Since Norman's inception more than 120 years ago as a college town, it has gathered a shadowy history and more than a few residents who refuse to leave. Ghostly organ music and sinister whispers fill school buildings in the night. Patients walk the surgical suites of the old infirmary, which was once a quarantine ward for polio victims. Long-deceased sisters still occupy their sororities--one even requiring an exorcism--and dorms are notorious for poltergeists and unexplainable sounds. Professor Jeff Provine sheds light on some of the darker corners of this historic campus and the secrets that reside there.
About the Author
Jeff Provine is a college professor with an MA from the University of Oklahoma and, in 2009, he began the OU Ghost Tour. He writes webcomics, blogs and campaigns for the integration of internet media in the classroom, and has developed courses on the history of comic books and the life of Charlie Chaplin.
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Every school has its legends, and Norman's University of Oklahoma is no exception. There are tales of rats the size of dogs in the utility tunnels that connect all of the buildings with pipes and cables. Other whispers point to forbidden experiments or believe that the ghost of Jimi Hendrix appears on the back of a statue.
Yet, strangely, many of these stories are rooted in truth. Jimi Hendrix did perform in Norman for one of his last concerts before flying in 1970 to London, where he was discovered dead from barbiturate overdose. There is the shadow of a face on the back of the William Bizzell statue whispered to be the face of his spirit, but actually the stain is from stenciled spray paint rather than ectoplasm. A student graffitied "Free Leonard" there with a silhouette of Leonard Peltier, a Native American believed to be wrongly imprisoned for murder after the shootout on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1975.
Another famous campus legend is the curse of the library clock tower, noting that students who walk underneath it will not graduate in four years. According to a running informal poll of graduates who visit campus, the curse holds a 92 percent accuracy rate. One can argue about the socioeconomic changes of the college environment requiring more time due to students working while in school or participating in internships and study abroad on a wider scale, or the psychology of people who walk under clock towers, but the "curse" explanation is by far the most popular.
Other legends are also partially true, such as the statute of a rearing horse near the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art. Affectionately known to students as the "demon horse," the blue and white fiberglass statue with huge glowing red eyes is intimidating. Students whisper to one another that it killed its own creator. Its actual title is Mesteño ("Mustang") by artist Luis Jimenez, and it served as the model for the three-story Blue Mustang that stands outside the Denver airport. On June 13, 2006, during Blue Mustang's construction, a piece broke loose in Jimenez's studio, pinning him and severing an artery. Jimenez did not survive the accident, but his statue was later completed by his family and installed. Some Denverites believe it to be cursed, just as Normanites are wary of their own Mesteño.
The Spoon Holder — a round, gray concrete bench handcrafted as a gift from the class of 1910 — sits as a landmark in the middle of the North Oval. It was constructed from handfuls of concrete by seniors over the course of a single night to surprise the school the next morning. According to campus legend, couples who kiss (or "spoon," as the term in 1910 meant) in the Spoon Holder are destined to be married. While one of the more heartwarming campus legends, it has been debunked on a number of occasions. Perhaps the myth is perpetuated as an excuse for free kisses.
With the spectrum of gray that exists between fact and fiction, it is difficult to sort out the truth about the many stories surrounding the university. Skepticism is key to a good ghost story, demonstrating what may be proven and causing one to shrug unknowingly at those things that are unexplainable. There are, in fact, things that go bump in the night without justification beyond the paranormal, and the campus in Norman has a healthy share.
The first major building constructed on campus in Norman was called University Hall, completed in 1893 just after the University of Oklahoma came into being. Before then, classes had taken place around Norman, including what was known as the Rock Building on Main Street. Aside from the one multistory brick building, the campus consisted of a few temporary wood-frame buildings and a larger gymnasium. University Hall became the prize of the south end of Norman, showing what could be done with hard work and optimism. As the college grew, so did the aspirations for the future, and a second building began going up in 1902. As the new "University Hall" neared completion in early 1903, the school renamed its old building "Science Hall" and transferred all of its important collections there: laboratory equipment, administrative documents and more than ten thousand specimens that had been collected in the school's herbarium by the young professor of chemistry and biology Edwin DeBarr and head of botany Dr. Albert Heald Van Vleet, the first faculty member at OU to hold a doctorate. The days ahead seemed bright for the young university.
Then, on January 6, 1903, tragedy struck the campus. A night watchman noticed light flickering in what was now known as Science Hall, a little northwest of where the new University Hall was still under construction. The Norman Fire Department was summoned, even though campus was at that time outside city limits. Fire hydrants did not exist anywhere near the hall, and frantic bystanders began organizing a bucket brigade. Suddenly, the slowly burning building began to explode into flames in front of them. The wooden floors had recently been oiled, causing the fire to spread faster than anyone could think of stopping it.
