The End of Mayoralty
In the spring of 1959, an epic student tradition vanished from the Bates campus. Here’s what happened.
By Jack DeGange ’59. Photos by George Conklin ’53.
“Mayoralty,” the three-day student campaign to elect a mock mayor of Bates, died in spring 1959. Cause of death: an action that prompted a reaction that led to inaction, which, nearly a year later, buried a rite that had fascinated the campus for a quarter-century.
The action: a midnight visit to an Auburn lumberyard during the ’59 Mayoralty by seven student conspirators, thwarted when a curious policeman interrupted the loading of lumber valued at all of $18.
The reaction: an edict, from College administrators, that student organizers cancel Mayoralty or else the guilty students would be expelled — a Hobson’s choice capturing the draconian essence of campus rules four decades ago. Students quickly vote to cancel, putting Mayoralty on a one-year hiatus.
Fast forward to spring 1960. Students with the deepest knowledge of Mayoralty are either gone or going, leaving no one to rekindle the torch. A critical mass — half the student body — now has no firsthand knowledge of the tradition that has captured student imagination since the 1930s.
Hence the inaction: Mayoralty disappears, not for a year or two but forever, revealing the fragile tenure of institutional memory among undergraduates. But if Mayoralty’s death was tragic for many, it was a blessing for me, a bit player in previous campaigns who in 1959 seemed doomed to bring the sourest notes to the Mayoralty limelight.
No event at Bates, even a football win over Bowdoin, elevated campus spirit like Mayoralty. The campaign to elect a campus mayor was the Depression-era inspiration of junior class president Milt Lindholm ’35. The man who would later admit thousands of men and women to the College as dean of admissions wanted to create “some sort of pre-exam nonsense.”
The first editions were tame affairs with students campaigning for Bates mayor delivering speeches from the Hathorn steps. “Soap-box oratory in all its oiliness … silver-tongued wool-pulling speakers” in the words of a May 1935 Bates Student article.
But following a 1940s wartime hiatus, Mayoralty thrived on a coed campus of about 850 students. In 1959, the rules (for those who read them) were fairly simple. The men residing in John Bertram and Roger Bill developed one campaign, the men in Smith, Parker, and the fabled Sampsonville apartments another. There were no coed dorms, and the women were the electorate.
Candidates during the ’50s had memorable names that reflect campaign themes: Latin Lou, Highland C’ael Kirk, Dixieland Dick, and Zugani, the gypsy king of mystical San-Su-Free. If you were there, the images still resonate.
Each year as winter fled and a certain degree of springtime sublimation came into play, Mayoralty inspired increasing imagination and creativity. In 1955 the JB-Roger Bill campaign fortified a Scottish theme with the production of a Broadway musical. Brigadoon played to a full house and Highland C’ael Kirk (Watson ’56) won in a landslide, raising the bar for coming years when productions of Carousel, Finian’s Rainbow, and Oklahoma! made Mayoralty the event on campus.
Mayoralty budgets were minimal and routinely inspired enterprise: a maximum contribution of $2 plus 75 cents toward costume expenses by each campaign participant. But by spring 1959 that wasn’t enough. Floats and other electioneering devices required lumber. And lumber cost money. Suddenly, plans to supplement the Smith-Parker campaign coffers took a Nixonian turn.
The nefarious solution: the raid on Ernest Wilkins’ lumberyard across the Androscoggin River, an idea that started out bad and only grew worse when seven students were caught in the act of larcenous acquisition.
Joe Corn ’60, whose reputation for stunning campus hijinks remains legendary, was the de facto leader of the raid. After 44 years, the sequence of events on that Saturday night, narrated by Corn, sounds like a Marx Brothers script:
“We borrowed a refrigerated truck and drove by the yard a couple of times to make sure no one was around. We had a shopping list of plywood and two-by-fours and had started loading when all hell broke loose. I remember blinding lights, sirens, and cops screaming, ‘Hands up, don’t move.'”
The seven were taken to the Auburn jail. “During the night a number of us joked with the cops,” Corn continued. “Some of us even played cards with them. One cop told us he was in his patrol car watching for speeders. He paid no attention when the meat truck went by the first time, noticed it on the return trip, and really got interested when we drove by a third time — with the rear doors swinging open. He followed us, bided his time, and then did his job.”
Justice was swift but relatively painless. The man who loaned the students his truck posted their bail. A conference among the students’ attorney (Louis Scolnik ’45), the municipal court judge (Irving Isaacson ’36), and the lumberyard owner led to dropped charges, and the Lewiston Evening Journal noted that “this is mayoralty campaign time at the college and a time for students’ pranks” (see sidebar).
“They smoothed things over with the lumberyard owner,” said Corn. “He was truly mad and wanted the book thrown at us. We didn’t know he had already donated some lumber [to the JB-Roger Bill campaign]. He wasn’t impressed when we tried to explain that was the other side.”
Restitution came in the form of a day’s work in the lumberyard for each of the seven. “I developed great respect for that type of work,” said Bill Tucker ’67. “I had no gloves and got splinters in my hands and neck from carrying lumber on my shoulder.”
If the off-campus resolution made the affair seem harmless, what followed was not. Righteous indignation in The Student and collective mea culpas only tempered the fallout that was immediate and unequivocal.
“There was a groundswell of sentiment on campus that we were by no means alone to blame,” Corn said. “Others acknowledged their involvement. I don’t know if this pushed the College away from its inclination to expel us.”
A meeting of leadership from both campaigns in the basement of Roger Bill revealed the edict issued from the administrators who occupied offices one floor above.
The options were stated clearly. The culprits would be expelled. Or Mayoralty would be summarily banished for one year.
The decision was obvious. Both campaigns accepted collective culpability. The midnight bandits got to stay. Order, 1950s style, was returned to the Bates campus.
Through the fall and winter of 1959-60, the rules governing Mayoralty were revisited and debated — to death. The faculty approved new rules in February, but in the serene spring of 1960, the nonsense created by Milt Lindholm and nurtured by succeeding classes simply failed to occur. An editorial in The Student concluded, “…this place is dead.
I’d been a bit player in Mayoralty for three years but in 1959, my role moved toward center stage. Bill Christian ’59, director of the Smith campaign’s major stage production, cast me to play Don Jose opposite Regina Abbiati ’59. As Carmen, Reggie’s remarkable voice and stage presence were perfect.
I struggled through rehearsals, knowing what Bill probably did, too, though he had long since passed the point of no return: All the good voices had graduated. I was in way over my head.
As Don Jose, I was a fraud-in-waiting. The lumberyard larceny saved me from committing a theatrical crime that would have been inexpungible.
For Joe Corn, however, there was an even better ending: “I met my wife (Wanda Jones ’62) in the chorus of Carmen. We’ll celebrate our 40th anniversary this year. Wanda proved a much better listener than my girlfriend at the time. I think I dumped her on the spot — right out of jail.”
We invite alumni from the 1930s through the 1950s to share your best Mayoralty anecdotes, and the magazine will publish them in the next issue. Send to firstname.lastname@example.org or Bates Magazine, 141 Nichols St., Lewiston, ME 04240.