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OU's stitch in time
Squirrels and romantic smooches on the green have certainly made their mark on Ohio University’s quirky history — a history that began in a downtown Boston bar. OU’s strangest sagas are perhaps the most fascinating and yet to be explored.
“You step on this campus and immediately know you’re on a part of American history,” said Samuel Crowl, a trustee professor of English literature at OU. “It’s got class, it’s got heritage, and you can tell.”
In a 2008 survey by the OU Alumni Association of 6,000 graduates, 95 percent said their time at the school was shaped mostly by the university’s history and traditions.
“Some people define traditions as things that have been around forever,” said Graham Stewart, director of the OU Alumni Association. “But that’s not true. Traditions come and go.”
Stewart said the association is working on a project to provide incoming students with a synopsis of OU’s history and traditions similar to Florida University’s F Book, in which students attach photos of themselves with campus icons.
“If you’re going to spend four years here,” said Betty Hollow, OU alumna and author of Ohio University 1804-2004: The Spirit of a Singular Place, “well, OU is bigger and longer than just those four years, and if you knew more about it, you would appreciate it more.”
Bunch of Grapes Tavern
Many students don’t know the discussion of building a university in the Northwest Territory arose in an 18th century Boston pub. In 1786, a group of 11 Revolutionary War soldiers known as the Ohio Company of Associates sat in the Bunch of Grapes Tavern, plotting their proposal for permanent settlement in the Ohio country.
The group elected Manasseh Cutler to rally what would become the Northwest Ordinance in Congress and one year later, he was northbound with fellow OU icons Rufus Putnam and Benjamin Tupper.
“That should make a bunch of kids from Ohio feel connected with those founding fathers,” Crowl said.
Ohio didn’t become a state until 1803, one year before the Ohio General Assembly passed the act establishing The Ohio University. The school opened as a single building in 1808 to three students and one professor: Jacob Lindley.
All that is left of OU’s conception is a 2-by-3-foot plaque in downtown Boston at the site where the Bunch of Grapes used to sit.
“It’s quite a unique treasure for OU to be connected to a populated area where people visit from all around the world,” said Dave Abram, president of the Massachusetts Serves New England chapter of the Ohio University Alumni Association.
Boston alumni gather at the downtown attraction to visit a nearby piece of their alma mater once a year, Abram said, and have even planned a football game with alumni of the University of Massachusetts to celebrate the centuries-old connection.
About 1,000 OU alumni live in the Boston area, OU’s true birthplace, including former president Vernon Alden.
OU’s 14th president, John Calhoun Baker, even established a 350-seat theater near Cape Cod in 1958. The Baker family decorated its Monomy Theatre with familiar green OU-style signs, and the venue hosts annual productions by the Ohio University Players.
“Not many locals have a realization of the connection,” Abram said. “So our chapter tries to spread the gospel to Bostonians about it.”
Ohioans paid homage to the original Bunch of Grapes Tavern in the old Baker University Center’s Front Room — originally named the Frontier Room — and again in the Ohio University Inn on Richland Avenue.
“When I got here, people would talk about New England and something about the Northwest Ordinance, but it never made much sense to me back then,” Hollow said. “I then realized that this was a wilderness when people first came here, and I was touched by the fact that they would try so hard to make this university happen.”
For years, a rumor about the bushy-tailed nut gatherers that populate College Green has floated throughout campus, but not many have gotten down to the source of OU’s squirrels.
After OU’s 10th president, Alston Ellis, had a falling-out with faculty, he fled campus for a monthlong vacation where he toured Ivy Leagues. One of those he visited was Harvard University, and its herd of furry friends caught his eye.
When he returned to Athens, Ellis spread the word about Harvard’s abundant wildlife, and in 1908, the Ohio University Board of Trustees formed a committee to import squirrels from Cambridge, Mass.
“He just had to get some of those squirrels for our green,” Hollow said. “Now they run the campus.”
Today, the animals have become popular pests for students and a friendly asset to campus. University administrators often leave daily treats on their office windowsills. One such person is Vicki Butcher, administrative coordinator of the dean’s office at OU.
For more than 20 years, Butcher has carried on the tradition of feeding the squirrels from generations of women who previously occupied the office.
“They say that, when the woman who worked here before me parked across the street, the squirrels would follow her to the office on one of the telephone lines,” Butcher said.
Now she feeds them unsalted peanuts and sunflower seeds.
“The squirrels have gotten to know me, so a bunch of them gather when it’s feeding time,” Butcher said. “The wildlife is what makes this campus attractive.”
But recently, the university has exported the pets overseas. In 1979, OU’s Japanese partner, Chubu University, donated 175 cherry blossom trees, which now line the bike path and Hocking River. In exchange, Chubu administrators wanted a selection of Athens squirrels, so they were soon on their way.
At the heart of Ohio University where College Green’s five brick paths meet, “X” marked the spot where lovebirds used to smooch before parting for class.
Since a tradition-minded student government created the kissing circle 70 years ago, many have had superstitions that the spot holds a special spell. A 1962 Post article reported people believed that, if a girl refused to pucker up on the circle, a bolt of lightning would destroy McGuffey Hall.
“This was a tradition that started when people weren’t supposed to touch each other in public,” Hollow said. “If you wanted to kiss each other, you had to go to The Ridges, so it was kind of scandalous that you could just go up to somebody you might not even know and kiss them on the kissing circle.”
Others thought kissing on the lucky spot would ensure their mates’ love for a lifetime. That was the case for OU alumni Ray and Sandy Asik.
“We kissed more than a few times on the kissing circle,” said Ray Asik, class of ’63. “I guess it worked for us.”
On a springy Friday night in 1962, Asik left his fraternity, Pi Kappa Alpha, to surprise his girlfriend of nine months with a special message on the circle.
Each week, the circle was a hot spot for greek life exposure and advertising, as the Richland Avenue graffiti wall is today. Fraternities and sororities often smothered it with their colors and coats of arms, but Ray had something a bit more romantic in mind.
“To Sandy, love Ray,” he wrote for the entire campus to see. The next morning, he donned his finest blazer and tie to meet his darling at Baker University Center for their morning coffee and sweet roll. He then led her to the circle to reveal his gift. His act of chivalry, he said, left her in tears.
“Everyone said I was crazy, but I did it anyway.”
Seven years later, the couple married.
“Life was simpler back then,” Asik said. “It was more of a courting scene than the dating scene that it is now.”
The next decade, however, brought with it the demise of the kissing circle. Margaret Deppen, OU’s former director of student activities, threatened to outlaw the students’ freedom to paint the circle after a group covered the rest of the green’s bricks in arrows and footprints.
Today, a plaque near the Soldiers and Sailors monument commemorates OU’s most romantic tradition.
Sandy Asik, who graduated in ’65 and became a kindergarten teacher, died in 2005. Ray has since set up a scholarship in her name.