The matter then became saving as much of the school's materials as possible. Students found a ladder and climbed into the window of President Boyd's office. There, they grabbed every paper they could find and threw them out to people below, who collected them, saving items such as grade records, financial sheets and even personal letters. Other students ventured down into the basement, snatching up valuable chemicals and instruments from the laboratory there and carrying them to safety. Still others broke into every lecture room not on fire and saved maps, books, animal hides, anything that could be easily carried. President Boyd himself charged into the burning building, but he collapsed due to smoke inhalation and suffered "sore lungs" for weeks.
After only a few hours, the entire building was destroyed. The university's library of more than twelve thousand volumes was gone, except for what had been checked out to students. Along with the books went the herbarium, the geological collection and prepared lectures — an entire decade's worth of collegiate research and growth. Losses were calculated at $84,000; insurance would only pay $35,000 for the building. Boyd and the regents immediately put the money toward beginning a new Science Hall, which stands at the southwest corner of the North Oval today.
Hope for the time was put into the new University Hall, which contractors eagerly swore to complete within the month before classes started February 2. It was actually completed on March 16, but students and faculty made do with what they had. While the building was designed in the Federal style, with huge columns and an enormous dome, money concerns caused them to cancel plans of building a west wing, giving the building a lopsided, almost amputated, look. The city of Norman stepped up to aid the devastated university. Every church and club hall in town volunteered space for classes, storage and office use.
Meanwhile, other communities in the state began offering a different form of aid by suggesting that Norman give up the university to them. Town leaders came to Norman and offered to take the burden of a nearly ruined university off their hands. Kingfisher, northwest of Oklahoma City, even wrote up a check for $10,000 to reimburse the City of Norman for investments in the university. Norman refused, and it remains a college town to this day.
The new University Hall was soon joined in 1904 by a new Science Building and a Carnegie Library building, paid for by the charity of the Scottish steel magnate. The university expanded rapidly with a new music department, fraternal organizations and growth of its football program under a young Benjamin "Bennie" Owens. By 1907, as the university shut down for winter break, the future seemed bright once more.
Then, on December 20, fiery tragedy struck again. Only a few students were still in town, the rest having already caught the train for home. Buildings had been closed, and University Hall was undergoing renovations, with a new coat of paint on the white dome. As it was a cold day, the painters set up a gasoline stove inside the wooden dome to warm the linseed oil to be used as sealant for the paint. In the middle of the afternoon, something caused the stove to burst. Flames surged up the dome, giving off a huge plume of smoke.
Students who had been waiting to leave rushed back to campus alongside curious Normanites. While they attempted to find hoses long enough and in good enough repair to put out the fire, the dome burned and then buckled. It fell through the roof, through two floors of the building and down to the basement. Oil-fed flames surged through the wood-floored hallways. For the second time, University Hall was pushed past the brink of destruction.
Also for the second time, students literally leaped into the flames to save their school. Pianos were dragged out of the new Fine Arts department rooms and rolled onto the grassy lawn. Furniture in rooms outfitted by donations from the local YMCA were tossed out the windows and saved. Whatever students could find, they dragged out of the building before the flames became so hot that walls began to collapse. Two students were injured: one by a chair thrown from a window and another by broken glass — both caused by the earnestness of saving what could be saved out of the doomed building.
Even as the flames were still dying, President Boyd began plans to reopen the school on January 6. Classes would be held in the Science Hall and library. Money from the insurance would be invested in a new University Hall, later known as Evans Hall after the university's second president. This third administration building was built out of fireproof brick and stands resilient to this day.
Although the building is in no danger of burning as its predecessors did, rumors on campus talk of a ghost still panicked about getting out. The entrance to the north in the alley behind the Bizzell Memorial Library consists of two pairs of heavy wooden, glass and brass doors. One is set inside the other, creating a small foyer that keeps out gusts of cold air. According to students who say they've heard it, the inner doors sometimes rattle intensely and even open themselves. It is as if something is trying to break out. "It's just the wind" is the clichéd response to explain the ghostly noise, even though the doors are protected from gusts by the buildings around them.
The rumors go on to say that in the burning of the old University Halls, several students perished, and these are their spirits still attempting to escape the flaming wreckage. Stories paint pictures of panicked students finding the doors locked and throwing themselves against the wooden barriers before succumbing to flame and smoke. Even with the building gone, they still find themselves trapped in a cycle of existence, never able to escape torment as the burning building consumed them.
In both historical fires, no one was injured beyond cuts, bruises and President Boyd's sore lungs. Instead of a conscious or semiconscious spirit reliving the final nightmare of its life, parapsychologists offer the suggestion of a psychological imprint. The fervent energy is not a panicked escape but rather the memory of collegiate heroism played out. Rather than student spirits attempting to break out, the doors may rattle as the shades of alumni long past attempt to break in to protect their school from any danger.
