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Skiing Lake Andrews

May 1997: The Bobcat water skis across Lake Andrews

The early ’60s are considered Bates’ prime prank years (a Volkswagen Bug in Coram Library, livestock in the President’s Office), but if there’s a category for best “approved” stunt, then the water-ski dash across Lake Andrews, featuring Stu Abelson ’97 dressed in the Bobcat suit, is a paws-down winner.

The setup for the May 23, 1997, spectacle was deceptively simple. Abelson sat on the banks on the Olin side of the pond holding the tow rope. The rope extended across the pond, snaked around a tree through a 90-degree metal pipe (fabricated by Facility Services), and attached to a Land Rover idling in the lower parking lot behind Lane Hall and Schaeffer Theater.

A campuswide announcement had drawn a midday Friday crowd of several hundred students, faculty, staff and, as it was Trustee Weekend, more than a few of the institutional stewards (plus media from the Sun-Journal and the local ABC affiliate). With the crowd nearly encircling the pond, the Land Rover’s driver, Caleb Goodrich ’99, gunned it.

As the SUV roared through the parking lot, there was an Evel Knievel, here-comes-a-disaster moment. A car suddenly pulled into the parking lot from College Street, forcing Goodrich and the Land Rover to slow. The rope started to go slack, but security waved off the vehicle, Goodrich resumed warp speed (20 mph), and suddenly Abelson was carving turns across the pond. “The slack was the hardest quirk of the stunt,” he says. “When we did a dry run at 5 a.m., I fell.” (Another glitch during the dry run was the rope burning through the PVC pipe used to curve the line around the tree, necessitating a hasty trip to Facility Services, where the staff fabricated the metal elbow.)

As Abelson careered toward the near shoreline, it seemed aJackass-quality event was unfolding — Bates student wraps self, skis, pride around tree. But this was the guy who’d won the 1995 National Collegiate All-Star Trick Water Ski Championship, and he braked by shifting his weight to the front of the skis, sprayed the crowd, and glided to a halt as everyone cheered. Abelson hopped onto shore, where Helen Papaioanou ’49, a Trustee who was working with Abelson on that year’s Senior Gift, brandished a barely needed Bates towel like an Elvis handler. (Goodrich, meanwhile, came to a halt on the grass about five feet from College Street.)

The stunt was conceived by Abelson and the rest of the Bates Water Skiing Team as something of a monument to the club’s founding during Abelson’s time at Bates.

In the early ’60s, students stunts were anti-authoritarian, executed with Animal House secrecy. But this was the ’90s, and students no longer skirted the administrative edges. Heck, they sometimes knew how to get things done better than their elders.

First, Abelson went to plant engineer Phil Meldrum, who shared the layouts and dimensions of the pond, parking lot and nearby buildings. “We enlarged them nicely, marked them up, and took them to President Harward’s office,” Abelson recalls. Outside Harward’s office one morning, dressed in Short Term fashions (shorts and Birkenstocks), he camped out near assistant Kay Stevens’ desk.

He rolled out the plat on Stevens’ desk, explained the plan and tried to lobby the gatekeeper for a few minutes of presidential time. Just then, Harward emerged from his office and peered over Abelson’s shoulder at the schematic. “I told him what we were thinking, that it would be a lot of fun, and I’d sign whatever waiver he wanted,” he says. To which Harward simply replied, “Be careful.”

Seven years later, Abelson, who is general manager of the Fiber Optic Products Division of the Amphenol Corp. and enrolled in the Kellogg School of Management’s Executive Program at Northwestern, is deservedly proud of creating perhaps the best public stunt in College history. “It was good-natured, lighthearted, and fun,” he says. “The kind of legend that helps create a little school spirit.”