When I was 14 years old, I found a dirty book on the shelves alongside a bunch of Robert Ludlum thrillers, “Women Who Run with the Wolves,” and several copies of “Gone With The Wind.” It was my mom’s yearbook from her freshman year at Auburn.
Mom was on the couch. I brought it over. It was a Sunday afternoon in Birmingham. On page 54 of the 1974 Glomerata, in five separate black and white photos, eight people were pictured naked, seven of them from behind, one from in front — a girl, hanging outside a dorm window, arms outstretched, wearing a mask, topless. Covering most of page 55 was a photo of a guy in a ski mask and white Adidas running naked through a crowd of students. Mom laughed, gave a quick “ahem,” and quickly turned the page. “I forgot they actually put the pictures in there.”
I never really forgot they put pictures of it in there. Not just out of teenage fascination or whatever. It was mostly because of how odd it seemed… Once upon what you imagine to be a more conservative time, my parents’ generation apparently decided to get naked together — at school. And once upon what you imagine to be a more conservative time, naked pictures of them were allowed in the school’s yearbook… the nudity — the who, what, when, where, why, and wow —apparently being too central to the spirit of the school year to be excluded.
So, several years ago, at home in Auburn on a Sunday night, I pulled that Glom down off the shelf again; I’d stolen it from mom a few years before that. I looked at page 55. I looked at the guy, and I looked at the people looking at the guy. And, basically, I just decided, then and there, that I would write a book about whatever in the world was going on at Auburn University in the late winter and early spring of 1974.
That sounds weird. But it just seemed like a good story.
1974 Glomerata, page 55:
Faster than a speeding bullet;
More powerful than Dean Cater
Able to dodge Chief Dawson in a single bound;
Look! On the Councourse! In the Quad!
It’s — The Streaker!
That’s right, the streaker fad hit Auburn this year. The first one sped down the concourse at 10:03 a.m. on Feb. 15, to be exact …
We met at the Joe Muggs in The Summit in Birmingham on Jan. 3, 2007, a Wednesday.
In his second email he wrote: “I look forward to speaking with you. Like February and March 1974, it could be interesting.”
I got there early. I told him he would know me by my yearbook. He walked in. We shook hands. I smiled. He didn’t really smile back. He didn’t smile when I took our picture together. He didn’t smile much the whole time. He ordered. He sat down. I pulled out the Glom. He pulled out his glasses. I flipped back and forth between the two pages and told him again how I had figured out it was him. He congratulated me — “you should be a Sheriff’s investigator”— but reiterated that he wasn’t interested in having his name in anything, same as always.
A pact had been made at the Lambda Chi house the night before it happened. And the pact was that no one ever reveal his identity. You wouldn’t believe how well that pact held up. His own kids — one recently graduated from Auburn, one a sophomore — only found out a few years ago after a buzzed fraternity brother brought the Glom out at a dinner party.
Not that he’s ever actually copped to it.
“I just always say it’s an urban myth.”
I told him that I’d keep the pact, too — that I wouldn’t have it any other way. And I told him I’d just call him what everybody started calling him on Friday, Feb. 15, 1974 — Streak.
It was the day after Valentine’s. It was overcast, it was 58 degrees, and there was a big, hot rumor (started at the AOPi Valentine’s Social the night before) that something you’d want to see would be seen at 10 a.m. in front of Haley Center. Busiest spot on campus, busiest time of day.
The Mustang came to a stop. The windows were rolled up, but you could see in. Some remember the ski mask as orange. Most say it was red. The ski mask wasn’t the focal point of attention. Whatever color it was, it was already wet with sweat. It dried in a Lambda Chi trophy case.
“They better be there,” he said, out loud… and they were, in a beige Chevy Impala, engine running.
It was going to be around 200 yards from Thach all the way to Parker Hall; do not try to run this distance yourself. He was going to sprint the whole way. He wasn’t going to slow down for anything. He was a sophomore in Aviation Management. He was on a Naval ROTC scholarship. He could not get caught. He had already decided that if he did, if he was charged with indecency or whatever, he’d also be charged with resisting arrest.
