When Charles “Chuck” Schwenk showed up at his 50 year reunion at St. Olaf College last month, he didn’t come empty-handed. He brought an oversized pennant that he and a group of Oles had stolen from nearby Carleton College more than 50 years before.
After stealing the 10-foot-long, handmade pennant as a prank and keeping it for half a century, it was time to return it to its rightful owner.
“I’ve had it all these years and at various times I’ve thought it would be fun to give it back,” he said.
So at a reunion dinner with St. Olaf College President David Anderson, Schwenk and friends Al Andersen and Harry Schumacher presented the banner to the president.
“They were trying — but failing — to look repentant,” Anderson quipped.
Last week, Anderson handed it on to Carleton College President Steven Poskanzer, who was happy to get it back.
“I have, on behalf of Carleton, issued general and lifelong amnesty to all the people who were involved in this, extending to the nth generation,” Poskanzer said. “The statutes of limitation have expired and all is forgiven.”
Schwenk, a prankster who was president of a St. Olaf fraternity, took the pennant because of a “strong athletic rivalry between the schools that got a little out of hand,” he said.
While they are still competitive about sports, relations between the two Northfield liberal arts colleges are more positive now, as evidenced by the presidents’ friendship and easy banter.
“There’s a culture of collaboration taking root here to supplant the culture of angry rivalry in the past,” Poskanzer said.
That includes joint academic projects and faculty partnerships. On the social side, students can eat at the other college’s cafeteria using their regular dining card, and a joint fundraiser was recently held in which students could “Date a Carl” or “Date an Ole.”
The institutions have so much in common “that the rivalry is all fun these days,” Poskanzer said.
‘We were into pranks’
Many of the scenes that Schwenk, who lives in New Jersey, described during his years at St. Olaf in the ‘60s sound like an over-the-top movie about college fraternities.
“We were into foolish pranks,” he said. There was a lot of “very childish, sophomoric, Animal-House-like behavior.”
Some of pranks were a bit dangerous, like squirting lighter fluid under dorm room doors and lighting it up, he said. There was also plenty of drinking and looking for places to make out with their girlfriends, since both colleges were coed by that time.
A St. Olaf dean at the time called Schwenk and his friends “the 10 percent that ruined it for everyone else,” he recalled.
Students from the two colleges didn’t really mix, Schwenk said.
But Poskanzer said he’s heard about the crazy antics that used to happen if an Ole went over to Carleton, or vice versa — a student might come back with a shaved head, or bombs might go off, he said.
Schwenk and a group of friends pilfered the pennant when they went over to a Carleton football game his junior year. On the field, there was a huge Carleton banner flying, but the smaller St. Olaf banner was at half staff.
“It was just a spur of the moment thing,” Schwenk said. “I thought, ‘If they’re going to put ours at half staff, I’m going to put theirs at half staff. And if I can’t do that, I’m going to take it down.’”
A fight broke out, and the banner was stolen, Schwenk said. He’s had it ever since, lugging it around to new homes and even having it dry-cleaned.
“At various times, I almost threw it out,” he said. But “there was something about me and my life where I wanted to give it back.”
Though he has attended other reunions, when his 50-year was approaching, he thought it was a good opportunity to get as many of his old friends together as he could to attend. Out of 350 graduates in the class of 1964, 200 attended, he said.
Schwenk said he loved attending St. Olaf, where he “met a lot of friends and dated a few wonderful women.”
Showing up at the reunion, banner in hand, was a chance to say, “‘Hey look, some of the rowdy guys really have led wonderful lives,’” Schwenk said.
The banner will probably “hang in a place of honor” in Carleton’s basketball facility. “And we’ll be watching really carefully the next time St. Olaf comes to play,” Poskanzer said.