Editor’s note: The following is part of a weekly series commemorating the University of Texas at El Paso’s Centennial Celebration in 2014.
“It was one of the greatest college pranks of all time,” crowed Ron Mishkin, one of the seven perpetrators who “borrowed” Oscar the alligator from the pond at San Jacinto Plaza during the overnight hours of Dec. 10-11, 1952, and deposited him in the second-floor office of Howard Quinn, a no-nonsense professor of geology.
Mishkin, 83, still enjoys reminiscing about the heist and admits he is grateful that none of the group ever got caught and that no one involved — including Quinn — was hurt.
“I have a sense of fraternal pride about it,” he said during a telephone call from his home in Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey. He has spent much of the past 62 years in the mining industry, including the past few as a mining geologist and docent at the Sterling Hill Mining Museum in Ogdensburg, New Jersey.
The experience generated as much laughter as consternation among campus leaders at the time, but also sparked the concept for The University of Texas at El Paso’s Gator Camp, the annual pre-fall semester orientation that encourages new students to make their mark on campus – without alligators. The counselors share the tale with the campers, whose reactions range from laughter to disbelief.
After being shrouded in secrecy for more than 20 years, the how and who were revealed in the March 1973 issue of Nova Quarterly (now UTEP Magazine). It was written by Samuel E. Vandiver, who considered himself the last surviving prankster. Vandiver, a former Marine, was the only participant who was not a member of the school’s Alpha Phi Omega social fraternity for science and engineering majors. He died Jan. 5, 1997.
The seven undergraduates, led by a free spirit named Dale Brittan, went to the plaza after sunset, but were sidetracked by the holiday revelers enjoying the Christmas light displays.
The students returned sometime after 11 p.m. to do their work under a waning crescent moon when the temperature was near or below freezing.
Vandiver distracted the night watchman while a friend waited in the getaway car – a temperamental Studebaker that needed to be jump-started – as the others waded into the pond to wrangle and tie up Oscar, who Mishkin described as about 6-feet long and more than 300 pounds.
“We got our strength from desperation,” Mishkin said.
At about 2:30 a.m., the students drove Oscar to the Geology Building, which was renamed after Quinn in 1981. Mishkin said Quinn, who taught at the college from 1924 through 1965, was the selected target because he was a “pompous fuddy-duddy.”
They entered the building through an open first-floor window, but Quinn’s office was locked. Brittan suggested they try the second floor window that led to Quinn’s office. He stood on Mishkin’s shoulders and was lifted to a point where he could grab hold of the sill. Fortunately for the pranksters, the window was unlocked. According to Vandiver’s story, Brittan entered the room, opened the office door, and Oscar was set inside and untied. Then they played the waiting game.
Mishkin was in the classroom next to Quinn’s office as the professor arrived a few minutes before 9 a.m.
“I was pretty damned nervous,” he said. To his relief, Quinn came “flying out” of his office almost immediately. Different sources said Quinn’s reaction ranged from unruffled to “spitting bullets.”
Westsider Nancy Hamilton recalled that a large city parks department truck was outside Quinn Hall the morning of Oscar’s visit, and it came with enough men to catch and carry the gator.
Hamilton, an author and former journalist who used to work for the University, called the adventure a harmless prank carried out by fraternity brothers who were trying to enjoy their college years following two decades of economic depression and war.
The college initiated an investigation, but it quickly faded in part because too many male students claimed credit to impress their girlfriends, Mishkin said.
Quinn, the “fuddy-duddy” professor, may have had the last laugh. Legend has it that he kept a small, ceramic alligator on his desk as a nod to the prank.
Daniel Perez is a senior writer in UTEP's Office of University Communications.