The driver, his fraternity brother, held the back of his robe. Someone on the roof of Haley Center shouted “here he comes!”
He opened the door. He cursed. He needed the money. Auburn needed the thrill.
He took off.
Streak takes a sip of coffee.
“I mean, I never imagined when I got out of the car over there on Thach, that there was going to be what looked like thousands of people. I mean, you’ve seen the pictures — there’s a bunch of people. I don’t know how to estimate people, but the concourse was jammed, just barely enough room to run through the place, especially as you got there right in front of Haley Center. I wouldn’t have done it, probably, if I’d known how big it was going to be.”
He also wouldn’t have done it without the cash.
It got going that afternoon at the fraternity house, on a whim and case of beer — a hundred bucks to anyone who would do this thing The Plainsman had written about the day before. Because, hey, c’mon — the article was basically a dare. That’s what the Mastermind (who deserves a book all his own) thought at least. One of the fraternities was obviously going to take them up on it and go down in history. The Mastermind thought it might as well be Lambda Chi.
They’d have to act fast.
Streak didn’t think twice about it. A hundred bucks? Sold. He had bills to pay. So, the Mastermind spent the rest of the day taking up donations — Streak kept getting tips and wound up with $150 in his pocket by the end of the night — and telling people to shut up about it and planning the thing… maps, multiple getaway cars, headlight signals, Plan Bs, Plan Cs, brothers stationed along the concourse with orders to take care of anyone who tried to stop him, clothes stashed in the trashcan of the Parker Hall basement bathroom, just in case. Military precision. All Streak had to do was show up.
He leans forward.
“I mean, it’s easy enough in something like this to say ‘yes, yeah, I’ll do that for a hundred bucks or whatever it was. But then you’re kind of committed, you’re there, and it’s time to go.”
The crowd exploded. That’s all a lot of the people there remember — how freaking loud it was. And that they were dressed, and that he was not.
The young adults of Auburn University clapped and yelled and laughed and gawked and got out of his way.
One of them took a picture.
1974 Glomerata, page 55 [cont’d]: Rumor had it that The Plainsman prodded the beginning; but a Plainsman spokesman said that their feature story the day before the first streak was only “progressive journalism.”…
What else were people supposed to think? Rheta Grimsley — of course, it was Rheta Grimsely — writes a story on this new fad called streaking in which she describes a hypothetical nude dash across the Haley Center concourse all the way to Parker Hall, and 24 hours later that exact same thing happens? The timing and execution almost implied collusion, like they’d actually orchestrated the thing or something. Even Mom remembered it that way. Mom was on the Plainsman staff her freshman year; Rheta, a junior, was the features editor. She’s currently a syndicated columnist. She’s had one of the most distinguished careers ever to come out of Auburn’s journalism school.
But she’s INNOCENT, she swears (in all caps). She was just looking for ideas for the paper’s upcoming campus nostalgia section.
“The Plainsman had nothing to do with arranging the Concourse streak,” she told me. “I remember first reading about streaking in Newsweek magazine.”
Buried on page 63 of the Feb. 4, 1974 issue of Newsweek, sandwiched between something on Nixon and a blurb on a feminist dictionary, were three uncredited paragraphs about something called “streaking,” which the magazine defined as “making blitzkrieg runs in public areas completely in the buff.” It was supposedly the heir to goldfish swallowing, telephone booth stuffing and panty raids (a tradition that at Auburn was actually still very much alive).
“Streaking seemed like a novel, funny, other-worldly concept to contrast with the college pranks of old. It certainly seemed entirely irrelevant to Auburn,” Rheta says.
Auburn students birthday-suiting across a campus that had only recently discontinued the policy requiring coeds to wear raincoats over their shorts en route to gym class? Why, that’s probably as likely as Auburn discontinuing its football program!
“That’s why it was so funny,” she said. “Or so I thought.”
