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Tuesday, October 21, 2014 | Last updated: 10:39am


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FACT or FICTION?


Campus myths span generations, students pass on tall tales to freshmen




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  MSU museum curator of History Val Berryman holds a giant hairball Friday (8/1/03) in the storage space adjacent the stadium. The hairball was found in the stomach of a cow and was catalogued at the university in 1985.


Mediocrity, thy name is MSU.

Contrary to belief, MSU does not have the nation's largest cafeteria, the cloudiest skies or even the world's biggest hairball, but it does boast a lot of myths, traditions and second-best feats.

Studio art junior Lauren Mayer said myths are often passed on for a reason.

"They are stories and fun facts for freshmen that help school spirit and plant seeds for school folklore and tradition," Mayer said.

University spokesman Terry Denbow believes traditions are important to universities.

"I think legends, myths and reality all combine to give a campus texture and flavor," Denbow said. "This campus is full of traditions because every generation adds or detracts from a story."

Psychology Professor Gary Stollak believes perpetuating myths is harmful in that it leads to a lack of individuality.

"A lot of myths and legends are handed to freshmen, which is not an active process. You need to go out and make your own myths," Stollak said. "That is the best way to become legendary yourself."

And so here we go, a look at what you'll probably be told during your four or five years or so at MSU:

No, this tale was not coughed up by students. The proof MSU has balls lies deep within the dimly lit catacombs of the MSU Museum's archives in the Central Services Building - one of the world's biggest bovine hairballs to be exact.

Latin senior Dustin Brownell says such a large mass of hair deserves more recognition from the university. "World's biggest hairball. They should put that on a plaque underneath Sparty," Brownell said.

Stories have circulated about the gastric treasure's mysterious 1998 disappearance from an Anthony Hall display case, inspiring many MSU students to quest for what was literally once one of MSU's biggest claims to fame.

MSU Museum curator of history Val Berryman thought it was time to unravel this mystery.

Berryman slowly walked down the dark corridors of the museum's archives and entered a room crowded with antique veterinary items. He flipped on a light switch, walked to a shelf and, reaching above his head, and he grabbed a large cardboard box labeled "Hairballs." After sifting through the box's contents, he gently lifted the legendary hair-covered orb.

The illumination from an overhead light detailed the both fuzzy and sleek texture of the breathtaking brown and musty marvel. The dry, solid 27-inch hairball, about the size of a basketball, weighs in at an impressive 4 pounds 12 ounces.

Berryman said when cows develop mineral deficiencies, they lick their hair or natural wooden objects and produce either natural felt or smooth calcium-covered hairballs.

"Professors and students from Anthony still come back to see it every few years or so," Berryman said. "(But) this actually isn't even the world's largest hairball."

Sadly, MSU's big ball of hair, is a mere furball when matched against the competitor from Garden City, Kan. The reigning champion is a 37-inch bovine hairball, which weighs in at an astonishing 55 pounds.

"I am glad that we don't have the world's biggest hairball anymore," Denbow said.

Although the hairball's exact age remains as elusive as the identity of the cow that stored it, Berryman said it was first catalogued by the museum in 1986 and the ancient campus relic is at least 40 years old.

As cows do not actually vomit up hairballs, the round mass was discovered within a cow while it was being butchered for meat.

Stollak said he can remember past students trying to cash in on the rare oddity's fame.

"Someone back in the '60s took a picture of the hairball and transferred it onto a bunch of T-shirts," Stollak said. "He made a lot of money selling them to people."

When asked if she would ever view the dimensions of the world's second biggest bovine hairball on record herself, Shelley Dare, an East Asian languages and cultures senior, had second thoughts.

"I think I'll take their word for it," she said.

Literally one of MSU's biggest athletes, Taffy, a bovine from Mason, raced into the record books with her June 21, 2001, first-place finish at the first "Udder Race," an Ithaca-hosted competition to determine the world's fastest cow.

"That is hilarious," premedical sophomore Allison Long said when she learned of the cow's feat. "But seriously, it is also very impressive, especially because MSU is so big on agriculture."

