The Legendary Prankster: Leon Varjian

It’s April Fools’ Day, which means that it’s officially the 42nd anniversary of the first-ever Banana Olympics held on the Indiana University campus. As ridiculous as it sounds, yes, it was a very real event—and a political one, at that, as it was held as a fundraiser for the campaign of graduate Leon Varjian, who in 1975 was running for mayor of Bloomington. Some of the very, very serious campaign promises included: turning Indiana University into a theme park similar to Disney Land called “IU-Land,” constructing a giant Monopoly board in downtown Bloomington around the Courthouse Square, a 100% unemployment rate (as everyone will become, instead, a civil servant, taking over new posts such as the town drunk or the resident derelict), carpeting all of the sidewalks, and replacing all of the parking meters with bubble gum machines. Still don’t believe me? Have a look for yourself:

Yes, Leon Varjian was a real person, and a real clown (okay, not a literal clown, but he was a hilarious guy.) Unfortunately, Varjian passed away in 2015, but the archives recently received his papers from his time in Bloomington. I’ve been given the task of processing them, and it’s been one of the most fun projects I’ve ever had during my time at the archives. Several times during the processing of these papers I’ve been caught in an unstoppable fit of giggles.

Right-click on the image to open it in a new tab, zoom in and read the article. Trust me, it’s worth it.

Varjian showed up in Bloomington in 1972, and from that moment on, nothing was the same. Originally hoping to receive his graduate degree in mathematics, he ended up with that and more—a reputation for being the funny man on campus. He was politically active from the start, running first for student government representing the “Birthday Party,” then for mayor of Bloomington on the “Fun City” ticket, and finally for IU Trustee on an equally ridiculous, nonsensical platform. I’m not sure if he won a seat on the student government, but he tragically did not become mayor of Bloomington (coming in third out of four candidates with 776 votes) or the IU Trustee. But if I’ve learned anything about Varjian from his papers, it’s that he was certainly a politically active and opinionated person, even if his campaigns weren’t serious at all. He collected numerous newspapers and clippings with political stories and held onto documents he received from the “War Tax Resistance” in the early 70’s. I have an inkling that he did want to make a difference, and his campaigns did in their own way. Larry A. Conrad, Indiana’s Secretary of State at the time, certainly seemed to think so.

He was smart, too. You can tell by the hundreds of loose leaf papers found in this collection that have free-form notes scribbled over them, which you could probably glean something from if you had the time and patience to make sense out of them. The notes could be anything from political notes to song lyrics to article ideas for one of the several publications he was involved with, such as Fun City. Fun City was an alternative publication that ran from 1975 to at least 1976, but probably discontinued after that when Varjian left Bloomington to pursue a short-lived career as a computer programmer in D.C. Anyone remember seeing one of the 13,000 weekly copies of this floating around on campus?

Some of the other publications he might have had a hand in were The Daily Stupid and The Daily Horrible-Terrible, both of which we have copies of in this collection. They were mock versions of the Indiana Daily Student and The Herald Times that came out annually, filled with satire articles and parodies. If you come in to see the collection, I recommend giving them a read.

When he left D.C. after only a short time, he returned to school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where his trickster ways gained national fame. He teamed up with friend Jim Mallon (future executive producer of Mystery Science Theater 3000) and pulled off a couple of enormous (albeit harmless) pranks. They covered historic Bascom Hill with a thousand pink flamingos for a fundraiser and put a huge replica of the Statue of Liberty’s head and torch on Lake Mendota while it was frozen over.

 

Imagine the time they spent planning this.

So today, on April Fools’ Day, we remember and celebrate prankster legend Leon Varjian. He certainly brought a smile to my face– and I think he brought about laughter and happiness during a time when America desperately needed a little sunshine. I’ve had a great time processing this collection, and I only wish I could have met the man himself.

Bang! Zoom! KaPow! Comic books in the classroom

Indiana University has a really fun new series of commercials featuring some of our alumni with name recognition. The commercials flash back to their time on campus and talks about how they would not be where they are now if it weren’t for IU. The most recent release features Michael Uslan who earned his undergraduate (1973), master’s (1975) and law degrees (1976), all from IU. Today you may know him as one of Hollywood’s most accomplished movie producers and a Professor of Practice at IU’s Media School.

But in the 1970s, you may have just thought of him as a comic book geek. But what this comic book geek knew was that 1. He wanted to do something that would relate to his love of comics and 2. There was so much to be learned from this genre. Enter IU and its willingness to experiment.

screen-capture
Michael Uslan in the classroom. (Or, you know, an actor. Not really Michael Uslan.) Click on the image to view commercial on YouTube!

In the late 1960s, the College of Arts and Sciences established a new “Experimental Curriculum” along with a committee to review and hear proposals. The first few rounds only brought proposals from faculty, but eventually the process was opened to students who had backing from a faculty member. Luckily for Uslan, he was going to school at the birthplace of Folklore studies in the United States. He approached Dr. Henry Glassie, then an Assistant Professor of Folklore, with his proposal of a for-credit course called “The Comic Book in Society.” In his book, The Boy Who Loved Batman: A Memoir, Uslan says Glassie was supportive of the course proposal from the beginning. With the first hurdle conquered, Uslan next had his 15 minute appointment to convince the committee that this was a good idea.