She pitched the idea for a feature story to Plainsman editor Bill Wood. To her surprise, he agreed… on one condition — an illustration. They needed an illustration. So, she got an illustration.
Now, how she got it is one of the many ironies of the fad’s precocious manifestation at Auburn. Because despite repeatedly insisting thaty they hadn’t, the Plainsman staff did stage Auburn’s first streak, at least technically. They did pay someone to streak — the boyfriend of Rheta’s suitemate, no less. They took him behind the coliseum, told him to strip, told him to run, and gave him $25. But the photo looked too real, too recognizable, too indecently exposed, too illegal. So, they cut it and cropped it and made it look fake, almost like a magazine collage.
The next day on the concourse, fake turned real (again). Suddenly it looked as if Rheta was, as one former Plainsman staffer put it to me, “chumming the waters of Gonzo journalism” — shouting “fire!” in a crowded, G-rated theater just to see how the administration would react.
Her tongue-in-cheek confession to as much in the Plainsman’s next issue didn’t help matters —the ironic italics about a “Shock Auburn committee” trying to shatter the university’s “conservative protective dome” went wholly unappreciated— nor did the fact that Plainsman photographer Dan Doughtie happened to be perfectly positioned to snap the shot of his career, one that anchored the front page of the Plainsman’s next issue as well as the Glomerata’s feature on streaking.
“Rest easy, though,” Rheta wrote. “Streaking is silly and frivolous. Auburn students are not.
“You see, it will take more than one bare body to convince parents that their daughters will be subjected to nude people running along the Haley Center concourse at Auburn.”
Now we’re at the biggest irony of all in the Plainsman’s coverage of the events of that spring quarter—Rheta Grimsley never saw a single streaker. She inspired them, described them (“sweaty hair, extra short gym shorts, wild eyes, knees with grass stains”), told photographers to go bring back shots of them when the various Greek Throats called her at the Plainsman with a time and a place, and used them to make a name for herself. But Rheta Grimsley — feminist fire-brand, agitator, blue-jeans wearer, “more powerful than Dean Cater” —never actually saw guys playing naked football in the middle of Magnolia Avenue (in the middle of the day), or a couple streaking hand-in-hand across the baseball field during a game, or even the girl that streaked across the stage while The James Gang opened for The Beach Boys at Beard-Eaves.
(I asked former Auburn football player Roger Mitchell about it. He laughed. “She had beautiful eyes.”)
But plenty of others did see them. And a lot of them remember why.
A year ago, Rheta spoke at a symposium on the history of Alabama journalism held at the AU Hotel and Conference Center. I walked up and said hello. She asked how Mom was. She asked how the book was coming. After her presentation, she took questions from the audience. A woman raised her hand.
“Is it true that you incited the streaking epidemic at Auburn?”
Rheta smiled, sighed, and finally said, “Well… in a way.”
1974 Glomerata, page. 55 [cont’d]: Whatever the case, the fact still remains that Auburn—the only place left for a movie to show before it goes on T.V.—became a national leader in “streaking.” During the next few weeks, the news reports of Auburn’s first streak reached the rest of the nation and a rage of streaking began to fill the country.
There’s this idea among a lot of folks who were here then, and who always include it in their Good Ol’ Days conversations at tailgates and stuff, that Auburn kind of invented streaking. Mom told me that when we were looking at the Glom and nothing can change her mind. (There’s even this thing going around that Auburn is the answer to a question on a Trivial Pursuit card that someone’s friend’s dentist’s cousin saw one time that asks on what campus did the 1970s streaking fad begin?)
It’s not true. Auburn wasn’t the first school to streak. But we were close.
The fad became a fad in Los Angeles in late 1973 and quickly went off to college: Florida State in late January, then Maryland, Washington State, a few others. But Auburn — Auburn — was the first SEC school to streak (we had nearly a month on the wacky headlines coming from Athens), the first in the state (we beat Bama by several days), and, yes, one of the first in the country.
Sociologists seem to remember streaking in one of two ways: either as boundary-pushing counter-culturalism filed alongside earlier battles of the sexual revolution, or as a sign that college students, after Vietnam, were finally having fun again.
