, which in retrospect was an excellent idea. Fred Schiller wanted no part of a USG Presidency. Although Wimpy was barred from taking office, the meeting addressed an increasingly possible scenario given Wimpy’s level of support: a Wimpy landslide would translate into a vote of no confidence for USG, just as the rejected PSUSA referendum had suggested. The Office of Student Affairs (OSA) in the person of Assistant Vice President Craig Miller had already gone on the record in the March 18th Collegian: “Wimpy’s candidacy would undermine USG’s credibility with other students.” In fact, PSUSA’s defeat demonstrated that ship had already sailed and sank before Wimpy ‘threw his sunflower seeds’ into the ring. It was feared that a Wimpy/Schiller landslide might actually propel Schiller into office by an OSA desperate to restore legitimacy to the USG.
Had I been there I would have told them that this was nothing to worry about. The dorm lines demonstrated that the potential for corruption already existed within OSA; consequently I had absolutely no faith that the vote count would be in our favor, regardless of how many votes we actually garnered. Those present proposed an alternative: If Wimpy won, he would have to be assassinated. An elaborate plan, known as Operation Exit Strategy, was drafted; during a Wimpy Victory Parade, a lone gunman atop Davey Lab would brandish a starter pistol. Shouting, “Death to the Rat,” he would fire the starter pistol while a WEST agent would flip a switch under Wimpy’s cage which would automatically set off a squib in the cage where Wimpy would have been replaced by a paper mache facsimile.
However, real history intervened. Two days before the balloting began, on March 30, President Reagan was shot by a would-be assassin. Operation exit strategy was shelved. Had they sought my counsel on the matter, I might have suggested the assassin yell “Sic semper rodentiae,” a parody of what John Wilkes Booth said on that black night in April 1865 except for the fact that I would have protested loudly, vehemently, and in no uncertain terms against the whole concept of abrogating power should it be handed to us, regardless of the fact that Fred did not want to actually hold office (which was probably why I was excluded from the meeting). There was a very good reason why my efforts were limited if not exiled to West Halls. Their attitude was similar to how sausage makers are regarded: The campaign was generally thankful for my efforts, though they did not want to know precisely how I actually won support for Wimpy.
I would have argued that all Fred would have had to have said was, “No, the student body elected Wimpy, not me. He is their choice. He won. Deal with it; that is why I ran as Vice President. I am only Wimpy’s Vice President.”
It was not lost on us that the elections ran for two days beginning on April Fool’s Day. I cast my ballot for Wimpy/Schiller early on Wednesday April 1. That evening, I remembered getting a call from a woman (a rare enough occurrence for me) in MPS who asked if I was sitting down. After doing so she continued, “We’re doing some exit polling, and well, we may be winning by as much as a 2:1 margin.” For one of the few times in my entire life, I was speechless until she asked, “Are you still there?” I burst into near convulsive laughter and was barely able to mouth, “Yes.” She asked in astonishment, “My God, do you think that we actually did it?” Ever since I started writing this article on March 13 (that’s right, thirty-five years to the day of the actual first showing of Steve Luttrell’s campaign film and Grail), I’ve been trying to recall her name. I remembered only that she was MPS, but that is all.
It would have been my last breakfast as a WEST official/canvasser. After that day, I no longer hastily bolt down reconstituted powdered eggs while scanning a Collegian for any news about the campaign. I made a few brief notes regarding which snacks I wanted in my bag to fortify myself that evening while the votes were being tallied. The preliminary results came in from the Collegian, and they were in line with the exit poll report. USG Election Commissioner Fanning reported that there were about 2800 votes cast that first day, and the total number of write-in votes for all candidates was 1400. He was quick to add that did not mean we were ahead. Really? So many Senatorial candidates are running write-in campaigns that they are effectively skewing the total number of write-in votes for Wimpy?
I paid an homage to the Animal House Honor Court Scene by simultaneously coughing and saying under my breath — bullshit. I have been telling anyone who would listen for three weeks that any our campaign was so dangerous to USG’s credibility that no instrumentality of USG dare tell the truth how many votes we actually received if it looked like we may actually win.