A GHOSTLY ORGANIST
Reynolds Performing Arts Center
While most of the buildings on the University of Oklahoma's North Oval sit flush with the street, something resembling a cathedral sits back from the sidewalk, as if gracefully reclined. During his visit, famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright dubbed the building "Cherokee Gothic," a style applied to all buildings newly built on campus. It features dark and pale bricks with a decorative Gothic façade, completed by light-gray stone buttresses and statues. Four huge, heavy wooden doors lead into the spacious lobby, with symmetrical stairs leading to the balcony. A wide mural shows some of the famous faces of OU, from presidents to musicians to actors. Among them is a haunting, half-turned figure of an organist expertly plying her craft. Just as in her portrait, Professor Mildred Andrews Boggess still contributes to the university despite her death.
The Fine Arts program began with a call from the first president, David Ross Boyd, to a Swedish immigrant violin teacher living in Kansas, Fredrik Holmberg. He had come to the United States as a teenager and worked his way through Bethany College by manual farm labor. He upheld a dedication to music almost to the level of religion, believing it to be one of the most powerful forces to bring community to what would otherwise be an impassionate group of humans.
Holmberg answered Boyd's call and arrived in Norman by train in 1903. In the midst of a dust storm, he spotted a cluster of buildings that looked like a college campus. After hiking more than a mile to the territorial mental hospital, Holmberg realized his mistake. He crossed town on foot again, finally coming upon the fledgling University of Oklahoma's one building, with only one wing completed. Nearly five miles on foot in a barren, dusty landscape to a university without even a whole building prompted Holmberg to prepare his resignation.
Instead, he was greeted by Boyd, so ecstatic to see him that Holmberg didn't have the opportunity to resign before the president had inspired him with his plans for the university. Holmberg later wrote that Boyd "had a way of giving one an optimistic outlook" as he eagerly pointed out spots for new buildings and ideas for the School of Fine Arts. Holmberg was persuaded to stay and applied his own dedication to the campus, organizing glee clubs for men and women, a band, an orchestra and an oratorio chorus, all within his first six weeks. By 1909, he was made dean of Fine Arts, which would in 1924 become its own college within the university.
The performers needed a place of their own, and as World War I came to a close, construction was completed on a hall fitted with a theater with seating for hundreds. Originally dubbed "the Auditorium," students wanted to show their appreciation to Holmberg and began a petition to name the building in his honor. Holmberg balked and refused the idea that a building should be named for a living person. He passed away in 1936, never retiring and still at work as dean, and in 1938, the state regents voted to rename the Auditorium "Holmberg Hall."
That same year, Fine Arts hired a twenty-three-year-old organist who would make her own mark on the school. Professor Mildred Andrews Boggess had studied as an undergraduate in Oklahoma but went on to Michigan for her postgraduate work studying music, specifically the organ. She was a talented organist who could have gained great fame and fortune as a professional performer, but Boggess dedicated her life to building up graduate-level organ studies at the university. Despite her slim stature, she held a potent Type A personality that some might whisper as "tyrannical," although never in her presence.
Boggess was relentless in her determination. During her thirty-eight- year tenure, she established an unbeatable record for mentoring the highest number of national-level organ players and champions. Even after her entry into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame and retirement, she continued to perform for the university. In her will, she set aside a good deal of her estate to begin the fund for the cathedral organ she felt the university lacked. Fundraising fulfilled her dream, and the organ now stands in Catlett Hall in her honor. Boggess passed away in 1987, but in many ways, she never left the campus.
In 2002, renovations began on Holmberg Hall. A grant had been gifted for the joining of the old auditorium with newer theaters to form the sprawling Reynolds Performing Arts Center. Parapsychologists note that renovations and construction activity "stir up" paranormal activity, and it seemed that Holmberg was no exception. During the reconstruction, one of the old organs was moved out of its place, and strange things began to happen.
Tools went missing despite security around the worksite. Demolition was delayed by unexplained electrical problems. Odd noises rang through the halls. Workers began quitting the site, dubbing it "haunted" or even "cursed." Despite the disruptions, work was finally finished in 2005. To this day, strange activity continues, and overlapping stories have caused the student body to suggest that Professor Boggess is still around.
During practices and even performances, students are often interrupted by the jarring sound of a slammed door. Most of the cases are written off as someone failing to catch the door as they sneaked out to take a call or stretch their legs. However, the slamming sound happens even as students practice on their own time, alone in the auditorium. The interruption causes them to break focus and have to start over, much as if someone were attempting to show them where they have gone wrong and pressing them to work harder for perfection.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Campus Ghosts of Norman, Oklahoma"
Copyright © 2013 Jeff Provine.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part I Hallowed Halls 15
A Ghostly Organist 22
Scientists and a Firebug 27
Morgues and Roller Skates 32
The Most Famous Ghost on Campus 41
The Never-Ending Affair 47
High Heels 53
Shadows in the Windows 55
Unquiet Spirits 58
Basketball, the Radio and Peeping 68
Part II Greek Afterlife 73
The Exorcism 74
Fallen Sister 80
The Back Stairs 84
From Myth to Truth 86
A Peculiar Past 88
Part III Haunts of Campus Corner and Beyond 97
Polite Ghosts 99
A Haunted Bakery 104
Casa Blanca 108
The Pioneer Woman 119
Selected Bibliography 125
About the Author 128
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