At Auburn, it was kind of both.
Rheta kind of put it perfectly: “Auburn in the early 1970s had to do something or miss the 1960s altogether.”
The reason Auburn earned so much early attention was the context. What happened on Feb. 15, 1974 wasn’t a random dash through a class or cafeteria or across the street, like at Florida State. Auburn’s first streak was precisely planned, it was publicized; word leaked out the night before at the Lambda Chi-AOPi social (and, of course, there was that anonymous tip to The Plainsman). And it wasn’t seen by just 30, 50, or 100 people who just happened to be around, but by 1,000 or more who were waiting for it — for just one person — and who remember it like it was an event.
Also, it made the AP wire in less than two hours.
TRIVIA QUESTION: How is it possible, when the brothers of Lambda Chi Alpha (including The Mastermind, but not including Streak) arrived by bus at the Maggie Valley Country Club in Maggie Valley, North Carolina for the fraternity’s winter formal Friday evening, that the desk clerk already knew about Streak’s stunt mere hours after it happened?
ANSWER: Paul Harvey, true story.
They were, to say the least, freaked out.
1974 Glomerata, page. 55 [cont’d]: Things settled down a little after the first streak, and faculty members thought that maybe things had blown over. That’s what they thought. On Thursday night, March 7, pandemonium broke loose with “mass streaks” on the Drill Field, President Philpott’s lawn, the Social Center, the Quad, the Hill, the Quad, the Hill, the Quad… on into the morning. It was hard to tell who was more excited, the streakers (including girls — finally) or the 5,000 to 6,000 students cheering them on through the night. The craziness continued throughout that weekend— the one before Winter Quarter finals—with the last full scale attack on Monday night.
Former Auburn Athletics Director David Housel, then an Auburn journalism professor, was on the concourse the morning of February 15th (“It was kind of like, I’ll be damned, it really did happen at Auburn”), and he was out and about so as to be “wise in the way of my students” on Thursday, March 7, the night before Dead Day.
He puts the photos he brought to show me (but won’t let me scan), back in the folder. He leans back in his chair, puts his feet on his desk, and smiles.
“There was a girl called Big Blue,” he says. “They called her ‘Big’ because she was very well endowed, they called her ‘Big Blue’ because she wore a blue scarf over her head. And she would come out and be one of hundreds of women streaking out of girls’ dorms and run around the loop.”
His numbers may be a bit exaggerated, at least as far as the women go. But contrary to some reports, there were plenty of coed participants, apparently enough for a legendary serial streaker to distinguish herself from the pack. (Big Blue, if you’re out there, please get in touch — anonymity guaranteed). And naked dudes were everywhere.
Suddenly, at a university whose administrative policy toward its students was still predicated almost entirely on gender distinction, the biggest differences between boys and girls began to spill out of gym shorts and halter tops onto the ROTC drill field (and famously, for those girls under curfew, from dorm room windows). And Auburn students weren’t appalled; they shouted “go!” They clapped. They took pictures.
There’s a photo of the three naked guys — one holding what looks to be a bra — racing a shopping cart across the drill field, a girl (clothed) sitting in the basket.
There’s the girl in white cutoff jean shorts who’s either struggling out of, or back into, a Sigma Nu T-shirt.
There’s the guy somehow climbing the brick wall of a dorm on his way to four cheering coeds looking out the 4th floor window above him.
There’s the shadowy, busty blur that may or may not be Big Blue.
There’s the group of smiling coeds watching the action from the roof of Stella Knapp dorm (including curvy Calendar Girl Patti Palmer, who swears she was not Big Blue).
There’s the one of the three girls positioned in the center of a dorm window, completely nude, and the one of the two girls streaking through a dorm parking lot, 10 feet away from a clothed male student and a clothed campus police officer.
There’s AUPD Chief Millard Dawson trying (and failing) to stop a crowd of male students from tearing a screen off a girl’s ground floor dorm room window, and the one of he and Assistant Dean of Students Drew T. Ragan trying (and failing) to block the entrance into a dorm’s side door.