During my last canvass, there were a group of three girls eating together. I’d spoken to them before, and they were lukewarm at best. As I approached them, one said, “Come here Wimpy!!!” I began. “Good morning, ladies. In case you have not read this morning’s Collegian, apparently we did well yesterday, but we are far from complacent, please, I urge you, please cast your ballots for Wimpy/Schiller for USG President. Remember, you MUST also write in Schiller, and you must request a special write-in ballot.” “We’ll think about it, Wimpy,” one said. “All right then, but be forewarned, tomorrow that word may have a different meaning for all of us. Wouldn’t you like to be able to say tomorrow that you were part of the excitement today?”
On Thursday night, April 2, 1981, the final tally began. The USG Elections Committee and Commissioner Fanning allowed only representatives from the approved campaigns to witness the ballot count. This was a strategic blunder. While protesting vehemently, I warned him that this would cause rumors to circulate that Wimpy actually won (by me if no one else started them). Presciently, I remarked that if the results were not announced by 10:00 p.m., something very funny was happening. Fanning compounded the problem by stating that only ballots which named both Wimpy and Schiller would counted. This was how Wimpy was denied the election. Fanning and the USG election committee found a way to exclude a large block of Wimpy votes in a matter which seemed fair on the surface — only. Fanning held Wimpy to a higher standard than candidates for President of the United States. Example: if someone were cast a write-in ballot for President Barack Obama in 2012, that vote would have been added to his vote total. However, in 1981, write in votes which read only Wimpy were not counted. Popular sentiment believed that there could be only one reason for excluding us and a potentially large block of our votes from the vote-counting process. Wimpy must not win at any cost, including the truth.
I realized that something was seriously wrong around midnight when they were still counting votes. A group of about six of us were wearing WEST badges. I asked them, “Do any of you want a cigarette?” (I still smoked). I continued. “I like to have one after sex, and I guarantee you that they kept us out of the counting room because they are screwing all of us as I speak.”
No one laughed, but a few heads nodded.
USG staff kept coming in and out of the closed room looking determined and nervous when they looked at the WEST badges huddled together. Finally, everyone inside got their story straight and announced the official results a little after 2 a.m. The slate of Bill Cluck and Ken Reeves won with 2,299 votes, we placed second with 1,432 votes, Doug Kann and Cindy Dutt came in third with 1,378 votes, Kevin Leondi and David DeGrosse placed fourth with 329 votes, and other write-in votes garnered 368, a number that was very important to the statistical analysis in the Appendix to this article. I really felt for the Leondi/DeGrosse ticket; they were not only beaten by a gerbil, but by “other.” Wimpy beat three slates of “real” candidates, but Cluck and Reeves won the day, also by a respectful margin, or so it was said. At the time, we were all so shell-shocked from the campaign that we did not think of questioning the results or submitting them to the rigors of a statistical analysis.
Years later, I eventually did just that, and the results are interesting. The official results had Wimpy placing a very cathartic second. We supposedly won three of the sixteen election districts: East Halls District One, (Wimpy’s HQ), West Halls, (I proudly accept responsibility/blame for my efforts in carrying my home District), the HUB (one of the designated polling place for the fraternity houses), and part of the off campus district, the Briarwood Apartments. Although most of the senior staff were thoroughly exhausted, an “almost victory” party followed the next night in Steve Luttrell’s suite. Near its end, several of us made speeches. I told all in attendance, “Now it is time for us to return to our lives and our GPAs.” Thirty-five years later, Steve Luttrell, emailed me that he actually remembered the above quote. The grades of some of the staff suffered for the sake of Wimpy and Fred, and at least one senior staffer had to repeat a few courses.
Bill Cluck/Ken Reeves Win USG Election
Headline for April 3, 1981 Daily Collegian Article announcing USG Election Results
We thought that it was the end of the story. Several days later, we found out to our amazement that Wimpy made the AP wire. I was also a DJ at WDFM, forerunner of WPSU and The LION, and salvaged from a waste can the original AP wire feed announcing the election results. The copy of the AP story below came from the archive of Steve Luttrell. The Anne Conners/Dina DeFabo April 3 Collegian story excerpt above stated that the results were announced at 2 a.m., as I remembered. The story was just the right size to use as a filler story; newspaper compositors are always looking for a few inches to flesh out a page, and Wimpy did his part. Now the story begins to turn weird. The AP wire story was picked up across the country. The Pinchock archive contains clippings from the London Times, and I remember reading it in Newsweek. While writing this story, I noticed the anomaly below:
The AP story was filed at 1:13 a.m. on the morning of April 3, at least forty-seven minutes before the results were announced by Election Commissioner Fanning. How did AP find out about the election results before they were distributed to the audience unless AP had someone in the counting room or was informed of the results before they were announced by Fanning? Perhaps the official results had been determined the previous night, or earlier?
