Fridays With Fred: O.V. “Verne” Shaffer’50 and 1948 campus map
An unblinking eye in the lens of the Smith Observatory telescope peers at a bizarre Beloitian scene: a dinosaur emerging from Logan Museum, its jaws chomped down on a worm-like human, a diver leaping off the Smith Gymnasium into a bucket of water, an artist’s palette with massive daubs of paint about to slide off the roof of Wright Museum, and a cow placidly gazing down from the cupola of Middle College. After a surreptitious visit to Beloit, did Salvador Dali paint one of his surrealistic dreams, or, back in the 15th century, did Dutch artist Hieronymous Bosch create a nightmarish vision of “earthly delights” at a small liberal arts college in a city, state, and country that didn’t exist yet?
It’s an intriguing notion. Back in 1948, though, Verne Shaffer and Ken Naatz probably had few thoughts of surrealism or early Netherlandish art but hoped to tickle the funny bones of their fellow students and perhaps make a buck or two. Verne, who passed away recently, became a well-known sculptor, and countless examples of his outdoor work grace the college, the city of Beloit, and the region. However, according to oral history, when Verne first traveled to Beloit College from tiny Princeton, Illinois, in the fall of 1946, he “didn’t have any idea of being an artist. I was kind of a jock at that time.” Although he participated in sports, Verne discovered an abiding passion for art under the tutelage and encouragement of a young professor, Franklin Boggs, who became his mentor.
One day, during his junior year, Verne spotted a “funny map” created by students at the University of Illinois. He approached his best friend and fellow aspiring artist, Ken Naatz. “[I said] ‘Kenny, we can make some money. Let’s do a map.’ What we did was on Thanksgiving, we went home. Ken was from Janesville and I was down at Princeton, so I went home and had my turkey and he went home and we agreed to come back on Friday. We met up on Saturday morning and went downtown and got a piece of posterboard. We set that down and – you didn’t have ballpoint pens or anything like that, so we used India ink and a very fine, what you call a quill point. It’s a metal point.”
Verne and Ken roamed around campus, drawing the outlines of each building. “You couldn’t draw the whole building in, ‘cause you don’t know, there might be a figure being superimposed on that, so as you’re drawing the figures, you were also starting to fill in what the building looked like. Then we kind of messed around deciding what kind of little people…they came out kind of like little worms, but then you could put a hat on ‘em or something.” Each artist took a different side, but it became a free-for-all as the ideas flowed. Verne explained that, although they were compatible, he could easily tell who drew what. “He drew a bit thinner. My figures kind of expanded a little bit. He was a good artist, a good drawer, but we just had a different technique.”
The two human cyclones finished the map by Sunday afternoon, having worked on it for only a day and a half. “The very next day we went down to the Beloit Daily News. We had, I think, 500 printed, cost us a hundred-dollar bill.” At a time when Beloit College basketball fielded its famous “Bucket Brigade” basketball teams, which drew hundreds of fans, the budding entrepreneurs set up a folding card table at the Field House and sold the maps for 50 cents each at home games.
Eventually, the Beloit College Alumni Association reprinted the “zany” map and, in a stroke of fundraising genius, distributed it “for…amusement – and as a gentle reminder” to contribute to the annual Alumni Fund. They advertised it as “thought up and drawn by two Al Cappish undergrads. And now being uproariously appreciated by the schmoo – we mean students.” On the other side of the map, the college included a section entitled “What’s Beloit like now?” featuring excerpted drawings from the map, plus commentary. Most generations of Beloiters can identify with their observation about a vehicle near the front of the Morse-Ingersoll arch: “That beer truck speeding down College Street is artistic license. And anyway the Dean is about to fire his cannon and demolish it. Things haven’t changed THAT much.”
Today, a framed copy of the map occupies a place of pride on a wall in the Beloit College Archives Reading Room. Students and other visitors often spend a goodly amount of time staring at it, trying to decipher the many clever jokes and minute details of this classic example of Beloit inventiveness and spirit.