Skip Navigation

UW-Madison Graduate School of Fun

Meet the famous jokester whose legacy lives on at UW-Madison.

Leon Varjian Image

Do you remember the class clowns in your school? They pulled pranks. They shot spitballs. They wore their ties around their foreheads on picture day. They were the kids who mixed up all of their leftover hot-lunch foods and dared themselves to eat it. (Gross.)

They were their own breed. The troublemakers. A far cry from another subset of students: the overachievers. The ones who raised their hands first, joined clubs, and ran for student government. But what if the class clown … became the class president?

Pail and Shovel

In the spring of 1978, a new political party swept the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s student elections. The Pail and Shovel Party won 1,500 of the 4,500 votes cast and became the new leaders of the Wisconsin Student Association (WSA), now the Associated Students of Madison (ASM). At the helm of the party whose campaign slogan read, “Honesty, integrity, responsibility … Pail and Shovel doesn’t believe in any of them!” was the late Leon Varjian.

Varjian, a New Jersey native, came to UW-Madison with a bachelor’s in mathematics from Montclair [New Jersey] State University and a master’s in teaching from Indiana University in Bloomington. And while we claim him as an honorary UW alumnus, he did not, in fact, graduate from the University of Wisconsin.

“I came here for the graduate school of fun,” Varjian said. “I earned 11 credits in 12 semesters … what does that get me?”

When Varjian arrived on campus in the fall of 1977, he wasted no time in establishing his prankster legacy. His foray into comedic politics began at a card table on Library Mall, the first day of his “freshman” year.

Varjian successfully persuaded more than 100 students to sign a petition to rename the UW the University of New Jersey (UNJ). The logic was twofold: New Jersey is the only state without a “University of.” And more importantly, “students could go to a fancy East Coast school without moving.”

Varjian’s UNJ prank garnered the attention of a 22-year-old junior, Jim Mallon ’79, who eventually became Varjian’s Pail and Shovel running mate. Varjian ran as vice president instead of president because “that’s where the power is.” The party was reelected in 1980 but opted out of a third term.

His Joke Friday

The Pail and Shovel Party was named for a campaign promise to convert the UW’s budget into pennies, toss them onto Library Mall, and let the students have at them with pails and shovels. But this was only one of many ridiculous promises.

Varjian’s campaign antics weren’t designed to prank the student body. They weren’t even aimed at the WSA or at the institution as a whole. “It’s a prank on the whole process,” Varjian recently revealed. Even further, it was a prank on the student newspapers.

“The student newspaper — very meticulously — reports on the candidates,” Varjian explained, adding that it also published all candidates’ campaign platforms. For the Pail and Shovel Party, those promises included flooding Camp Randall for mock naval battles and putting the Southeast dorms on rollers to move them every week. “The newspaper, when they write about you, has to put that crazy stuff in their newspaper!”

Believe it or not, the Pail and Shovel Party made good on a few of its crazy promises. While the UW didn’t officially change its name to the University of New Jersey, T-shirts representing the new name became wildly popular. The party also promised to buy the Statue of Liberty and move it to Lake Mendota. Then, on a chilly February morning in 1979, students awoke to the crown and torch of Lady Liberty sticking out of the frozen lake. Varjian and Mallon spent $4,000 worth of student fees to pull this off and were nearly kicked out of office. They prevailed, and so did the tradition of Lake Mendota’s frozen statue.

Pretty in Pink

The most famous stunt that Varjian pioneered occurred on the very first day of classes in the fall of 1979 — and it’s why he returned to campus this July, just months before his death.

Leading up to the start of school in 1979, Varjian purchased 1,008 plastic pink flamingos from Lawn Care Products, Inc. (now Pink, Inc.). The student politicians spent the night beforehand on a farm in Barneveld, Wisconsin, assembling all of the flamingos and loading them into a truck. The next morning, they drove the up Bascom Hill and planted all 1,008 flamingos.