I tracked down Collegian editor Paula Froke and reporter Dina DeFabo Wilson, who filed the April 3 story with Anne Conners. I was unable to locate Anne Conners. Froke, who today is a Senior Editor WITH the AP, suggested that it may have been the work of the local AP stringer, who quoted both the April 3 Collegian story and Commissioner Fanning. Whoever wrote the AP story quoted Fanning for congratulating us for running a “very clean campaign.” The problem was that I remember him saying that while he was announcing the official results at around 2:15 a.m.
He related how he used us to his own ends. Allegations surfaced that other campaigns were discarding the posters of their opposition. Ours also were being pulled down as soon as they went up, but resurfaced in dorm rooms and refrigerators instead of the nearest trash can. Fanning threatened to actually place Wimpy on the general ballot if the other campaigns did not start running their campaigns as cleanly as we ran ours. We never attacked the other candidates, their platforms, or their campaign paraphernalia, we could care less about their ideas. They did not matter. We were selling three ounces of furry charisma to the student body politick, and we were suffering writer’s cramp from making out all of those receipts. Fanning admonished the other, so called, legitimate candidates: “There is another way we can go here if you do not start running your campaigns like the Wimpy people.”
It was Winter Term, 1981. I had taken my B.A. the previous Spring Term and was back as a graduate student in History. I did not have a regular assistantship because I realized that the key to the future job market was those little boxes known as IBM PCs. I wanted my funding to revolve around work-study program positions where I could learn how to use this emerging technology. However, the History Department had a small problem. They needed teaching assistants for History of Fascism because the History Department did not anticipate its overwhelming popularity, and would not turn anyone away because students in seats was at the heart of departmental funding. It was known that WWII was one of my areas of interest; consequently I was tapped to be a T.A.
We held once per week discussion sections with ten students from the class. I had two sections. It was my first time in front of a class, and I had butterflies. Although I arrived early to prepare and to settle my pre-class anxiety, I never could have prepared for what happened next. The raven-haired beauty who purchased the Wimpy button in March walks into my class. She coyly asks me if I remember her, and I asked if she still had her Wimpy button. We smiled. The second that I learned that the grade cards for the class were turned in by the lead professor and I could no longer affect her grade, I asked her out. We were married on September 4, 1984. Our Wimpy buttons, my W.E.S.T badge, a Wimpy Poster, our MPS identification cards, and an original AP feed are in a banker’s box with our most cherished possessions. The absurdity that we owe our happiness in life to the Wimpy campaign was not lost on us. The alternative though, is much more disturbing. We certainly would not want to attribute it to the study of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.
I do not know the state of student government at Penn State today. I really do hope that somehow it is relevant, though I doubt it, with good reason. In 2006, twenty-five years after our Twenty-One Days of the Gerbil, fewer than 2,700 students voted for a “renamed” student government at the behest of then-Student Affairs Vice President Vicky Triponey. The quorum count to allow for amendments to the USG constitution was lowered from 25% to 10% to give the referendum a chance at passage. Apparently, USG had outlasted its shelf life. In 1981, 5,806 students voted for and against Wimpy, not including the secret number of discarded “incomplete” Wimpy ballots. Did Wimpy actually win? If so, karma recently caught up with Bill Cluck, the announced winner. Last year, he ran for a seat on the Penn State Alumni Council. He lost, though he garnered 2,299 votes, the exact number of votes that were said to have defeated Wimpy’s 1,432. He is on the ballot again for 2016.
Many principal WEST and MPS senior staff made this article possible. A surprising number though asked to remain nameless or did not return my inquiries. I guess the absurdity of the Wimpy campaign is not lost on them either, even after 35 years.