Brian Nielsen, MSU associate professor of equine exercise physiology and Taffy's owner, sat in his office and reminisced about his prize-winning cow.

"Taffy had a lot of personality," Nielsen said with a smile.

Nielsen spent five and a half weeks gradually training Taffy on a race track in his backyard to get her accustomed to life in the fast lane. She was a cow who had gone mad for racing.

Got milk? Well, Taffy sure didn't the day of her big competition. Nielsen said that because he milked Taffy daily, her udder was slightly smaller, which could have given her a slight advantage during the race.

Complete with jockey outfit and riding crop in hand, Nielsen rode Taffy around the mile track for a 8:55:40 finish.

Taffy was much more than a record-setting athlete, her win provided Nielsen enough courage to propose to his wife, animal science Assistant Professor of Dairy Management and Physiology Miriam Nielsen, on Taffy's back in the winner's circle.

"Winning the competition was my motivation to propose," Nielsen said.

Tragically, Taffy died about a year and a half ago of Johne's disease, a usually fatal chronic infection.

Even though Taffy is gone and her race time has since been trumped by a subsequent cow contender, she is still making the "moos" papers. As recently as this summer, her story of victory graced the pages of an Australian tabloid, and was ironically one of the most credible stories in the magazine.

As much as Nielsen enjoyed his time in the spotlight alongside Taffy, he said he probably wouldn't be heading back to the cow races any time soon.

"Taffy was in the first cow racing competition and she won the first race," Nielsen said. "It would be pretty hard to try to top that."

Few students know the true story of how such a large population of unique ebony squirrels came to call East Lansing their home.

"A lot of people don't like them," Dare said. "They think they are crazy and scary, but I like them. I think they are cool."

Joe Johnson, chief wildlife biologist at MSU's Kellogg Biological Station, admits to having transferred the sometimes problematic critters from Gull Lake, northeast of Kalamazoo, to MSU's campus in the early 1960s at the request of MSU President John A. Hannah.

"President Hannah said that he wanted two things," Johnson said. "He wanted Canadian geese on the Red Cedar River and black squirrels on campus. I guess he thought the squirrels were really unique."

The black squirrel, a black color variation of the common gray squirrel, is actually native to Michigan, but was all but wiped out when they were over exploited by forest pioneers, Johnson said.

According to legend, W.K. Kellogg, the inventor of corn flakes, brought the black squirrels to Battle Creek because he had plans to rid the red squirrel population from the area. In the 1920s, his brother Dr. John Kellogg transferred the squirrels to Gull Lake.

Johnson said after President Hannah's request to desegregate the squirrel population, he caught 20 black squirrels - 10 females and 10 males - using peanut butter and walnuts, captured them in hickory boxes and relocated them onto MSU's campus.

"Gray squirrels are a unique beauty that can live with us because they are very adaptable animals," Johnson said, explaining how the tree dwellers were able to flourish in East Lansing.

Many Spartans, though, do not view the squirrels for their unique beauty. They believe the creatures have become overabundant on campus and can sometimes cause damage to buildings.

Astrophysics sophomore Samantha Suhajda said she sees past the color of the squirrels but is still scared of their antics. "They freak me out," Suhajda said. "It's like they will just fall down from the trees right in front of you and scare you."

The Spartan statue's athletic physique, chiseled features and stoic pose should be enough to impress any college student. But because the title "World's largest free-standing ceramic statue" is attached to Sparty, sometimes size does matter.

Communication senior Aaron Hugelier finds it hard to believe the statue could even be considered the tallest in the world.

"Sparty doesn't even seem that tall to me," Hugelier said.

Standing at 9 feet 7 inches, the 58-year-old Sparty statue was sculpted by Leonard D. Jungwirth and has yet to earn an official title as the world's tallest ceramic statue.

"It is believed to be to the best of our knowledge," Denbow said. "The artist who created it said it was, and that was definitely the truth at the time of the post-war era."

Ralf Laue, an information record specialist with Guinness World Records, said a record for the world's largest free-standing ceramic does not exist within the company's archives. This means that although MSU is not officially in the record books, no one else has officially grabbed that title. So it can be assumed Sparty has the biggest proportions in the world.

