Though Muhlenberg has its fair share of intense athletic rivalries, we always strive to act respectfully. This, however, was not always the case. Throughout the 1940s and 50s, Muhlenberg saw major conflicts with Lehigh, Lebanon Valley, and Lafayette. Originating even before World War II, a series of ‘non-aggression pacts’ were signed between ‘Berg men and their rivals.
Though it is not known exactly how far back these pacts went, an incident at the Nov. 8, 1940 bonfire exacerbated the ill will between ‘Berg and Lehigh. On Nov. 8, 1940, the ‘Berg boys were anxiously awaiting the annual bonfire before a hopeful victory over Lehigh’s football team. As the band team was practicing and freshmen men were piling up the wood for that night’s bonfire, “a white or light gray Plymouth Sedan” drove onto the field and parked right next to the pile. A man identified as a Lehigh student got out of the car and threw a lit match at the straw base of the pile. The pile quickly started to burn, and as the car drove away, the Muhlenberg men quickly came to rescue the pile of wood; if their fire burned that early, they would have nothing to gather around that night at the pep rally. The men started salvaging the wood before realizing they needed to tame what was already ablaze. Running inside to get a hose, the band members rushed out ready to fight the fire; unfortunately, the old hose was leaking and too short to reach the pile. So, the students rounded up buckets and began to fill them up one by one and slowly but effectively doused the flame. With the fire under control, the band went back indoors to finish practicing and had the freshmen tidy up the pile. It wasn’t until 10 p.m. that a few band members heard crackling wood and saw their pile had been set on fire yet again. Luckily, all of their fire fighting equipment was readily available and the second fire was quickly doused. Due not only to their superior skill but now also a thirst for revenge, the football team defeated Lehigh 20-6, the first win that began a five year winning streak.
This brazen act of sabotage led to a revisiting of the famed pact between the two sides, and on-and-off in the late 1940s, agreements were negotiated, signed, and revisited multiple times. The textbook example of one of these negotiations took place on Oct. 16, 1947. Meeting at neutral ground, Dean Kendig as well as a group of Muhlenberg student representatives met with Dean Congdon of Lehigh as well as their student group. Over dinner, the two sides negotiated not only a peace but also a strict outline of rules and penalties. The biggest problem the two faced was an endless one-upmanship of vandalism. Agreeing this needed to end, they agreed that “the penalty for perpetrating violent damage on either campus would be the full reparation for the damages done, and the loss of cuts for the semester. Further measures would be two weeks suspension, or dismissal from the school in extreme cases.” Both sides finalized the pact, and as an act of peace, the Lehigh men invited any Muhlenberg student to join them at their “Charity Ball” after their next big game. This pact would become the gold standard in its effectiveness. The headline that followed only two weeks after the meeting saw Muhlenberg and Lehigh holding a bonfire together; which was especially meaningful because it was a bonfire that brought these peace talks back to the public eye.
With most of the 1940s seeing Muhlenberg-Lehigh peace, Muhlenberg students thought the hijinx had come to an end. However, Lehigh wasn’t the only “L” named college that Muhlenberg had to worry about. At 3 a.m. in the morning on Oct. 5, 1950, the Muhlenberg campus was given a “make-over” by Lebanon Valley College students. The attack of the “Flying Dutchmen” left campus with “whitewashed doors, labeled building, motto-covered paths, toilet-tissue bedecked trees, an unorthodoxically trimmed President’s home and an even newer and brighter colored interior for the recently renovated East Hall dormitory.” General Pete was also given a new look, this time painted white. After their rampage, “the ‘Dutchmen’ bade farewell to the Muhlenberg campus by setting off the fire alarm system in the West Hall dormitory at 3:40 a.m.” When President Tyson learned of his home’s new paint job, his only comment was “no retaliation.” Following the style of the agreements between Muhlenberg and Lehigh a few years prior, Lebanon Valley representatives visited Muhlenberg and not only vowed peace, but pledged the accused students would pay for repairs.
Again, Muhlenberg had brokered peace between an “L” named enemy; however, almost exactly a year later, they would have to do so again. On Oct. 8, 1951, General Pete, as well as some campus buildings, were again painted white—this time by Lafayette. When Lafayette Dean of Students Frank Hunt heard of the vandalism, he stated that this was in retaliation to what Muhlenberg had done earlier that day. However, the punishment doesn’t seem to fit the crime. Intimidating their football rivals, Muhlenberg students went to Lafayette campus and announced their presence through a “fanfare of trumpets.”
After being “not too gently ejected” from campus, the Muhlenberg men returned home. All told, Muhlenberg’s Superintendent of Buildings and Grounds appraised the damage at $50, with some students disagreeing stating that the removal of the oil paint had “caused some streaking” on General Pete’s finish. It wasn’t until Oct. 1, 1953, that a Student Council report stated Muhlenberg was in peace negotiations with Lafayette. Seven days later, and exactly 2 years after the initial crime, The Weekly reported that “reviving the tradition of cooperation and good-will between two ardent rivals, representatives from Muhlenberg and Lafayette met Tuesday evening at Muhlenberg to draw up a peace pact. The pact agreed to was designed to better promote and control inter-collegiate conduct during football season
Almost as quickly as the bonfire caught flame back in 1940, Muhlenberg’s major rivalries ended with the signing of a pen. Though there are many cases of small time pranks sprinkled throughout Muhlenberg’s intercollegiate history, there were no more major vandalism, arsons, or new paint jobs to Muhlenberg’s campus resulting from football rivalries—perhaps because by the late 1950s, Muhlenberg stopped playing against ‘the three Ls’. In just over ten years, Muhlenberg had gained three major enemies, but then turned the rivalries into close friendships. Considering that Muhlenberg’s dreadful history with “L” named colleges ended so long ago, you can’t help but wonder when—or even if—the next intercollegiate prank war will commence.