Years before he became an Emmy-winning comedian, with appearances on “Saturday Night Live” and David Letterman’s show, Rich Hall was a quirky Western Carolina student who was spotted one day in the winter of 1974 exhorting his fellow students to gather in their birthday suits for an attempt to establish a new national collegiate streaking record. “Rich stood on the overhang of Leatherwood (Residence Hall) with a megaphone, calling out to students as they were coming out of Dodson Cafeteria,” recalls Bob Sabin ’75, then a WCU junior who reported on the unclothed antics for the campus radio station. “It got their attention.”
Dwight Sparks ’75 covered the record attempt for the student newspaper, the Western Carolinian, and as a clothed observer, he remembers the evening of Thursday, Feb. 21, 1974, as being uncomfortably cold for a bunch of college students running in the buff. Braving the chilly conditions, the WCU students succeeded in setting a new record for participation in a coed college streak, as trumpeted in Sparks’ article published on the newspaper’s front page the following week. According to his account, 113 naked male students emerged from the basement of Leatherwood and ran about 400 yards before returning to the basement. At the same time, 25 unclad female students darted from the basement of nearby Helder Residence Hall and ran about 100 yards before returning to that residence. (Leatherwood and Helder, as well as Dodson, have been replaced in recent years.) The participation by 138 WCU students broke the previous record of 125 streakers that had been set earlier in 1974 by students at the University of Maryland.
After observing the record WCU streak, reported to have taken place around 9:30 p.m., Sabin hurried to the radio station, known then by the call letters WCAT, and composed his account of the event. He relayed his story to the Raleigh bureau of a major national news service, United Press International, and it was picked up by print and broadcast media around the nation. “My mom heard it on the radio in Los Angeles,” Sabin said recently. “And somebody from NBC called me to talk about it the next morning.”
The WCU students’ time in the limelight was limited, however. The collegiate streaking fad was at its high point during the mid-1970s, and several days after the mass streak in Cullowhee, a new record was set by students on another campus. But, as Sparks describes it now, “Our university received publicity money couldn’t buy. Our moment in the sun was brief, but glorious!”
University records indicate that Richard Travis “Rich” Hall was from Charlotte and attended WCU from fall semester 1972 through spring semester 1975. (Multiple attempts to contact Hall to comment on this article were unsuccessful.) He was a sophomore with an undecided major at the time of WCU’s record streak. While in Cullowhee, Hall earned a reputation as a jokester, said Sabin, a non-streaker at WCU who now lives in Marietta, Ga. “He wasn’t a radical, but he was known as a character on campus,” Sabin said. Sparks reflected that Hall also liked to keep up with the news. “My mother sent me Newsweek magazine so I would have regular mail at Western,” he said. “Rich lived directly across the hall from me in Leatherwood and regularly lounged in my room, reading my Newsweek, while I tried to be a serious student.” Eventually, a story about the University of Maryland’s record streak caught Hall’s attention, and his reaction, Sparks said, was “We can beat that!”
From then on, breaking the record was Hall’s obsession, Sparks said, but before alerting the student body about the record streak attempt, the duo concocted a plan for a “warm-up” streak involving them and a third student whose identity is unavailable. Their route would be across the lawn of A.K. Hinds University Center, and the streak would be timed to take place just before the start of a concert in the nearby Reid Gymnasium. They planned to leap out of a car near the gymnasium, do the streak, and then jump back in the car idling behind the University Center.
“Our courage failed and our driver had to make three passes before we jumped out,” said Sparks, who had arranged for a Western Carolinian photographer, Steve Cook ’75, to be on the scene. “Hardly anyone noticed three naked guys running like fools in the night.” However, the campus newspaper published the following day contained a photograph of Sparks and Hall streaking, along with an article composed by Sparks, further helping to boost participation for the record streak that took place later that week.
Following the record WCU streak and subsequent nationwide publicity, several hundred letters from individuals unhappy about the streaking in Cullowhee landed in the office of Glenn Stillion, the university’s vice chancellor for student development at the time. Stillion was quoted in the Western Carolinian as saying, “It’s our main job to try to get the damn students to have some sense,” and he implied that streaking students would be punished. But no streakers were charged in either student court or criminal court, and university officials tried to take a low-key approach, recalls Stillion, now retired and living in Florida. “We didn’t get excited and overreact too much,” he said. “Some people across the country were burning buildings down in the ’60s, so we thought running around naked was fine, compared to that. A lot of people were terribly upset, but it really didn’t get the university totally fouled up.”
In newspaper reports about WCU’s record streak, Hall confessed to being the organizer and explained that his goal was to gain attention for issues he was promoting, including beer on campus, 24-hour guest visitation and the need to “update” Cullowhee, but he admitted that most of the students in the record streak did not participate for political purposes. Looking back on the events almost four decades later, Sparks said he believes the students were motivated by a variety of reasons. “We were young, it was winter, and maybe we had cabin fever,” said the Mocksville resident. “For many students, I suspect it was the novelty of running naked without getting arrested. We were on the leading edge of a phenomenon that swept the nation’s campuses.”
Photo above: Western Carolinian photographer Steve Cook ’75 captured Dwight Sparks ’75 (left) and Rich Hall during a “warm-up” streak across the lawn of A.K. Hinds University Center. The photo has been manipulated for public consumption.