Music of Illinois: ‘It’s the System That They Have at Illinois’

Orpheum Theater The Daily Illini, reported the 1919 freshman snake dance as good-natured student fun, and the local newspaper described it as a brawl. (Photo courtesy of UI Archives)

Thomas Arkle Clark remains one of the more colorful figures in the annals of University of Illinois’ storied history, serving as professor of rhetoric from 1893-99, Dean of Undergraduates from 1901 to 1909, and Dean of Men from 1909 to 1931.

Known for his gaudy tastes, manipulative manner and an enormous memory for names and detail, Clark was charged with maintaining discipline among students, rooting out campus hazing and hooliganism, including activities perpetrated by secret student fraternity he battled for years. Some believe he served as the inspiration for the character of Dean Wormer in the 1978 film “Animal House.”

Students composed a song about his treatment of undergraduates named “It’s the System That They Have at Illinois,” with accompanying sheet cover donning a framed photo of Dean Clark peering at a student shackled by ball and chain.

One of the verses recounts a 1919 spring celebration that took a wayward turn. As events unfolded, a snake dance involving some 1,000 freshmen wound its way off campus and through Champaign before concluding in a brawl at the Orpheum Theater.