The Cow on the Rotunda

Story from the Cavalier Daily November 21, 1997

When designing the University, Thomas Jefferson never thought of putting cows on top of the Rotunda. But the most infamous prank in University history did just that, when a group of five students placed a 250-pound black calf 50 feet in the air on top of the Rotunda during the spring of 1965. The animal died shortly after it was removed from the roof because of shock, dehydration and a sedative overdose. The bizarre bovine case remained unsolved for 31 years until Alfred R. Berkeley III, president of the Nasdaq stock market, confessed to being one of the culprits in June, 1997.

On Monday, November 17, 1997, Berkeley donated $1,765, at the request of former Albemarle County Sheriff George Bailey, to the Western Albemarle Rescue Squad -- the same amount of money investigators spent trying to solve the case 32 years ago. Bailey, who headed up the investigation, learned of Berkeley's confession this summer from an article in the University's alumni magazine. Bailey said he tallied up the investigation's expenses and sent an itemized bill to Berkeley, who was more than willing to pay. Bailey, who had the opportunity to decide where to direct the funds, said choosing a donation for Berkeley's money was an easy one. "I'm very proud of the Western Albemarle Rescue Squad," he said. "It was the natural thing for me to do." University History Officer Raymond C. Bice said while the prank was the most well-known in University history, it was not the first time a cow was placed on the Rotunda's roof. The stunt also was pulled about 100 years ago, Bice said. "Back in the earlier days it was pretty easy" to put a cow on the roof, he said. "Cows wandered around where Alderman Library is." But in 1965 cows were not regular on-Grounds denizens, making the events surrounding the prank all the more mysterious. Bice said a large search for the culprit ensued. "They made an exhaustive search. Nobody had any calves missing," he said. Bailey said he visited every farm in Albemarle County "to see if I could find out where the calf came from." He said he asked the farmers if they sold a calf to University students or if any cows had been stolen. "I personally went to the farm where the calf came from," he added.

But the calf was not stolen or bought, it was given to a University student by the father of one of the pranksters, Bailey later discovered. "If I had asked the question I don't know if he would have told me," Bailey said. So the culprits remained at large, and Bice said when he came to the Lawn, a crowd had gathered to admire the calf. "There was a biology student who proposed they tie helium balloons to it," he said. While many students viewed the situation as a prank, many people were upset the calf died, he added. Bice said the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was very aggravated by the prank and that a teacher in Topeka, Kan., wrote that her students had cried for three days because of the calf's death. "It's just too bad it wasn't an old car and that an animal died," Bice said. Dr. Charles E. Hamner, then-director of Vivarium at the Medical School, attended to the calf. "It was standing on the ledge," Hamner said. "We tranquilized the calf and carried it down from the Rotunda." He said when he arrived at the scene about 300 students were looking up at the Rotunda. The biggest concern was that the calf would fall off the ledge and land on the spectators below, he added. "The circumstances were bizarre," Hamner said. "Calves were pretty routine patients, but we never saw them in such a precarious position." He said the calf died from a combination of shock and dehydration. "I said to myself, 'What will the college students think of next?'" he added. Wade Bromwell, then-director of Security at the University, said the prank caused much concern. "Everybody was concerned about that calf up there," Bromwell said. "We knew it went up the stairs, but it wouldn't go down." He said he did not think the pranksters meant for the calf to die. "I think it's good we found out what happened. I was surprised to learn someone had owned up to it," he added. Berkeley could not be reached for comment.