Summer Myth-Busters Tackle UC Berkeley Tall Tales


By Gretchen Kell, UC Berkeley News


Is a dog named Igor buried on campus? Does the Bancroft Library contain a book bound in human skin? In the Faculty Club, does a ghost haunt an upper room? 

Eleven budding reporters from grades 6-12 attending the Academic Talent Development Program (ATDP) through the Graduate School of Education this summer are learning to separate fact from fiction by investigating myths and contemporary legends about UC Berkeley and writing deadline stories about their findings.


Their instructor, Elizabeth Scherman, a former Tacoma News Tribune reporter and a professor at Bates Technical College in Washington, says she’s teaching “critical thinking and how to analyze the credibility of sources. In this digital age, young people are getting a lot of inaccurate information from social media.”


When looking for facts, the teens instinctively go online, says Scherman. But she’s also urging them to question a source’s validity, to seek out a primary source — preferably someone with firsthand knowledge — and to do their own on-site investigations.


“I like how we take trips and interview people like a reporter would do,” said Adya Gupta, 13. “It’s a privilege to be (at Berkeley) and learning so much … and I love mysteries.”


As for the mystery of the flesh-bound book, L’office de l’Eglise en François, a French religious text in the Bancroft Library that dates from the 1790s, the students got help from Nancy Oanh Tran, a campus library circulation supervisor. The headline for a 2006 National Geographic article the students found about the text reads “Book Bound in Human Skin.”


The practice, called anthropodermic bibliopegy, dates back to at least the 17th century.


But Tran had updated information. In a 2016 Daily Cal interview, Bancroft Library curator David Faulds said a scientific process called peptide mass fingerprinting analysis, done in 2015 on small fragments of the book’s cover by a scientist affiliated with Harvard University concluded that the cover was really made of horse and goat skin.


Gryffen Mendelssohn, who is entering 7th grade, says he was “kind of disappointed” that the tale wasn’t true. But he adds that tall tales might come in handy. “I’d tell them to people younger than me,” he says, “to creep them out.”


The teens also verified that there are bones — but not human ones — in the Campanile, and a few of them investigated the statue of Pappy Waldorf, Cal football coach from 1947-1956, which stands near Faculty Glade. The story goes that it was positioned so Pappy could look directly at a nearby statue of a naked wood nymph. In the early 2000s, the Rally Committee even began blindfolding Pappy during home games so he wouldn’t lose his focus on winning, says Berkeley alumna Maya Goehring-Harris, assistant director of external relations in University Development and Alumni Relations.


Scherman says her students lined up behind Pappy’s head and “gazed to where he appears to be gazing. Intentional or not, it was toward the dryad. They found it amusing.”


Community historian Steve Finacom, who helped site the statue when it was donated, says Pappy was intentionally placed facing the dryad so “people viewing or approaching Pappy from Faculty Glade would see him from the front, not the ample posterior” of the kneeling, larger-than-life statue.


“The neat thing about Berkeley is that, sometimes, fiction becomes fact. When we tell stories enough, they become our own truth,” says Goehring-Harris, who also is a former chair of the Rally Committee. “And new stories are always being created.”


Myths and legends “are harmless and fun,” adds Anuka Mohanpuhr, 14. “They’re a good way to learn more about the history of the university.”


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