September 2008

Rat Season

Painting of a Rat by Lillian G. Brown

Painting of a "Rat" by Lillian G. Brown

With the freshmen having recently arrived on PC’s campus, we thought it would be fun to explore the freshman experience at PC over the years. The college’s Matriculation Pledge, which all incoming students signed until 1971-72, strictly prohibited students from engaging in any type of hazing. There was, however, an institutionalized form of hazing, called “Rat Season,” which served as a forerunner to today’s Freshman Orientation. According to Ben Hay Hammet’s The Spirit of PC, “The first few weeks of each fall were devoted to this custom in the belief that it served as mixer and spirit-builder while bringing to new students the humility they had lost as high school seniors.” Students were required to wear beanies called “rat caps,” large name tags (which resembled sandwich boards), and to do chores for upperclassmen. Any student seen without the required hat and sign could be punished with a paddle, broom, belt, or whatever other implement an upperclassman might have available. Freshmen were not permitted to walk on the grass; since there were no sidewalks on the West Plaza, this meant that a trip across the plaza was really a trip around the plaza. They were also required to bow to the mailbox located outside Spencer Hall.

Rat giving a shoeshine to an upperclassman

"Rat" giving a shoeshine to an upperclassman

Rat Season culminated in the annual “Rat Run”, when all freshmen lined up on the plaza in front of Spencer and grabbed onto a long rope. Then, accompanied by upperclassmen armed with belts, they made their way through the Thornwell campus to the square in downtown Clinton. The upperclassmen urged them on with strategically placed licks from the belts. When they arrived downtown, they discovered that many of the town’s merchants had opened their stores, and were passing out free fruit, candy, and ice cream. After a songfest around the Confederate monument, the freshmen were released for a free movie at the local theater.

Painting of a Rat bowing to the mailbox by Lillian G. Brown

Painting of a "Rat" bowing to the mailbox by Lillian G. Brown

From Pac Sac, A Freshmans Diary and Scrapbook, 1941

From Pac Sac, "A Freshman's Diary and Scrapbook," 1941

This annual ritual is indelibly engraved on the minds of some PC alums. Ernest Arnold, who was a freshman in 1932, recalls that after the rat race he “was selected or forced to climb the monument, with the assist of other rats, and sing the prisoner’s song while eating a large raw onion – never again have I eaten a raw onion.” William P. Jacobs III, whose father had recently become president of the college, has vivid memories of Rat Season in 1935. He remembers that “A football player had first pick of freshmen to use as a “servant” and/or to beat or not beat on him as was the pleasure of the football player. Since I was the son of the new President, the biggest footballer chose me. He wielded a mean paddle, but I must confess he was as gentle as one could be with a two foot paddle. We were lined up on freshman night, and marched up town from the present location of Springs Athletic Center … On arrival up town near the Police station we were turned around, released from bondage, and allowed to attend the movie in the theater, to which we ran hoping to find a soft seat in the movie house, only to discover that sitting down was no more fun than getting whupped. There were no girls living on campus and they were not hazed as were the men, but they were required, as were we, to wear a PC Rat Cap, and carry a sign … They followed us up town feeling sorry for the poor boys…The President approved of the “toughening” procedure. I know. He laughed at me. And two years later at Hugh [William’s younger brother]. Oh . . . memories. Funny today, but not then.”

From Pac Sac, 1925

From Pac Sac, 1925

Freshmen did receive other forms of welcome when they arrived on campus. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Student Christian Association and the faculty wives sponsored a reception where they could meet the faculty and staff, as well as local girls. Rat Season continued, however, including a tradition called “Gin, freshman.” When an upperclassman yelled “Gin, freshman!” the freshman was required to leap high in the air shouting “Beat ….” – whoever the football opponent happened to be that week. By the 1960s, the rat caps had changed from beanies into tams. Students continued to wear name signs, do chores for upperclassmen, and respond to “Gin, Freshman”. When PC went fully co-educational in 1965, women students were also included, with the addition of beauty penalties for sloppy dress, lack of makeup, or wearing curlers in public.

Freshman reception 1956

Freshman reception 1956

The Dying Cockroach, 1962

The Dying Cockroach, 1962

Holbrook Raynal, who was a freshman in 1966, has vivid memories of an activity called “the dying cockroach”: “the ‘rat’ received a high decibel verbal communication from a control board member….something like ‘let me see you do a dying cock roach, Scum bucket!!!!’…whereupon the obliging recipient of the exhortation would fall to the ground on his/her back and with all four limbs flailing upward continuously until commanded to cease.” By 1969, there were concerns about the degrading aspects of this type of orientation. On March 21 of that year, The Blue Stocking printed an article in which Dr. Jim Skinner described Rat Season as “completely useless and degrading to all concerned”, bringing out the animalistic nature of the upperclassmen and destroying the dignity of the freshmen. In addition, he declared that “the current system encourages traits which are unhealthy to education. It implies a rigid orthodoxy to which the student must adapt and is intolerant of dissent…it cannot be controlled no matter what limits are put on it.”

Freshman ratting activity

Freshman "ratting" activity

The custom didn’t end immediately, however. Forrest Adair, who was a freshman in 1970, remembers that the Freshman Control Board “would make all of us meet at certain times of the day in front of Neville Hall (of course most of the student body was there to watch) and ask us all sorts of silly questions (What do most college men buy Vaseline for? The right answer was 25 cents), and make us do all sorts of foolish things to get laughed at by the girls, but nothing harmful ever happened, to me anyway. I was glad for the week to end, but all in all it was fun and not nearly as bad as “hell week” with the frats.”

Randy Randall, who was a freshman the following year, remembers freshmen men gathering on the front steps of their dorm to sing silly songs. One morning, when they were serenading the girls in Bailey Hall, they received a call from President Marc Weersing, who could hear their rather rowdy tunes from his home across the street. Freshmen marched in a group to meals and orientation events, and sometimes had to sing the alma mater or fight song before they could eat, thus ensuring that they knew the words to both. Women students had to wear dresses or skirts in the dorm, and always had to have matches and an ash tray for upperclass girls.

Freshman Orientation 2000

Freshman Orientation 2000

By that fall of 1971, however, the Freshman Control Board had been changed to the Freshman Orientation Board, and the freshman handbook clearly stated that “Any freshman who feels that his moral or civil rights as a human being are being infringed upon is charged with the responsibility of reporting any such infringement to the SGA.” The Knapsack for 1971-72 is the last one to describe a formal “Rat Season.” The hazing of earlier years gradually developed to the more informative type of freshman orientation still seen today, with the later addition of Hose Leaders and moving day assistance.

[Our thanks to the following people for contributing their memories: Ernest J. Arnold ‘36, William P. Jacobs III ‘40, Bill Putman ‘55, Holbrook Raynal ’70, Forrest Adair ‘74, Randy Randall ‘75, and Dr. James Skinner.]