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How Wisconsin Students Pulled Off One of the Greatest College Pranks Ever

Did Lady Liberty really sink in Wisconsin's Lake Mendota?

Decades ago, Madison students pranked a city using a lot of styrofoam, a lake and the Statue of Liberty.

One of the masterminds behind the prank, Leon Varjian, died this week at his home in New Jersey.

Original Post from February 22, 2013:

More than three decades ago today, residents of Madison surely must have been rubbing their eyes and wondering if they were seeing things. According to an article in the Capitol Times newspaper, thousands of students had gathered on Lake Mendota, where seemingly, the head and torch of Lady Liberty rested majestically above the ice. Two UW students told the baffled onlookers that the rest of the statue sank.

Contributor Gianofer Fields brings us up to date on what became of one of the greatest college pranks of all time:

It's a February morning in 2011, and I'm standing on Lake Mendota behind the student union with Angela Weier, staring at what looks like a pile of giant Styrofoam puzzle pieces. Turns out, it’s actually the Statue of Liberty…well, sort of.

Weier says there is a lot of work to do before this Lady Liberty is ready for her huddled masses.

"We need to shovel off a spot on the ice to have a base for her," she says. "Then we have these plywood bases that we have to put down. There's 10 of those, and then we have to put all the pieces of the statue up. There is five sections of statue, about seven high, so there's about 35 big Styrofoam pieces we put up. Then there's some painted green plywood sheets that we put up for the roof and then there's giant metal spikes that we drill to the roof for the tip of her crown."

Credit Angela Weier and Bryce Richter
Lady Liberta sitting in the lake's cold ice

Weier says she helped set up Lady Liberty before, and people always stopped by reminiscing about the original prank. That was back in 1979. According to many, two class clowns named Leon Varjian and James Mallon launched a bizarre campaign to take over the Wisconsin Student Association's senate and executive office. If elected, they promised to bring the Statue of Liberty to Madison. Calling themselves the Pail and Shovel Party, Varjian and Mallon were victorious and on the freezing night of February 22nd, they pulled off what is still ranked among the top ten college pranks of all time.

They spent $4,000 worth of student fees on their rather large paper mache joke. Campus politicos wanted the duo thrown out of office. But in the thirty plus years since her unveiling, students came to love the lady of the lake. Weier says it’s not unusual for some to stop by during the re-construction.

“Past students do come and visit the Union; they see it on the lake and they always comment on it, and it's always kind of nice to hear that because it's like, 'Hey, I helped with that!'" she says. The original lady was built long before Weier was born so what is it about the sculpture that puts the giggle in her voice?

“Well, I mean it is the Statue of Liberty, so like it implicitly has, you know, freedom and you know, American values," she says. "But at the same time, it definitely is really connected to the Union because it's not the whole statue, it's just her head. And that's what people associate with the Union when they see it stickin' out of the ice."

She’s not the only on who thinks Lady Liberty of Lake Mendota is great. Jen Limbach was the president of the UW Madison Student group, the Hoofer Council, back in Lady Liberty's early days. Limbach says besides the funny, there's another reason to like the Ol' Gal - the Lady makes bank.

"The Statue of Liberty on Lake Mendota is the number one selling postcard in the United States, which has got to tell you that she has become an icon of the Wisconsin Union in the wintertime," Limbach says.

Credit Angela Weier and Bryce Richter
Lady Liberty of Lake Mendota, circa 2011

Well, it’s actually a photo of the second Lady Liberty. Just five days after lady Liberty was unveiled members of student body called for impeachment. And it seems they weren't the only ones put off by the prank. Before the ice on Lake Mendota could thaw, vandals set fire to Lady Liberty, causing irreparable damage. The very next winter another Lady Liberty reappeared and this one was fire resistant. She was 40 feet tall and made out of Styrofoam and chicken wire.

She put the Mad in Madison and like a starlet drunk on attention, she became the toasts of many towns. However, she had her dark days. The more she strut her stuff the more the years began to take their toll. She was eventually sold to the State of Wisconsin and she could be seen on the capitol lawn with her crown slightly askew. She made appearances at winter carnivals around the region, holding her torch firmly while onlookers joked about her age.

According to Limbach, she was nearly thirty, down on her luck, and looking for a fresh start when the Hoofers came to her rescue. They purchased her from the State of Wisconsin...for a dollar.

"Yeah, if you look around at some of the Styrofoam pieces here, you can tell that Lady Liberty has seen some better days," she says. "She's made out of Styrofoam, which isn't the most durable substance. We've had to scrub her down a few times because of vandalism. I mean, if there was any way we could get her repaired - we're a nonprofit organization so we don't have too many funds to dedicate to it, but if there's any way we can get it repaired, I mean, we really do enjoy having it around.

"Despite all the trouble it is to put her up, the fact that it really brings people out here and it really gets some attention to Hoofers and to the Union and to the campus, it's really a great thing that we've got her."

Normally, this is the part of the story where I wrap up this piece with a line or two and tell you how long the Lady of Lake Mendota would be up so you could go see her. But that’s not what’s going to happen here. I recorded these interviews on February 11th of 2011. Four days later, I got this email:

Gianofer, I regret to inform you that we had some major vandalism Sunday night and are removing Lady Liberty from the lake today. There was a press release yesterday afternoon that you may have seen. I don't know if you were able to take some partially completed pictures before she was knocked down, but if you need any I have some from last year, as well as pictures of Hoofer members putting her up and the finished statue. Thanks, Angela

I haven’t see Weier, Limbach, or Lady Liberty of Lake Mendota since. As it stands now, the Hoofers are trying to raise grant money to rebuild the Statue. Current members say finding the funding is difficult. They say she will rise again, but unfortunately, they just don’t know when.

Contributor Gianofer Fields studies material culture at UW-Madison and is the curator of "It's a Material World" - that project is funded by the Chipstone Foundation, a decorative arts foundation whose mission is preserving and interpreting their collection, as well as stimulating research and education in the decorative arts.