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Steinberg: Madison honors prankster

Madison residents saw "Miss Liberty" appear to be poking through the ice of Lake Mendota in mid-February 1979. The stunt, which garnered national attention, was the handiwork of the Pail & Shovel Party headed by Leon Varjian and Jim Mallon. | Courtesy of the Wisconsin State Journal

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I’ve only been to a couple of Chicago City Council meetings in my journalistic career. I distinctly remember just one, a debate over whether elephants should be barred within city limits.

Which gives you an idea of why I seldom go.

There were also endless motions to honor various individuals, police officers and Boy Scout leaders and such. Official resolutions are not generally news. Which is why it’s so extraordinary that the moment I heard the Madison Common Council is honoring Leon Varjian, I had to tell you.

Not for the honor, per se — Wednesday, Feb. 23, is Leon Varjian Day in Madison — but because I suspect you don’t know who Varjian is, and I do. I’d like to dust off a chair in the back of your mind and invite him in.

With a warning: Once he’s there, comfortable, Leon Varjian has a tendency to never leave.

He was from New Jersey, with all the brashness and bravado associated with that state. In the 1970s he studied mathematics at Montclair State before earning a master’s at Indiana University. Varjian tried to join the working world like everybody else, taking a job at the Bureau of Labor Statistics in Washington, D.C. He lasted 18 months.

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“It was awful,” he later recalled. “I couldn’t stand it. You get up every morning, get on a bus and go to work with a bunch of pasty-faced commuters, sit behind a desk all day, doing nothing and come home at night. I just couldn’t stand it.”

Most live our lives that way. But Varjian was one to push back at the dull routines. He quit, fleeing to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Enrolling in just one class, he occupied himself cooking up a variety of stunts, such as asking students to sign a petition to change the name of UW-Madison to “University of New Jersey,” so “students could go to a fancy East Coast school without moving.”

If I ever write a movie, it will be about Varjian, and begin with him, at a booth in the school quad, long-haired, droopy mustached, collecting signatures.

In the spring of 1978, Varjian formed the Pail and Shovel Party and campaigned for vice president (“that’s where the power is”) for the Student Government Association. He and his running mate, Jim Mallon, dressed as clowns. They promised, if elected, to change the name of Madison to “Cheesetopia.” They promised to bring the Statue of Liberty to Madison.

“Honesty, integrity, responsibility,” a campaign flier began. “Pail and Shovel doesn’t believe in any of them.”

They won.

Unlike most politicians, Varjian actually tried to follow through on his promises.

That February, he brought the Statue of Liberty to frozen Lake Mendota, jutting out of the ice, from the wrist and the bridge of the nose up.

“I came down to campus to have breakfast. … Oh my God, it was there,” remembered Nicole Gotthelf, a student then. “You walked out there. It was just, ‘How did this happen? Oh my God, they kept their promise!’ Everybody just loved it.”

Well, not everybody. Clench-jawed good government types opposed them, and one burned the statue down. The next year, they built a bigger one.

The Pail and Shovel Party was re-elected, but after its second year in office, decided the joke was over. In 1986, Varjian headed back to New Jersey, where he spent 27 years as a math teacher. I caught up with him in 1992. He said his students didn’t know about his past in Madison, but it helped him be a better teacher.

“Getting up in front of a group of people and speaking, getting their attention, putting on a show,” he said. “Isn’t that what the best teacher you ever had did?”

Varjian died last September of a heart attack at age 64. Gotthelf, a Chicagoan who was on the Madison City Council for eight years, knew she had to act.

“As soon as I heard that Leon had died, I thought, ‘We have to do something,'” she said.

She drove to Madison on Tuesday to deliver a resolution the city council is expected to approve, speckled with the requisite repetitions of “WHEREAS” (I counted 18) such as “WHEREAS, the Pail and Shovel Party hosted Halloween toga parties bringing over 10,000 revelers to State Street ….”‘

I told Gotthelf my conviction that, once you understand what Varjian was about — making life more interesting, more fun — he really never leaves you.

“Exactly, I agree,” she said. “He was so much part of my life. He had a joie de vivre that brought joy to people.”

And does so still.

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