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Fridays with Fred: Pranks and pratfalls with the ‘professor of dust and ashes’

October 25, 2013 at 6:55 am

FwF 102513 George Collie Pfeffer 2 

If anyone lived and breathed Beloit College gold, his name was George Lucius Collie. Son of Joseph Collie, first student to enter Beloit College. Preparatory student. College student, class of 1881. Geology professor. First curator of the Logan Museum. Dean of the College. Acting president. He was also an intrepid explorer, circling the globe in 1910 and later participating in archaeological digs in France and Algeria. That vigor, along with his keen, active mind, led to a remarkably long and productive life. He remained active in Beloit College affairs until his death in 1954 at age 97.

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Professor Richardson’s steady work on his massive unpublished history of Beloit College allowed the usually forward-looking Collie a good excuse to look backward. Well into his 90s, Collie began to write autobiographical pieces, some based on his voluminous diaries, others answering queries of Richardson’s. On Sundays the old man would meet Richardson at church and hand him a bundle of handwritten pages scrawled on his favorite odd-sized yellow stationery. Back home on Church Street, Richardson read through Collie’s notes and then filed them away.

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Collie wrote at length about his student days during the 1870s, a period in which the college had established itself and yet still retained much of its pioneering character. Later on, as Dean of the College, Collie often had to play the part of stern disciplinarian. He was, however, something of a rascal as a student. Here he tells yet another story involving the college’s popular “professor of dust and ashes,” janitor John Pfeffer, who left his native Germany in 1850 and began toiling at the college in 1866. Pfeffer (pictured below this passage) was greatly proud of his new house, built in 1874, pictured above:

In 1876 the writer roomed at home of John Pfeffer, other students in the house were Jones, Gurley, R. Leavitt, H.H. Leavitt and Anthony.  One night we had a feed of doughnuts and hard cider.  The two Leavitts refused to join us saying they preferred to call on some young ladies.  After they left we called in two outsiders and by this time we were well fortified by the effects of the hard cider.  We decided to give the Leavitts a lesson for their indifference toward our society.  We went to their room, dismantled their bed, dragged the mattress out into the hall, ripped it open and scattered the husks up and down the narrow hallway, the accumulation was knee deep in places.

Then we took the mattress and filled it with stove wood, put it on the bed, replaced the sheets and blankets, then retired to our rooms.

When the Leavitt boys returned and found what had happened they created an uproar which aroused the Pfeffer household.  Old John came upstairs and when he saw the wreckage his anger knew no bounds.

He called to us to come out and explain our actions but no one appeared, then he said, “You poys vill suffer for dis.  I vill tell der president to come here inder morning.”  True to that threat President Chapin appeared, waded through the husks up and down the hall.  We culprits stood around while the inspection was going on but the president left without saying a word to us.  That looked ominous and we began to see rustication or expulsion in the offing.  Gurley and Collie screwed up their courage [and] went over to interview Dr. Chapin.  We explained that no harm was intended; we simply let our exuberant spirits carry us too far.

After some consideration he said, “Your apologies will be accepted but I must appeal to your pocket books.  Each of you is fined five dollars.”

The writer well remembers with what trepidation he approached his father to ask for that money.  Father was born in Scotland and brought up there as a boy.  One can well imagine what that meant when it came to financial expenditure for a foolish escapade.  However on a promise to avoid such pranks in the future the required five dollars was forthcoming and paid into the college treasury, this closed the incident.

           John wanted me to leave his house at the end of the term, which I did.

Apparently he never quite forgave me for the damage done to his brand new house and furniture as the following incident indicates.  John was fond of gathering a group of students about him and discuss college affairs.  One day out on the campus he had a group of students about him when he spied me in the distance and he burst out, “Poys do you know what vas a miracle?”  No one ventured a reply, then he said, “Vell I vill tell you vat it is, it’s to see that man Collie in a professor’s chair.”

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One of the pleasures of rummaging in the Beloit College Archives is coming across different versions of the same story. Roger Leavitt (pictured below) also lived to be a very old man, and like George Collie, he began to write down recollections of student days at his beloved alma mater.

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First, he recalled joining Collie for a feast in the Pfeffer (John Pfeffer is pictured above) house at 724 Chapin Street:

One night one of the boys in the house suggested that we have an oyster stew.  We took up a collection and Henry and I went down town about 9 P.M. and bought some oysters.  George Collie agreed to get some milk.  I was not sure where he secured it, but the next morning, John Pfeffer, our landlord, said something was the matter with his cow, for when he milked in the morning, the cow only gave half of the usual amount.  Anyhow, our milk-stew, made on the stove in Collie’s room, was a success.  As long as Collie was Dean, he showed great mercy to naughty students.

Then he remembered Collie’s cider-fueled prank on the Leavitt brothers, although differing in a few details:

One night, when Henry and I were at some class party, the boys in the house rough-housed our room.  They removed part of the bed slats, piled our wood under the bed, and put a lot of hickory nut shells between the sheets.  When we put out the light and jumped into bed, it fell down with a great noise.  In a minute, John was pounding on our door and demanding to know what we were doing.  Collie and the other boys kept discreetly in their rooms.  John would not accept our excuse, and would not let us keep our room the following term, but later became one of my best friends, and was always glad to see me when I returned for Commencement.

Legend has it that John Pfeffer aimed to build a house larger than President Chapin’s, just a short jog down the block.  Today, the college owns the Pfeffer residence and rents its apartments to faculty and staff.  Perhaps, if we could pry up a hallway floorboard and whip out our Sherlock Holmesian magnifier, we’d discover a fragment or two of corn husk, a splinter of stove wood, or even a petrified hickory nut shell, tangible reminders of long ago student devilry.