Special thanks to: Paula Froke, who allowed me to interview her though she raised more questions than she answered. Dina DeFabo Wilson, who answered questions about the stories she filed on the campaign, and especially the archives of Steve Luttrell and Jon Pinchock.
This next paragraph is included to stave off allegations of extreme sexism and or chauvinism on my part. I named everyone involved with this story, except my “raven haired beauty,” and I must continue to do so. After taking her Master’s at George Mason, and completing her doctoral work at the University of Maryland, she became an Intelligence officer for the US Government. One of the few things I have learned about our nation’s Intelligence community because of her high clearance level is that many of its senior members are unabashed Monty Python fans. Obviously, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition means something completely different to them.”
Three notable people involved with this story did not return my call. The “winner,” Bill Cluck, USG Supreme Court Justice Kazmer whose ex parte decision to allow Wimpy to run as a write-in kept his paw in the door, and Election Commissioner Fanning.
Finally, I would like to offer my most profound expression of gratitude to everyone who supported our Wimpy the Gerbil and Fred Schiller, whether they supported the platform set down in the official statement of candidacy or voted for Wimpy after hearing my impassioned albeit insurgent platform.
Appendix: Statistical Analysis of the 1981 USG Presidential Election Results
Did Wimpy actually win?
The Darker Side of 21 Days of the Gerbil
Ever since the results were announced after 2 a.m. on April 3, 1981, persistent rumors circulated that Wimpy actually won the election. The voting irregularities began before the election. Rob Fanning and the USG elections committee denied us a place on the ballot because ostensibly we were a “joke candidate.” However, they were not laughing. The defeat of the PSUSA referendum (a plan to reorganize student government) showed them how vulnerable they were to our brand of humor. Wimpy was a joke candidate who earned nearly 1,000 hard signatures on two sets of nominating petitions. There was the set filled in over dorm line weekend by Walter Knights and me, and another set with more than 100 names collected during both showings of Luttrell’s campaign film and Grail.
It was USG that declared us as to be a joke campaign. No one ever bothered to tell the rank and file of the MPS or WEST. We were taking the campaign a bit more seriously, the original version of the WEST oath notwithstanding. First, we actually HAD a campaign organization. There were several hundred students in Froth or MPS. The only requirement for membership in MPS was liking Monty Python’s Flying Circus and paying a dollar or two as membership dues a.k.a. the protection money to Doug and Dinsdale (the infamous Piranha brothers). I am not sure that there even was a master membership list. If we ever needed people for something, like Wimpy, we would announce a meeting and the teeming multitudes would appear. My MPS initiation ran something like this: President Pinchock asked if I had the dues. I paid. He then asked, “Say one line from any sketch.” I guess it was a test to keep out those pesky Benny Hill fans.
“It took me four hours to bury a cat yesterday,” I began.
“Four hours to bury a cat?” he asked.
“Well, It wasn’t dead yet, wouldn’t stop moving,” I explained.
“Yeah, you’re one of us.”
The point is, whenever we needed manpower for any project connected with the campaign, it was available, whether it was making buttons or printing or hanging more campaign posters. We had WEST, which was a group of approximately 20 Wimpy fanatics, and the rest of Froth or MPS on call. Could any other slate say the same thing? There were more than 100 people involved in the Wimpy campaign, though most were peripheral. I spent about $20 on photocopying posters out of my own pocket, not including my Wimpy button and entry ticket to see Grail. We had motivated staff, infrastructure, and a revolving senior staff that usually contained at least Fred Schiller, the Colonel, MPS President Pinchock, Steve Luttrell, and, hidden away in West halls, doing his own damage, me.
The Conspiracy Forms
I did not want to tell my WEST peers who were mostly engineering majors that Wimpy could never be allowed to claim victory. Too much was at stake. The March 18 Collegian article quoted the USG Elections Committee as barring “joke candidates like Wimpy the Gerbil” and OSA Vice President Craig Miller’s statement that “…Wimpy’s candidacy would undermine USG’s credibility with other students” was a de facto declaration of war against us. Our response: We took and held the high ground by concentrating on our own campaign. I considered it to be a stroke of genius and thought of promoting The Colonel to General. Wimpy visited fraternities and I spent the weekends knocking on semi-open doors in West Halls, offering campaign posters to whomever wanted one (I did not need to be told never knock on a closed dormitory door over a weekend).
