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Streak Show

A tradition that’s still cool but often chilly

Jon Benedict photo illustration

When roughly 18 inches of snow led Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe to declare a state of emergency last January, hundreds of UVA students took it as a call to arms.

They headed to the Lawn for an epic midnight snowball fight.

One unidentified UVA student, however, answered a different urge. He stripped off his clothes, ran the 740 feet from the Rotunda steps down to the statue of Homer, kissed it on the backside, and sprinted back. Never mind the temperatures in the teens or the crossfire of icy projectiles: This guy was streaking the Lawn.

Yes, the UVA tradition is, by all accounts, as popular as ever. Fourth-year Lawn resident Shota Ono (Engr ’17) says he rarely goes a few days without seeing—or hearing—streakers. “It keeps me up at night, especially on the weekends,” Ono says. “I draw inspiration from the streakers. When it’s cold outside, I think if these people can run naked on the Lawn, then I can go take a shower,” a reminder that the privilege of Lawn living doesn’t include an attached bath.

The roots of streaking at UVA can be traced to 1937 when, according to student newspaper College Topics, a group of first-year men “got terribly thirsty” and headed to the Corner. Afterward, “a couple of them forsook their pajamas and rushed pell-mell, Adam and Eve fashion up to their rooms.” The first recorded act of streaking the Lawn didn’t come until 1974, according to the Cavalier Daily. In 1975, University police began arresting streakers after a professor who lived on the Lawn complained about the noise, according to UVA’s history officer emeritus, Alexander G. “Sandy” Gilliam Jr. (Col ’55). That led to a hiatus of a few years. Eventually—nobody seems to know exactly when—streaking returned and became tantamount to a graduation requirement.

As accepted as the tradition is, many streakers prefer anonymity. It’s a career strategy, considering prospective employers these days peer in on social media and Google their hires. One unnamed streaker, a 2016 engineering alumnus, claims to have done the deed 104 times. He says he documented nearly every one of his streaks in a journal, noting the date, time and weather condition. One of his most perilous jaunts came during fall 2012’s Hurricane Sandy when he slipped as he was trying to kiss Homer. He attempted another streak on skis. “It was a lot of fun going down the Lawn because it’s slightly slanted with the hills,” he recalls, “but going back up was not nearly as much fun.”

The recent alumnus says a love for UVA tradition drew him to streaking. In a tribute to a game-day football custom, he says, “We did ‘guys in ties and girls in pearls’—and nothing else.”

In the early years of streaking, Gilliam says streakers sometimes had their clothes taken by pranksters. Nowadays, though, that doesn’t seem to be as much of an issue. “I think that goes to the Honor System and the community of trust where we respect other people’s belongings,” says a second-year streaker from the College.

Still, the Honor Code doesn’t prevent some Lawn residents from shining lights on the streakers in a practice known as “spotlighting.” Others have been known to snare streakers by tying plastic wrap between trees. Occasionally, police intervene, though arrests are rare. “It’s a tradition. We get that,” says Officer Ben Rexrode of the University of Virginia Police Department. “But technically we remind them that it is still against the law, and that we want them to go put their clothes on and move on. There are families up here and that kind of thing.”

After moving from Belgium in 2015 to take up residence in Pavilion I, Darden School of Business Dean Scott Beardsley and his wife, Claire, say they were awakened one night by what they later determined were streakers taking a detour through their kitchen. On another occasion, the Beardsleys walked out of their house to find their dog lying on a pile of clothes streakers had left near their front door.

As for that brave streaker during last January’s snowstorm? It was mission accomplished, but not without consequences. “He was a prime target for snowballs,” Scott Beardsley says. “When he got back, he was as red as a Maine lobster.”