Laue said the last official world record attained by MSU was when Brody Cafeteria created a 2,000 pound Rice Krispies Treat, a feat which has recently been outdone by more than 500 pounds by Iowa State University.

Hazy skies were one of the first things Lauren Mayer noticed when she moved from her home onto campus.

"I had heard that Lansing was the No. 1 city in the U.S. with overcast skies," the New Hampshire resident said. "It is cloudy in the Northeast where I am from, but not as much as it is here."

The National Climatic Data Center's web site lists Lansing as a city with a mere 51-percent chance of sunshine and as the fifth cloudiest in Michigan. MSU geography Assistant Professor Jeff Andresen said while Lansing can be quite cloudy, Marquette is officially the cloudiest city in Michigan.

"Sometimes people from warm states such as Texas or California call me, saying that Michigan has got to be the cloudiest place in the world," Andresen said. "In reality, Michigan is not even the cloudiest place in the United States."

The downward winds from the Great Lakes help create the many cloudy skies in the southern cities of the state such as Lansing, he said.

Lifelong student Karen Loeffler, tired of hearing complaints about the cloudy days on campus, conducted an informal study to measure the exact number of cloudy days.

"During fall semester, I found that it is more sunny than cloudy," she said. "I wanted to prove the people who always complain about the campus being so cloudy wrong and show that the campus isn't a bad place to live."

Despite what the Academic Orientation Program tour guides tell incoming freshmen, the Brody Cafeteria is not the nation's largest non-military cafeteria.

This new revelation doesn't come as too much of a shock to students who used to dine at the complex.

"It isn't even that big," said Suhajda, who lived in Brody her freshman year and thinks the complex should come clean instead of lying.

"I think that gave a false impression because I thought it was going to be huge," Suhajda said.

Brody Complex, which was built in the mid-50s, might have been the largest non-military facility at that time, but Jonathan Byrds said his self-titled Indiana cafeteria has since captured the title.

Byrds' cafeteria boasts a seating capacity of 1,320 and an area of 40,000 square feet.

"That's nearly one acre under roof," Bryds said.

Brody Complex manager Diane Barker said the combination of Brody's east and north dining rooms has an area of 16,954 feet. It does not include the kitchen and smaller dining spaces, which seat 775 for the 2,550 residents who will reside in the complex in the fall.

"Students eat at a variety of times and utilize our Totally Takeout, so seating is usually not an issue," Barker said.

Employees at Brody Cafeteria readily admit it is no longer the largest in the nation.

"We can stop perpetuating the myth," food service coordinator Bruce Haskell said.

Haskell said even though Brody is no longer the biggest cafeteria, it still has plenty of appeal.

"We would like for Brody to be known as a food service with a plethora of options of culinary delights," Haskell said.

Long, who will be living in the Brody Complex this fall, is upset, and said labeling the cafeteria as the nation's largest falls under false advertising.

"I think it's just a ploy to trick people to bring them to MSU because they are supposed to be impressed with the biggest cafeteria," the premedical sophomore said, and then added with a laugh, "Hey, that's what got me."

Some stories about ghosts, psychics and Oprah Winfrey have had students living in dormitories spooked for years.

Suhajda said she knows of a few ghostly legends that are told around campus.

"I heard a story about ghosts in Snyder-Phillips and Mason-Abbot, but they have nice ghosts so it is kind of not a big deal," she said. "People over there are all about the ghosts."

One of the most widely heard myths at MSU says a psychic appeared on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" and predicted a serial killer or a crazed professor dressed as Little Bo Peep would appear on Halloween. The killer would murder about 20 people in an H-shaped dorm with a name beginning with the letter H located near railroad tracks. It perfectly matches the description of Holden Hall.

"Every campus has that story," said Denbow, who also said about every four or five years a similar rumor will surface on campus.

"All of those things about the Oprah show are untrue," Denbow said, who blames unreliable sources for the persistence of such stories. "The Internet has added to the misinformation about places. People assume what they see on the Internet is true."

