Remember that time Auburn students really, really resented media coverage of their response to a sickness sweeping schools across the nation?
No, no, no… not last weekend — 68 years ago. No, no, no… not COVID-19 — Spring Fever, a disease all but eradicated on the American campus, but one that still lingers in the higher education imagination thanks to the lacy legacy of its signature symptom: The Panty Raid.
Here’s a brief (!) Auburn history on the night of Tuesday, May 20, 1952, when 25 API student leaders may have kinda sorta mobbed Montgomery Advertiser reporter Bill Bates, and most definitely stole the film from freelance photographer Paul Robertson’s camera, in order to quarantine the Loveliest Village against the scoop-happy superspreaders of the 20th century’s most progressively problematic college prank — for, in their minds, good reason.
Five years earlier, before such libidinous larks had been given such a titillating title, Auburn had caught headline hell when news broke that a brigade of brazen brazier bandits had stormed the dorms after a pep rally, wrecked windows, looted laundry, and generally terrorized the panty-wearing population of quiet little API. It was a rough night, man, one that in the spring of 1952, Dean of Women Katharine Cater made sure James E. Foy, acting dean of student affairs, knew she never wanted to relive (and that, yes, of course, I’ll be writing about later as part of a story proving that Auburn was the panty-demic patient zero — you shouldn’t really even need to ask at this point).
Cater and Co. had referred to the previous profligate pilfering as an “invasion,” but, that May, courtesy of countless wire reports on Big 10 bacchanalia at Michigan and Penn State, the “panty raid” officially became a branded fad. Blamed on a mix of warm weather and male musings, copycat capers were quickly carried out across the country. The papers ate it up. College administrators did not, especially those familiar with the fallout.
So Foy readied his boys.
Though only two years on the job, Dean Foy was already well-versed in the tactics of “psychological crowd control,” which included secretly conscripting select student leaders into a covert corps of BMOC counterrevolutionaries loosely known as the Demonstrations Control Committee (DCC). Their responsibilities? Be Foy’s eyes and ears by day, subtly suppress shameful shenanigans with disinformation and diversion by night.
As the distasteful datelines descended on the Heart of Dixie — May 17 at Duke, May 18 at Miami and Tennessee — Foy feared the worst, but hoped for the best, especially given the school’s recent history. Best he could tell, Auburn Spirit hadn’t gone off the rails since the modesty massacre of ’47.
On Tuesday morning, he saw the front page of the Montgomery Advertiser: “Capstone Raided by Panty-Hunters…”
Police. Firemen. Arrests. Football players with baseball bats. Above the fold.
On Tuesday afternoon, the phone rang. The Greek grapevine was abuzz. Fraternities were getting anonymous calls. Toomer’s Corner. 12:15 a.m. Be there. Damn.
Foy sprang into action, activated the DCC, literally told Katy to bar the door, and eventually went full Student Affairs Psyops on 700 red-blooded, rat-capped rowdies, appealing (through a megaphone-wielding student surrogates) to the better angels of their Auburn nature.
“This is not the true Auburn spirit!” the speaker squawked. “If we go through these dormitories, it will put us in the same light as the University of Alabama, and we don’t want that, do we?”
Ultimately, the answer was no, Auburn did not want that. But, in Foy’s mind, the Montgomery Advertiser sure as hell did.
You could hear it in his voice. Even though his plan worked — even though no ladies lost lingerie and every underclassmen went home only with the underwear they were wearing — Foy was still mad about it 55 years later.
“Sometimes the newspapers were inciting this kind of thing,” Foy told me in 2007 when I spent a couple of hours at his house to hear about that other crazy stuff. “In the early 50s, when panty raids were so frequent, we had a newspaper from Montgomery call up (a fraternity house) askin’ ‘when’s the crowd gonna develop?’”
“The newspaper manager called and said Alabama had (a panty raid) and they wanted to know when Auburn was going to have one. Any suggestion like that triggers off a group.”
Technically, that night, it triggered off two groups.
“We had students take a camera away from the reporter, and told him he could get (his film) tomorrow in the office of Mr. Brackeen” — that would be API News Bureau Director L.O. Brackeen — “but that he couldn’t take any pictures on campus,” Foy said. “They resented the newspapers, which were inciting a riot, really.”
Which is why, to keep the crowd from giving the Advertiser easy copy, Foy may have quietly incited one of his own.
Failing to convert the combustible caucus into a pep rally with shouts of “War Eagle,” Foy instructed embedded Committee members to loudly plant the premise that the midnight mania was mere media manipulation.
“Just because Bama did it doesn’t mean we have to!”
“Publicity is what caused it all!”
“It’s the newspaper!”
And, yeah… though Auburn officials later apologized for the First Amendment fiasco — both the confrontation, and accusation that that the Advertiser had actually instigated the “unfortunate incident” — it probably kinda was. That’s not just coming from 90-year-old Dean Foy’s not-so-faded recollections, that’s reading between the lines…
In addition to its front page account of the Raid That Wasn’t (“‘Panty Craze’ Sweeps Auburn And Capstone”), the Wednesday Advertiser actually bragged about being the first state daily to report on Tuscaloosa’s testosterone troubles in a separate story explaining just how they’d done it. No joke.
After receiving a midnight tip that something was cooking at the Capstone, they’d called the cops to confirm, then called up the Bama chapter of a staffer’s old fraternity and told the kid who answered to stop studying, go join the fun and get back to him. They managed to get the details in that morning’s issue.
Twelve hours later, they were back on the phone, this time with someone in Auburn (whom that same staffer almost certainly also could have called a brother), all but begging (in Foy’s mind) the Grabba Bra Omegas to give them a story.
Twelve hours after that, they were blowing Dodge, with 25 raised fists in their rearview, some surely belonging to Committee members.
The middle finger to the Montgomery Advertiser and its panty raid paparazzo dominated state-wide accounts of Auburn’s fight with the Fever, and was eagerly included in coverage of the craze as far away as California.
“Get out of town,” Blake reported the Auburn boys shouting as they ran him and Robertson off campus. “We don’t want the publicity!”
They offered to pay for the film, though.