Pumpkin prank perpetrator puzzle persists 20 years later

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Lindsey Hadlock

On a bright day in October 1997, the impaled pumpkin sits atop McGraw Tower.

On the brisk autumn morning of Wednesday, Oct. 8, 1997, Cornell students, faculty and staff strolling by McGraw Tower noted an unusual sight: a large pumpkin impaled on the spire 173 feet up.

For 158 days, the pumpkin sat atop McGraw Tower through fall, a harsh winter and into the spring. Cornellians asked two questions: Whodunit? Is it real?

Nobody knew.

Much like swim tests, Dragon Day or celebrating Theodore Zinck, the pumpkin mystery is woven into the fabric of Cornell history.

News of the prank found its way into enduring fame thanks to coverage in The New York Times in late October. The Cornell Daily Sun ran a daily “Pumpkin Watch” feature through Halloween, and the Sun’s editor-in-chief, Hilary Krieger ’98, was interviewed on campus by Matt Lauer live on the “Today” show. The Associated Press ran a story and photo of the pumpkin that appeared in hundreds of newspapers. The Cornell News Service – the predecessor of the Media Relations Office – fielded radio interviews from across the United States. CNN and MTV carried reports.

The Cornell pumpkin — ravaged by winter — sits in a display case in April 1998 in the Memorial Room, as a crowd listens to the Kingsbury Commission’s finding: “It is a pumpkin.”

The campus went playfully out of its gourd. The Cornell Chorus and the Cornell Glee Club created pumpkin lyrics for the alma mater. A webcam provided 24-hour live images – a novelty at the time – from Olin Library.

In January 1998, the university built scaffolding around McGraw Tower to repoint century-old mortar. The somewhat decayed pumpkin held fast.

Early in the spring semester, Provost Don M. Randel sponsored a contest for students to determine if the pumpkin was real.

Physics majors Jon Branscomb ’98, Eldar Noe ’98, Fred Ciesla ’98 and Samuel J. Laroque ’98 used a remote-controlled balloon and Rube Goldberg ingenuity to snare pumpkin samples. In preparing a 30-page report, they found the cored gourd offered ventilation, allowing the pumpkin to dry naturally. It had become “a leathery husk, that could cling to the spire for decades,” the report said. The group won top prize of $250, and each team member was given a signed lithograph of Charles Schulz’s “The Great Pumpkin” cartoon and a Cornell pumpkin T-shirt.

Media hoopla did not wane. A feature report about the pumpkin aired on ABC News’ “World News Tonight” in March, complete with the Chorus and Glee Club singing: “Far above Cayuga’s waters, with its waves of blue, stands our noble orange pumpkin, glorious to view.” The network’s audience could follow the lyrics along the bottom of television screen with a bouncing pumpkin.

On March 13, 1998 – a Friday – Randel was scheduled to ascend McGraw Tower in a crane-hoisted gondola to retrieve the pumpkin.

Cornell students, faculty and staff gathered in Ho Plaza for the removal. Staff made cakes shaped like pumpkins and the tower; Cornell dairy served pumpkin ice cream; and many wore celebratory pumpkin T-shirts.

Hilary Dorsch Wong, of the Cornell University Library Rare and Manuscript Collections, holds the Kingsbury Commission certificate proving that the pumpkin was actually a pumpkin.

But sometimes pumpkin parties go awry. While testing the crane, a gust of wind blew the gondola into the pumpkin, knocking it onto the scaffold planks, intact and unbroken – frozen by the previous night’s cold.

After the pumpkin was retrieved from the scaffold, Randel appointed a commission, led by plant biologist John Kingsbury, to examine it.

Two decades later, the pumpkin perpetrators have not been uncloaked. But the question of whether the gourd was real was resolved in April 1998. With suitable fanfare at Willard Straight Hall’s Memorial Room, the Kingsbury commission confirmed the object in a four-word executive summary: “It is a pumpkin.”


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Blaine Friedlander