My father was a huge believer in higher education. That’s because he never had the opportunity to go to college himself, although being in the U.S. Air Force definitely taught him a lot. When exactly he fell in love with the University of Georgia, I don’t now. But I think a very talented athlete named Herschel Walker had something to do with it.
Because of that, Dad made it clear his daughters were going to go to college. At UGA. And get master’s degrees.
My sister only attended UGA for one quarter before transferring to Georgia State, where her boyfriend (who is now her husband) was going to college. So it fell to me to undertake the mantle of DWGUGA (Daughter Who Graduated from UGA). I received my bachelor’s in journalism in 1988 and went on to get a master’s in English literature in 1990.
While Dad clearly loved the state’s flagship university, he had a keen appreciation for other institutions of higher learning. Oglethorpe University was one of them. Whenever we were in the Lenox Mall area and had an opportunity to drive by, we did so. He always referred to it (many people do) as “The Castle” because its stadium wall looks like one, with its turrets and flags. I like to think if it hadn’t been UGA, he would have encouraged me to try Oglethorpe (if I could get a scholarship).
Hermance Stadium was part of a grand scheme by F.H. Woolworth executive Harry Hermance. He pledged $50,000 to build it and in October 1929, the first section was dedicated during a football game against the University of Dayton. Since that’s the town of my birth (and Dad’s), the irony is not lost on me. Unfortunately, the Crash of 1929 and ensuing Great Depression abruptly curtailed Hermance’s fortunes and the stadium was never completed.
It wasn’t until I met my husband, Chris, a 2001 Oglethorpe graduate, that I began to learn much more about its rich history. He is fiercely loyal to his alma mater and has served on a number of OU boards and committees over the years.
But as a cemetery hopper, there’s one story about Oglethorpe that really got my attention when I first heard it.
There’s an elephant buried on campus.
In 1941, Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus pulled into downtown Atlanta. Nothing unusual there. Not until 11 of its elephants died from arsenic poisoning. Some of the old hands who worked for the circus claimed it may have happened when the circus stopped in Charlotte, N.C. near a chemical plant. Nobody knows for sure.
During that time, Oglethorpe had a fledgling medical school (it no longer exists). When faculty member Dr. John Bernard found out about the elephants’ tragic deaths, he seized on the opportunity in order for his comparative anatomy students to benefit.
According to Oglethorpe alumnus (and adjunct lecturer) Dr. Paul Hudson, Dr. Barnard asked some of his medical students to fetch one of the elephant carcases on a flatbed truck and drive it back to the campus. Lab assistant Johnny Kelly and the students unloaded it near Lowry Hall, which was later expanded into the current Philip Weltner Library.
I can imagine the conversation that took place among those students when their professor proposed his plan.
Student 1: Hey, Dr. Barnard wants us to go pick up a dead elephant downtown.
Student 2: No way!
Student 1: Way! Wanna come with?
Student 2: Will we get extra credit?
Well, maybe not exactly like that. But close.
Over the next week, in the cool November weather, the medical students dissected the elephant. When they were done, they dug a large hole and buried the ill-fated pachyderm’s remains behind Lowry Hall. Nobody knows exactly where since no sign was ever placed there to note the occasion. It’s thought to be under where the Weltner Library now stands.
I asked Chris why no memorial plaque was ever put up to honor the elephant for its sacrifice and he doesn’t know. Maybe when I next see Dr. Larry Schall, OU’s current president (and a very cool guy that I enjoy talking to), I’ll ask him.
Because while it’s never easy to talk about the Elephant in the Room, sometimes you have to.
Especially when it’s under your University.