In the Beginning
On a balmy and sensuous May night in 1966, my fellow students and I were studying for our second-year finals at Princeton Seminary. It was the custom in those days for classes to cease a week before exams, so the students could have ample time to prepare for them. The pressure was intense and self-imposed. Grades were not given, as the system was pass or fail, but word always got out as to who was the brightest—and we all wanted to be bright!
It was also the time of the superball fad. Superballs were made from a high-density plastic material that enhanced the balls’ ability to retain most of their energy even when hitting a wall, like a tennis ball, but much more powerful.
Hodge Hall was the second-oldest dorm at Princeton and was distinguished by a very beautiful and graceful four-story circular staircase open all the way from the basement to the ceiling of the fourth floor. It was common for someone on the second floor to have a conversation up the stairwell with someone on the fourth floor.
At about eight thirty on this particular night, there was an informal study break when almost all the students assembled on all floors and on the staircase to talk with each other, laugh, bemoan our fate, and let off steam. Someone on the fourth floor brought out a superball and began throwing it down the center of the staircase to the floor of the basement below. We delighted in seeing the ball hit the floor and then bounce right back up to the fourth floor for someone to catch and throw again to the basement for a superball rebound.
Tony Hite, his roommate, George Renwick, and Randy Nichols (now director of PTS’s D.Min. program) had been complaining for several days that they were hearing rats gnawing and scurrying about in the walls of their rooms, and the subject had created a lot of debate about whether rats were really in the walls or not. Randy complained to the Business Office, to no avail.
The basement of Hodge had recently been painted a nice battleship gray by Tom Bryan, PTS’s autocratic facilities manager. As I watched the superball go up and down the staircase time after time, I began to see in the newly painted basement floor a perfectly prepared canvas.
Here, before me as if by Divine Providence, was the largest clean space I had ever attempted to work on. It was circular with about a fifteen-foot diameter. Although art was my minor in college, it would be a real abuse of the language to call me an artist.
Remember, these were the days of the free speech movement, the first birth control pills, the civil rights movement, and the beginnings of the antiwar movement. Protest was at the top of every menu. The Great Rat did not start out as a protest, but within fourteen hours of that moment, he became the most lasting and powerful symbol in Princeton’s history. This is how it happened.
As I viewed my canvas, the Rat slowly appeared in my mind’s eye. I yelled up the stairs to my roommate, Byron Buck, to bring me some black and orange paint. I didn’t know if he had any, but Byron is to this day the best-equipped person I have ever known. Sure enough, reportedly from Randy Nichols’s recently painted credenza, in short order appeared a can of orange paint, a can of black paint, two paintbrushes, chalk, and other assorted materials. The Great Rat was poised to make his first appearance.
In the center of the floor I chalked out the lines of a huge and very fat rat. Next, with some help from Byron, as all the students of Hodge Hall watched, we painted the rat’s body and outlined his eyes, ears, and mouth in black paint and then outlined his body as well. A black rat hole was painted on the wall at floor level. And thus what only later was dubbed Ratus was completely manifested on the basement floor that night, to the cheers of the multitudes and to my utter amazement.
One of our fellow students was from Korea, and he was fascinated with this revolutionary protest. He added the Rat to the Korean lexicon as “The Glate Lat.”
What Happened Next
The next morning all hell broke loose. Tom Bryan showed up at seven o’clock in the morning and started screaming about who had ruined his newly painted floor. He screamed until he was sure President James Iley McCord, the most august, powerful, and intelligent man any of us had ever known, was in his office. Everyone at the Seminary called him Dr. McCord. His persona was so powerful that when he retired, one faculty member, it was reported, attempted to put things on a more familiar level: “As Dr. McCord retires, many of us would like to call him by his first name. So today I will begin…Dr., we will miss you greatly!”
As Tom Bryan steamed into the office of the great man, Dr. McCord could hardly believe his ears. A protest at Princeton Seminary, the most prestigious seminary in America? Tom convinced McCord that this indeed was a protest and an unjust one at that—THERE WERE NO RATS IN ANY BUILDINGS MANAGED BY TOM BRYAN. EVER. PERIOD.
Shortly thereafter Randy Nichols was summoned to the President’s Office. Tom Bryan checked out the walls, and later that summer Ratus disappeared. But the Great Rat, having once manifested himself, promised to come again to this basement canvas, at a time when all would be surprised, including those vigilant folk who were constantly on guard for him. True to his word, the Rat appeared at the beginning of the following fall term. Later incarnations included the pseudo-Latin words “Illegitimi Non Carborundum,” translated loosely as “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” And it became clear to all that he was here to stay.
Ten years passed before my first return to the Seminary in 1977. Of course, the first thing I wanted to see was if Ratus was still there. Well, he was and he wasn’t. There was a painting on the floor…but it was a male and a female rat, standing on their hind legs, dressed in Princeton graduation gowns and holding diplomas, and underneath, the inscription, Ratus XI. Whoa…heavy duty changes. The Great Rat had been embraced by the institution, and in so doing he became completely unrecognizable to his creator.
And so he continued to change. Each year a new graduating class painted their own interpretation of Ratus on the basement floor of Hodge. To each class he had a different meaning, and none reflected his original design or purpose. There’s a clue here about the origins of Christianity.
Charles (Chuck) Robison, Class of 1967, recently retired as a Protestant chaplain at the United Nations, and as pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Telluride, Colorado. He and his wife, Karen, now live in Austin, Texas, where they have two weekly radio shows titled “What If It Really Works: A Practical Guide to Spirituality,” one on NPR in Telluride and one on the web. They are associated with the Unity Church of the Hills in Austin.
Editors’ note: Send us your memories of Ratus, and photos or descriptions of what he looked like when you were a student.