Section: Features

Spring Riot: The Kenyon tradition that set campus ablaze

Spring Riot: The Kenyon tradition that set campus ablaze

Students celebrating in spring 1985. | COURTESY OF THE KENYON REVEILLE

Before Summer Sendoff was introduced in 1980, Kenyon students celebrated the arrival of warmer temperatures in Gambier with — rioting? Beginning with a rowdy protest over Village traffic laws in 1964, “Spring Riot” became a beloved tradition well into the 1990s. 

A Kenyon College Alumni Bulletin from spring/summer 2009 details the history of  “The Parking Riot of ’64,” which broke out on a “fine April weekend” after the Village of Gambier instituted stricter policies on traffic and parking regulations. The Village set a new speed limit, put up more stop signs and hired Charles Imel — who had arrived at Kenyon in 1938 as the College’s first regular swim coach — to act as “marshal.” Imel began issuing violations to students for transgressions like running stop signs and jaywalking, which didn’t go over well with the student body. 

Tensions boiled over when Imel issued a warning to a student for parking in a fire lane. After the student reportedly “talked back” to Imel, he was arrested and fined $50. The next day, approximately 300 students marched to Imel’s house, uprooting stop signs and chanting as they went. According to the Alumni Bulletin, “Newspaper reports (an Associated Press story was picked up by papers across Ohio) said that three state highway patrol cars were summoned to the scene. At one point, students sat in front of a police car to prevent it from taking away two students.” 

Despite initial pushback from then-Mayor of Gambier Leo Wolfe, local government’s position on the matter weakened: “‘The boys have been cooped up all winter,’ [Wolfe] said, ‘and Sunday was such a nice day they just wanted a chance to let off some steam.’” Indeed, the rioters were surprisingly courteous, refraining from walking on the freshly seeded sections of Imel’s lawn and using watercolor paint on stolen stop signs so it could be washed off.

Following the “parking riot,” Spring Riot morphed into an annual unruly bonfire fed with everything from old assignments to campus furniture. Another Alumni Bulletin from winter 2008 explains: “The concept was simple enough. Build a bonfire in a central spot on South Campus, and feed it with, well, anything.” In a Letter to the Editor, Bill Kobelak ’69 reflects on a fond Spring Riot memory: “I specifically remember a spring riot in 1968 or 1969 … The Delts or Betas produced fireworks, which were set off from a tree. Unfortunately, the tree caught on fire in kind of a smoldering way, so the well-meaning drunks began to take turns feeding the fire. By nightfall, half the campus was standing around outside.”

The Spring Riot bonfire offered a particularly cathartic outlet for seniors finally finished with comps, as Peter Whitcopf ’90 explained to the Alumni Bulletin: “My senior year, I threw a copy of my comps paper in, and it felt great.” Whitcopf expanded on the variety of day-to-day objects that found their way into the bonfire, including “an ugly sofa and foosball table, and an ancient (for the eighties) computer terminal some physics major dug up somewhere.” 

Like many other Kenyon traditions, Spring Riot began to accommodate women when the College went co-educational in 1969. In an April 2009 issue of the Collegian, College Historian and Keeper of Kenyoniana Tom Stamp ’73 recounted an episode from the 1970 Spring Riot, the first to include female students. “The men marched to McBride, where all the women were living, and there was a standoff between the Kenyon men and Dean Doris Crozier, who drove over and parked in the driveway when she heard what was happening. She stood there in her nightgown to be the bulwark against the Kenyon men,” he said.  

While there is no concrete proof that Summer Sendoff was introduced to discourage Spring Riot, the more boisterous custom began to decline after Sendoff was first celebrated. Although end-of-year traditions have become decidedly tamer in the years since the last Spring Riot, fond memories of revelry and property destruction prove that Kenyon students have always known how to have a good time.


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