Rigging the Rules
It was after all, a USG election, so they stacked the deck against us. It was decreed that all of Wimpy’s votes must be write-in votes, and a special write-in ballot must be requested before casting your vote. This added an additional burden to my effort to garner support for our candidate. In addition to explaining why someone should vote for Wimpy, I then had to explain the special rules on HOW to vote for Wimpy. USG Election Commissioner Fanning promulgated an additional and spurious regulation that only ballots which read Wimpy and Fred Schiller would count in the official total. This guaranteed our defeat. I was surprised that the Penn State USG would hold Wimpy to a higher standard than every elected President of the United States. If I would have gone into a voting booth in 1980 and wrote in only Ronald Reagan, my vote would have counted. Wimpy was held to a higher standard. Write-in ballots which read only Wimpy the Gerbil were excluded. We now had to constantly reminded everyone to: 1) request a special write-in ballot, and 2) write in Wimpy/Schiller. Our statistical analysis determined that there may have been thousands of Wimpy only votes that were discarded.
The source for the following data was no less than Election Commissioner Fanning’s statements to the Collegian on April 2 and 3. These data do not prove that there was impropriety with the election results. They only suggest, and I leave it to the reader how strongly or weakly they suggest.
The theory that there was some sort of impropriety is based upon the concept that although the election was held over two days, how students actually voted from day one to day two did would not likely change that much. In order to believe in the published results, there was a massive change in how students voted from April 1 to April 2. In the April 2 Collegian article, Fanning reported approximate results from day one of the balloting: There were approximately equal numbers of write-in and official ballots cast, approximately 1,400 of each, representing a one to one ratio. With four balloted candidates splitting those 1,400 votes, it’s not hard to see who was in the lead after the first day. Column “D” represents the official results. In order to make the numbers come out as Fanning reported, on day two, there must have been 1,000 fewer counted write-in votes. Fanning said after day one that Wimpy was not leading in the vote because many of the write-in votes represented senatorial candidates. However, he disclosed the actual number of these “other” write in votes on Thursday night as 368. This means that in order for Wimpy to have received only 1,432 votes total, the total number of counted write-in votes was 1,800 (1,432 + 368).
Social factors also need to be considered. The weather was much better on day two than day one. What was it about Wimpy voters that we only wanted to cast our votes in the rain? Using the figures for column “D,” the only way the numbers work is if the ratio of write-in votes to regular ballots was 10:73, or 1 write in vote for every 7.3 regular votes cast. Why was the ratio so different from day one to day 2?
This author suggests that Wimpy votes were being disregarded wholesale the night of April 2 — that is why they needed those extra two hours to cook the results to get their story straight. The one thing that stuck in my mind was the ceaseless parade of people entering and exiting the vote counting room. I also remember going through a whole bag of corn chips, a half dozen Slim-Jims, and more than a pack of cigarettes. I wonder if they were taking our disregarded ballots somewhere for disposal? Was the story given to Anne Conners earlier? She would have been grateful to get it earlier, and Dina DeFabo told me that she does not remember being there the entire night until the results were officially announced.
Column “A” represents what would have happened if the ratio remained one to one for both nights. Wimpy would have won by 1,707 votes, and OSA/USG would have had to face an unspeakable humiliation. Column “B” represents what would have happened if the ratio of write-in to regular ballots was one to two, or for ever write-in vote, there were two regular ballots cast. Even in this case, Wimpy still would have won by 220 votes. Column “C” represents a ratio of 10 write-in votes for every 23 votes. Wimpy still wins by one vote.
Not represented was the case where there would have been more write-in votes on day two, a case where Wimpy could have won by more than 2,000. Actually, second place was a victory in itself. Fred would not have to actually hold office, and Wimpy did defeat two slates of “official” candidates. All I can add is the old Latin adage, Sic transit gloria mundi (Yes, the glory of the world is fleeting), though 35 years later, remnants remain for some of us.
For any inquires, praise, or poison pen letters, you can email the author here.