There’s the shot of the girls in a 5th floor dorm room window laughing and pointing at a naked girl whose legs are flailing outside the 4th floor window directly below them.
The two completely naked male students, posing for the camera with their arms around each other’s shoulders is a funny one —one of them is clutching what appears to be black silk briefs— as is the pickup truck full of naked Sigma Nu fraternity brothers.
And there are several never-before-seen angles of the famous blonde from page 54 of the Glom, who by most accounts was the first Auburn coed to streak (but who, so she said on the phone, had no idea what I was talking about, goodbye).
A week later, in a memo to Auburn Dean of Women Katharine Cater regarding incidents of streaking, specifically the scene he witnessed at the girls dorms, Assistant Dean of Students Drew Ragan wrote: “Last week’s activities appear to be a new phenomenon we have not yet encountered at Auburn.”
“It was almost,” David Housel says, “like we were in Scandinavia for a while.”
1974 Glomerata, page. 55 [cont’d]: And now no one can really tell when, and if, this “passing fad” will really pass, in Auburn or nationwide.
Streak graduated in 1978. He overhears strangers talking about it at football games. He’s asked about it at reunions. He denies it at reunions. The brothers laugh. “We had a pact,” he says.
“It amazes me that it still comes up,” Streak says. “But it does, more often than you think. Right now I have the total of people who were there up to around 185,000, just like the number of people who were at the Auburn-Alabama game in 1972.”
There are 92 of them in the picture, which captures just 15 feet of the distance, and the moment is frozen on their grainy faces. At least five mouths are wide open. At least three of the girls are covering their mouth with their hand. You see big laughs. And you see pure shock.
Right in front of him, closer to him than anyone, is a group of seven girls, their backs turned, shunning indecency. Girls that had never seen a guy naked (and who had been sent to Auburn to keep it that way). But that one right there – bell bottoms, long brown hair, giant purse, the one right at the tip. She’s turning, just barely. She’s looking, just barely. Look at her face. She’s smiling at him, just barely.
College was different then because men and women were still different.
“Certainly Auburn was more insulated to change than other universities, and maybe more conservative, even now, but when you’re there, you don’t understand that there’s change going on. The fact that there are rules for girls to be in the dorms at Auburn when there weren’t at other places? You’re not paying any attention to that. I mean, is Dean Cater’s life going to change [because of streaking]? You know, as a student, you couldn’t give a rip. Did I ever think I was a part of any kind of revolution? No… there was no revolution.”
(But there were consequences. On Valentine’s Day, after he agreed to everything, Streak took his girlfriend out to dinner. She was a Chi-O. She was cute. She was also the chairwoman of the Associated Women Students Disciplinary Council. “And Lord,” he said at the end of the blessing, “please help this poor fool tomorrow.” She furrowed her brow. He said it was nothing. Two weeks later, when she figured it out, she broke up with him.)
“Well,” I say, “what about this as the book’s tagline or something: ‘It was just business. He needed the money. Auburn needed the thrill…’”
He nods, almost smiling. “Sure.”
He stands up to leave. We’d been there an hour. Thankfully, his wife thought it was important that he talk with me, that it was an important part of Auburn history. That it just seemed like too good of a story. I think he agreed.
We say our “War Eagles” and start to walk out. “Oh,” I say, “I almost forgot.”
I pull the dirty book back out of my backpack and open it to the naked man on page 55.
“Will you sign my yearbook?”
He signs it “The Streak.” He’s smiling, just barely.
Photos by Cecil Bridges, Dan Doughtie, and Brad Ashmore.
An abridged version of this story appeared in the summer 2011 issue of Auburn Magazine. If you have any streaking (or Dean Foy or Dean Cayer or Punt, Bama, Punt or whatever) stories you’d like to share, please feel free to get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org. There will be a book. There will be a book. There will be a book.
Related: My first meeting with Dean Foy.