“We got out here at about 8 a.m. By about 1:30 p.m., kids started taking them,” Varjian remembered. “In about another hour, they were gone. But then you saw them all over the city!”

Rather than getting upset that his fellow students stole the birds (what else would you expect?), Varjian felt that it was a fitting ending. “It was like the joke continued.”

There were 1,008 flamingos because Varjian insisted that the number be more than 1,000 — anything under that seemed far less impressive — and the company sold the birds only by the dozen.

“The smallest number divisible by 12 that’s over 1,000 is 1,008,” explained Varjian. “Nine hundred ninety-six is the one right below it, and then you can’t say you had ‘thousands’ of them.”

If that feels like a problem for a ninth-grade algebra class, that’s because it is. At least, it is now. Practical jokester Leon Varjian turned in his pail and shovel to become Mr. Varjian, one of the most beloved teachers at Midland Park High School (MPHS) in New Jersey. While Varjian (for the most part) kept practical jokes out of his classroom, he says that each year his students find out about his comedic past. “Every once in a while, the seniors want to do a senior prank,” said Varjian. “Sometimes they’ll turn to me. ‘No, nope! I’m retired!’” he laughed at the memory.

On September 30, 2015, at age 64, he died unexpectedly of cardiac tamponade. According to a New Jersey news site, one-tenth of the MPHS student body sought grief counseling following the news, and even more shared their memories through social media. Varjian had been with MPHS since 1988.

Lifelong Legacy

Exactly two months before his passing, Varjian revisited the UW-Madison campus — something he’d done almost every summer since leaving Madison. Varjian met with campus libraries’ director of development Ben Strand, who is working on a humor collection, and Caroline Radaj, coordinator of the annual Fill the Hill fundraiser.

Fill the Hill brought the flamingos back to campus in 2013 to meld goodwill with the “inspired goofiness” that Varjian and the Pail and Shovel Party brought to campus, says Radaj.

Organized by the Wisconsin Alumni Association (WAA) and the University of Wisconsin Foundation (UWF), Fill the Hill is a guerilla-esque fundraiser that supports UW-Madison’s Annual Campaign. For each donation or pledge made during a 24-hour span, one plastic pink flamingo “roosts” on Bascom Hill. As more pledges come in, more flamingos flock to the hill. Fill the Hill has grown from 640 pledges in 2013, it’s first year, to 854 pledges in 2014.

Fill the Hill will begin at 5 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 15, and run through 5 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 16. This year, the goal for pledges and donations is very specific: 1,020 > (x/12) > 1,000. That’s right: to honor Varjian’s legacy, the goal is to receive 1,008 pledges or donations in the 24-hour span.

Like the flamingos, Varjian evolved from a practical jokester to a philanthropist. He aided the homeless community of Bergen County, New Jersey working with his high school math students to collect food, clothes, and toiletries. He and his students also raised money for local nonprofits. As for seeing his old pranks being used for good, he was flattered.

“You don’t think you’ll leave a lasting impression on a university as a student,” Varjian said. “To be, now, a part of the DNA of the University of Wisconsin is just mind-boggling.”

While on campus, Varjian noted that even though the basic university is the same, the landscape has changed. There are new buildings, new students, and, he fears, a new mentality. With the costs of higher education skyrocketing, Varjian sees students taking school, and themselves, far more seriously. But he cautions us all about taking ourselves too seriously. For Varjian, the craziness is a part of life’s experiences.

“People used to do things just to do things — crazy things, artistic or wacky things,” he said before he left. “I hope that we can keep the mad in Madison. Keep the mad in Madtown!”

We at WAA and UWF hope you’ll join us in honoring Leon Varjian’s legacy by making sure that we keep the mad in Madison — this week during Homecoming, and all ways forward.

[This photo gallery is temporarily unavailable]

Featured News and Stories

The state’s chief veterinarian weighs in on the latest strain of highly pathogenic avian influenza.

Avian influenza is just the latest risk in drinking raw milk. Food science professor John Lucey lays out the facts on the June 18 livestream.