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JFK Hoax Dupes Elis

Fifty years ago, The Harvard Crimson pulled off a prank that went all the way to the White House

By Keith H. Bender, Contributing Writer

College football fans will always remember the legendary 1961 Washington-Minnesota Rose Bowl prank orchestrated by Caltech students, in which thousands of Huskies faithful were tricked into holding up flipcards that read “Caltech” on national television. In 2007, Sports Illustrated ranked the stunt as the greatest prank in college football history.

But another shenanigan of 1961 also lives on, at least in Harvard-Yale lore.

At the time, The Harvard Crimson and The Yale Daily News occasionally published parodies of each other. Crimson editor Bruce L. Paisner ’64 pitched an idea to president Robert Ellis Smith ’62 months before The Game to craft a fake Yale Daily News special Saturday edition and distribute it in New Haven on the morning of Harvard-Yale.

The front-page story of the issue proclaimed that President John F. Kennedy ’40 had made the last-minute decision to attend the contest: “Kennedy to Attend Game Today, Arrives at Airport this Morning.”

“It seemed natural to have a lead story that Kennedy would be there,” Smith said 50 years after the famous stunt. “This was the first academic year that Kennedy was President, and there was a lot of excitement about it and a little speculation that he would be there.”

The story inundated readers with faux details of the President’s visit, but none so fantastic as to cause anyone to doubt the article’s veracity. Kennedy and his wife reportedly had seats on the 50-yard line and would be surrounded by Harvard administrators.

Yale officials would join the President as well—and that meant, of course, that they would have to sit on the Harvard side.

“Secret service [sic] men in plain clothes will be placed in section 30 of the bowl,” the story said. “Section 30 may be roped off if crowds gather.”

But it was indeed a crowd that The Crimson pranksters hoped to generate. In an editorial on page two of the prank issue, YDN “editors” praised Kennedy’s decision to leave the White House for some weekend “fun and merriment” and exhorted all Yale men to greet the President upon his arrival at the New Haven airport.

Immediately below the editorial, the parody printed a mock statement Kennedy prepared for the players and spectators, evoking one of his now-famous quotes in feigned eloquence: “Therefore, to the players on the field I say, think not about what you can do for your Alma Mater, rather think about what the other team can do to you. … And to the spectators in the stands I say, cheer not from fear but do not fear to cheer, for your vigor makes victory possible.”

Crimson editors meticulously compiled a full eight-page edition that looked and read like the real Daily News, though some features were clearly phonier than others.

A full-page photo spread documenting “Great Moments in H-Y Sports,” for instance, included pictures of dodgeball and motorcycle racing amid iconic images of football, crew, and baseball. On another page, a notice declared: “To insure [sic] adequate attendance at the game, theaters will be closed.”

Despite jabs and jokes tucked away in the YDN parody that may have led some to question the authenticity of the Kennedy story, Paisner coordinated a game-time stunt that sent the Yale Bowl into a frenzy. He convinced Smith to don a Kennedy mask and suit and enlisted the Harvard band to play “Hail to the Chief” right before game time.

“I was reluctant to do it at first,” Smith said. “I’m not that type of guy, but [Paisner] really pushed it on me, and I decided to do it.”

After the initial reservations, Smith joined the effort wholeheartedly and convinced one of his friends to wear his ROTC uniform at the game.

“He probably violated all sorts of rules by adding what was then called ‘scrambled eggs’ to his hat and his uniform,” Smith said. “That gave him a very high rank so he could pose as a military advisor.”

Before the game, a Harvard band member used the stadium’s public address system to announce Kennedy’s arrival.  As the band broke into “Hail to the Chief,” the faux military advisor and three impersonated secret servicemen flanked Smith as he marched out onto the field to applause and a standing ovation from the crowd.

Smith embraced his role and gave his best impression of the President.

“He had a distinguished way of sticking his hands in his overcoat pocket with the thumb sticking out that everyone knew as Kennedy, so that’s what I emulated while I waved to the crowd,” Smith recalled.

After a few minutes on the field, Smith tore off his mask and ran up to the press box, where he was covering the game as the alumni magazine sports correspondent. He remembers how peeved the other media members were, even as the debate raged on as to whether the spectacle was indeed Kennedy or not.

“The sports reporters were very unhappy about either being taken in or not being informed in advance by the White House,” Smith said. “I was concerned that I would be identified because I had the same coat on, but I had taken off the mask, so I wasn’t.”

Underdog Harvard went on to win The Game, 27-0, prompting The Crimson’s spirited lede in Monday’s regular edition: “The so-called experts can call Harvard’s 27-0 victory over Yale today [sic] anything they damn well please.”

Beneath the game recap, The Crimson ran a story divulging the hoax and details of the Saturday morning distribution. Editors had evaded Yale security throughout the morning, though one Crimson editor was apprehended but released after convincing the officers that it was a true Daily News edition he was distributing.

“I was really surprised to hear it was the 50th anniversary [of the prank],” Smith said last week. “I was very pleased to learn that, as I had been planning on going to The Game, and I had not known.”

The real President Kennedy would visit New Haven in June 1962 to receive an honorary degree and to deliver the commencement address to the senior class who had been fooled into thinking that he had sat in the stands at The Game.

The White House has yet to inform either The Crimson or the Daily News if President Obama will be in the stands tomorrow.

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