Meanwhile in Mayo Hall, there are legends of the ghost of Mary Mayo, who is said to wander aimlessly throughout the hall's west lounge.

Hugelier said he has heard about Mayo's ghostly apparition.

"My friend stayed in Mayo Hall. His buddy told him all about the ghost stories," he said. "My friend didn't see anything though."

West Circle manager Pamela Marcis said the residence hall was built in 1931 and named for Mary Mayo, an advocate for the education of her female children.

Supposedly, certain rooms, which are locked in the residence hall, are used for satanic rituals and other demonic activities.

"I don't know where that came from," Marcis said. "The locked rooms are for storage, which is not any different from any other hall."

Marcis also said the possibility of Mayo's ghost haunting the hallways is completely ridiculous.

"Mary has nothing to do with any sort of ghost at Mayo Hall," she said. "She didn't even live there, and neither did her children."

Risa Saunders, an audiology and speech sciences junior, said she heard and experienced similar stories about buildings when she attended Central Michigan University.

"All campuses have stories to scare freshmen," Saunders said. "A ghost lived in my dorm at Central, the lights would turn on and pictures which were secured to the walls would fall down. It could have been caused by something else, but it wasn't scary."

Theater Associate Professor Marcus Olson said many students have reported strange sounds such as shrieking or a woman crying in Fairchild Theatre.

"When you are in the old building alone, it can kind of give you the creeps." Olson said. It was during Christmas vacation a few years ago when he said he experienced the ghostly phenomenon. "I was in my office, which was near where the stage was, and I could hear a female voice which sounded like a wailing," he said. "I kind of got creeped out so I slowly packed up my things and got out of there."

Denbow believes most myths about killers and ghosts are the harmless fabrications of institutions.

"Some of it starts as practical jokes, and sometimes people just want something of their own to pass on," Denbow said. "I think that we have enough traditions at MSU that are true that we don't have to depend on myths."

The tradition of a lovers' lane has been created at Beaumont Tower. It is a place where students can bring their sweethearts to park their, um, bikes underneath shadows created by the tower.

The Beaumont Tower Web site says an old MSU tradition is that one does not become a true coed until they have been kissed in the tower's shadow, or if two people kiss when the bells are ringing. Only then will they be in love forever.

Whether this is true or not depends completely on personal experience.

Assistant carillonneur Patricia Johannes said the tower has long since had a reputation for being the most romantic spot on campus.

"When I was in college, the Beaumont Tower is where girls would get pinned by the fraternity guys, which meant the fraternity guys would give the girls their pins to show they were going steady," Johannes said.

A carillonneur plays the carillon, an instrument resembling an organ. The instrument is in the Bell Room of Beaumont Tower.

Mayer said she knows some friends who were engaged underneath Beaumont tower.

"They had been married for three months when I was a freshman," Mayer said.

Many students believe the tower's natural surroundings add to its romantic appeal.

"Carillonneur Ray McLellan once played 'Love Story' while a man proposed to his girlfriend underneath the trees beside the tower," Johannes said.

Integrative studies sophomore Jennifer Escher said she remembers other myths surrounding the tower.

"I think I also heard something about a virgin falling off the tower," Escher said.

Escher was referring to the myth surrounding Beaumont Tower and its curiously asymmetrical spire. As legends tell it, one of the spires falls down whenever two female virgins graduate from the university.

Actually, the extended corner peak of the tower, built to create a dramatic upward design, is called "the finger of God," Johannes said.

Krystal Thelen, a family community services junior, said while Beaumont is surrounded by natural settings, she finds it hard to believe it is the most romantic place on campus.

"I have heard more stories about people getting married at the MSU gardens," Thelen said.

Welcome to MSU. Thou art here, believe it or not.

Amy Davis can be reached at davisam8@msu.edu.

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Mason resident Brian Nielsen rides Taffy, the world's fastest cow, around a track in the back of Nielsen's home Monday. Taffy can run 6 miles per hour and is going to be entered in the Guinness World Record book as the World's fastest cow for the year 2001.
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