As he writes in his memoir, it sounds like Uslan was entering a bit of a lion’s den (or, as he describes it, the Justice League of America’s Secret Sanctum). Uslan launched into his pitch outlining how he would approach the subject academically and offered his thoughts that the comic book was simply modern-day mythology. The Dean (or chair) scoffed at this so Uslan asked him if he could tell him a bit of the Biblical story of Moses. The Dean obliged. So then Uslan asked him to recount the story of Superman. The Dean began but before he got very far, a light came on and he said, “Mr. Uslan, your course is accredited.”

Uslan says before this he had been casually teaching other students about comic books for some time now and another IU student, Roger Stern, had also done some work to teach with comic books on campus. But this was his opportunity to create a full-fledged syllabus and to really bring attention to the genre. He taught his first class as a junior.

Thankfully, a good chunk of IU Professor Leo Solt’s records from his role as Chair of the Experimental Curriculum Committee found their way to the University Archives via History Department records. As a result, researchers today can review one of Uslan’s proposals, examine what other experimental courses were proposed, approved, and denied, and also, see Uslan’s letter to the committee with his recommendations on how to continue the popular course upon his graduation.

The fall '72 course proposal
The fall ’72 course proposal

The course garnered national attention and Uslan found himself thrust into the media spotlight (well, he didn’t just “find” himself there. According to The Boy Who Loved Batman, Uslan actually called one media outlet disguised as a disgusted citizen ranting that such a course was being taught at Indiana University in a [successful] attempt to whip up some attention). By the time he graduated, the course had gone from a 1 credit course taught by Stern to a full 3 credit course.

September 1972. Uslan (on right) with teaching assistant Larry Goltz.

In reviewing the syllabus, this was no cushy course. Students had recommended and required reading (required reading = comic books, such as Spiderman, Conan, and Mr. Miracle. If not available on the stands, students were instructed to see him to borrow from his extensive collection.) Class participation was required and graded assignments included a mid-term paper and a final project that entailed creating and drawing their own comic strip (“If you can’t draw, detailed stick figures will do”). Guest speakers from some of the major comic book companies were incorporated into the syllabus, as Uslan had contacts with many of them. His Fall 1972 syllabus says potential visitors included Buster Crabbe and Kirk Alyn!

That’s just a little taste of Uslan’s time here at IU. He also met his wife, paid for her engagement ring and living expenses by selling a large chunk of his comic book collection, had a popular radio show on WIUS that he and his co-host also performed live at parties (for a meaty $300 fee)…his IU story goes on. In recent years, Uslan has given back to the university that helped him get his start in many ways, but one from which YOU can directly benefit, right now, today, is the extensive collection of comic books, graphic novels, and personal papers he has donated to IU’s Lilly Library. A searchable database is available via their web site, along with a request form to view any of the materials.

May 8, 1976, Law School commencement.  KaPow!

The Girl Friday Club

Named for the slang term of the period for a personal assistant or female office worker, the Girl Friday Club was established in 1964 as a social club for the office workers and secretaries of Indiana University. Initially organized by Jack Ray (then Personnel Director for Indiana University) to foster friendships between the women and encourage interdepartmental cooperation, the club was ultimately run by a Steering Committee of women who organized a variety of events.

The 1969 Girl Friday Steering Committee
The 1969 Steering Committee

These events centered around monthly luncheons featuring a variety of entertainment. Guest speakers included football coach John Pont, professors from various subject areas, and influential women such as Mrs. Esther Bray who was an associate professor at IU as well as the wife of a US Representative. Other campus clubs and organizations sometimes provided entertainment, such as theater production previews and fashion shows. The group also organized the annual Girl Friday award.

The IU Archives holds a single scrapbook from the Girl Friday Club spanning 1964-1973, which offers some interesting insights into the office culture of the time. Interested in knowing more? Contact the University Archives!

We need your help! Herman B Wells Avenue?

We have a little bit of a mystery. Can you help?

IMG_4044A few years ago, our Photographs Curator, Brad Cook, purchased this street sign at a local auction. The sellers had no information about it. Brad recalls seeing a short article *somewhere* about the sign and seemed to remember that it had been mounted at 7th Street at one point but once Chancellor Wells spotted it, he didn’t like it and it was removed.

In doing some recent digging in response to a query about the sign, Brad did find this LARGEimage that looks to be from the late 70s or 1980s. Obviously, it was up at the corner of 7th and Fess. And this photo is clearly marked on the back for publication (even tells us page 2). But despite searching our records, the newspapers, the Alumni magazine, and contacting administrators who were active at the time, this is the only documentation we have been able to find. I thought it might have been part of Wells’ 90th birthday gala but that would have been in June and you can tell by the trees that it was definitely not summer.

