Showdown at Kirkland Hallby Nov. 1, 2007, 3:21 PM
On the surface, the group of freshmen who showed up at Vanderbilt in the fall of 1973 didn’t seem that different from any other.They were bright, to be sure. Eager and excited about starting this new adventure called college.And as they unpacked, settled in, and started finding their way around, they also started finding each other. For seven freshmen, those first days in Nashville would come to affect the rest of their lives.
They came to Vanderbilt as strangers for the most part–David Blum,Mike Bagot, Phil Walker,Margaret Lynch Callihan and Robert Courtney, all BA’77; and Cathy Madigan and Julie Caldwell Huffman, both BSN’77. (Walker and Madigan had been high school buddies back in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)
They left as lifelong friends. And they left a legacy that is still remembered 30 years later.
“We just literally became fast friends,” says Phil Walker, now a San Francisco attorney. “The universe does things that are very interesting.All of us had a personality that was a little challenging to authority.”
Remember, these are the days when Richard Nixon was president. The early years of the ’70s–before the atrocities of disco and Saturday Night Fever– still had a ’60s-era vibe. Being leery of the people in suits just came naturally. And that’s what makes this group’s relationship with then-Chancellor Alexander Heard all the more remarkable.
“On the very first night of school, the chancellor invited the freshman class to his house for dinner,” explains David Blum, now a realestate broker and developer in Wilmette, Ill., north of Chicago.”He gave a little speech and told us two things: He said that only 50 percent of what you learn in college comes from the classroom, and he said that his door was always open.”
The new friends took that open-door policy seriously, and that is how a group of cocky freshmen became fast friends with the most authoritative person around. At their first meeting the chancellor even named the group. Thirty years later they are still known as the Wild Bunch.
“We were really non-subdued around him,” remembers Cathy Madigan.”We were all pretty entertaining, and I think the chancellor was just a little taken aback that we weren’t this quiet freshman group sitting there not saying anything. In fact, I’m not sure he had a chance to get a word in edgewise.”
Even in those early years at Vanderbilt, the group was assuming leadership roles in student government, various clubs, and in their respective fraternities and sororities.
“We clicked as people first, but we were the kind of people who wanted to contribute and give back and reach outside the normal college existence,” says Blum. “We liked having fun, and we liked to embarrass each other.”
Madigan, now clinical director of the UNC Heart Center at the University of North Carolina, remembers two examples of the embarrassing behavior. One involved Walker’s payback for a perceived slight. “He hung a huge sign from the top of Lupton Hall that read ‘Cathy and Julie–for fat girls, you don’t sweat much.'”
But another time,Walker was on the receiving end.He gave tours to high school students curious about Vanderbilt. During one such tour,Huffman snuck into his dorm room, stripped bare, and got in his bed– knowing full well that he always ended his tours by throwing open the door to his dorm room, telling the prospective student that this was a typical student room. Little did Huffman know that on this particular tour the student’s father–a Nashville judge, no less–was also along.
No one remembers whether the student became a Commodore or not.
The group wasn’t all about good times. Mike Bagot became president of the Student Government Association, and Bob Courtney became finance secretary of the SGA. Margaret Lynch Callihan was business manager of The Vanderbilt Hustler.Cathy Madigan was president of Kappa Delta, and Julie Caldwell Huffman was president of Chi Omega. Phil Walker, after serving as freshman class president, went on to found the Original Cast music group and organized the Campus Capers at Homecoming. David Blum became president of the Young Democrats.
“Vanderbilt gave us the latitude to have fun,” says Blum.”It told us exactly where the line was that you couldn’t cross. You could put your toes on the line, but heaven forbid that you put your toes over the line.”
Not crossing that line was just another sign of the respect that the Wild Bunch felt for Chancellor Heard.
“He was really a tremendous influence, especially the way he encouraged using the university as an open forum for the expression of new ideas,” says Mike Bagot.”He was very open to the students and to the idea of self-governance.”
As the years passed, the Wild Bunch grew to include several dozen members, but the original seven–the founders–were always at the core. The group wanted to go out with a bang and hit upon the now-famous idea of kidnapping Heard and other university officials, including Senior Vice Chancellor Rob Roy Purdy, Dean James Sandlin, Dean Sidney Boutwell and Betty King, manager of schedules and reservations. On April Fool’s Day, with the cooperation of various staff members, the Wild Bunch pulled off the kidnapping and whisked Heard and the others– in a limo owned by Dorothy Mize, friendly proprietress of a Church Street liquor store– to the farm of Battle (BA’24) and Sara (BA’22) Rodes. There they all feasted on champagne and hot dogs and initiated Chancellor Heard into the Wild Bunch.
“We wouldn’t pull that off today, for sure,” says Blum.”Walking into Kirkland Hall now in commando clothes and squirt guns definitely wouldn’t cut it.”
It wasn’t the group’s last act before graduation. On the day of the ceremony itself, each member of the Wild Bunch handed the chancellor a flower.Madigan remembers it was a white carnation.Walker recalls a red carnation. Blum says it was a red rose. In any event, it was the group’s farewell to a man– and a place–they loved.
Graduation sent most of the Wild Bunch in different directions. Graduate school and careers became priorities. Bagot claims to have chosen the University of Texas as his law school because “after four years at Vanderbilt, I had to go to a football school.”Regardless of where they landed, the group faithfully journeys back to Nashville every five years for their Vanderbilt Reunion and a “Wild Bunch Brunch.” Their 30-year reunion took place in October.
In 1997, Blum chaired his 20-year Vanderbilt reunion. “I wanted the Wild Bunch to do something special, and someone came up with the idea of creating an endowment at the Jean and Alexander Heard Library to buy books,” he says.”I proposed it to the group as a way of honoring Chancellor Heard, and they all agreed it was a great idea.We announced the endowment at Reunion and invited Chancellor and Mrs. Heard to come to the event. They were really surprised and very touched.”
Alexander Heard, whose own children were college age during the Wild Bunch’s time at Vanderbilt, turned 90 in March and lives quietly with his wife, Jean, in their longtime Nashville home on Golf Club Lane.”My father had interaction with many student groups, but he absolutely loved the Wild Bunch,” remembers his daughter, Cornelia Heard, professor of violin at Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music. “He stayed in touch with several of them for many years and thoroughly enjoyed it.”
In 2005 the group rallied when disaster– in the form of Hurricane Katrina–struck one of their own.Mike Bagot and his family fled New Orleans and ended up in Nashville where Wild Bunch friends opened their homes, businesses and schools.
“I feel like if I’m ever in a catastrophe again, I have friends throughout the U.S.who I can call on at any time and say, ‘I need sanctuary. Can you put me up?'” says Bagot,who is now back in New Orleans practicing law. “It’s a good thing to know.”
It’s clear that many factors helped create the Wild Bunch. If the seven had attended Stanford or Northwestern or Emory, would they have found each other?
“I’d like to say we would have,” says Bagot, “but it was a singular experience, from the chancellor on down.We felt safe and secure on one hand, yet adventurous on the other.”