So what’s the story behind it? Did any of you by chance clip the article he remembers reading? He said from his recollection, it was very short, maybe just a paragraph or two.

If you have any information, please contact Brad at 812-855-4495 or bcook@indiana.edu. Let’s figure this out!

 

Pakistan Gets Wired: The Development of a Computing Center at the University of Islamabad

During my processing of four collections about Indiana University’s involvement in higher education programs in Pakistan in the 1960s, I’d gotten used to seeing the same kinds of files – budgets, correspondence, personnel, reports, computers. Wait…computers? Really? In Pakistan in the 1960s? They couldn’t mean real computers, could they? They must be using it as a term for a fancy calculator. Sure enough, they really were talking about computers, not calculators. I always pictured computers in the 1960s and 1970s as being room-sized behemoths too costly for anyone other than NASA and eccentric millionaires. As it turns out, computers weren’t quite so elusive at that time.

It all began in 1968 when Lynne L. Merritt, Vice President and Dean of Research and Advanced Studies, and Joseph R. Hartley, Associate Dean of the Faculties, conducted a survey to determine the government and university needs for computers in Islamabad. Indiana University had already been present in Islamabad for two years assisting with a program to establish a postgraduate institution for the sciences. A computing center, and by necessity a complementary computer science program, seemed like a natural extension for an academic establishment focused on the sciences.

Panoramic image of the University of Islamabad campus from a 1967 booklet about the university.
Panoramic image of the University of Islamabad campus from a 1967 booklet about the university.

Preliminary reports from 1967 and 1968 found that the addition of computers in the area would be beneficial not only for the university, but for the surrounding government and research institutions as well. The computing center would create post-graduate level training in computer science for the nation, enhance research at the nearby Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology (PINSTEC), create a means for storing and retrieving government data, such as census data, tax records, and economic data, and assist with routine administrative support services for the national government, including payrolls, inventory records, and bookkeeping functions. The University of Islamabad was chosen as the location for the computing center because the computers could be used for both computing and instruction at that location, with remote computers at other locations added later. Banks, airlines, and laboratories in the area were already using IBM computers, so recommendations were made for the purchase of the same brand.

The Indiana University Team decided that a staff of 12 would be necessary to run the computing center. This included one keypunch operator, two machine operators, two systems analysts, two systems programmers, four application programmers, and a director who would be selected from the University of Islamabad faculty. Dr. Stanley Hagstrom, Associate Professor of Chemistry at Indiana University, was selected to serve as a computer consultant to assist in training and installing the computing center. Additional training in scientific and business management data processing would be necessary, much of which would be obtained abroad.

Image of the University of Islamabad Institute of Mathematics
An image of the University of Islamabad Institute of Mathematics, which later housed the computing center.

The next big problem was figuring out how the computing center would be funded. Reports estimated the cost of the computer plus required equipment, a printer, a generator, and shipping at $448,383.  A request for funding was made to the United Nations Special Fund in 1968, but they were unable to provide assistance. A letter from 1970 states that the Ford Foundation donated $250,000 towards the cost, but there is not documentation in this collection to confirm where the rest of the money came from.

During the summer of 1970, an IBM 360 Model 30E was purchased for the University of Islamabad. This computer was not at all what we commonly think of when we think about computers today. Rather than a lab full of individual computers, their computing center consisted of one large mainframe computer half the size of a small room. It was designed primarily for computing structured arithmetic computations, sometimes requiring days to complete, and for storing and retrieving data.

The entire system consisted of a motor generator measuring 4×8 feet, a switchboard measuring 4×7 feet, and batteries stored in a separate ventilated room measuring 2×16 feet each. The square inch area of the Islamabad computer, including two batteries, is about the size of 712 MacBook Pros laid side by side in a rectangle on the floor. This IBM model had 32 kilobytes of memory and a maximum storage capacity of 64 kilobytes. Most new desktops today come with a minimum of 2 gigabytes of memory and 500 gigabytes of storage. That is over 2 billion times more memory and a gazillion times more storage space than I know how to calculate compared to the Islamabad model. Now I’m not really a math person, but I can tell you that’s a lot.

IBM System 360 Model 30
An IBM 360 Model 30 computer from the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA. This is the same make and model computer purchased for the University of Islamabad in 1970. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia via the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

The computer center was situated inside the mathematics building with an area of 5,000 square feet allocated for the center itself. Delivery problems and postponements occurred because the construction of the new center was behind schedule. The latest available document in the collection, dated September 1970, states that delivery of the computer equipment was postponed until June 1971. Since there is no correspondence or information beyond 1970, it is uncertain exactly when the computers arrived and what effect they had on the university and surrounding areas.

The University of Islamabad project is one of four programs Indiana University administered in Pakistan around this time period, but it is the only one that included the purchase of computer equipment. If you’re interested in learning more about Indiana University’s historical involvement with Pakistan, contact the IU Archives!