Memory Lane: Getting Squirrely

Bright-eyed, bushy-tailed bombardiers, the U of I’s squirrels are pleased to meet you

Bright-eyed, bushy-tailed bombardiers, the U of I’s squirrels are pleased to meet you

A squirrel eats glazed donut in a tree.

Whether they’re stealing students’ food, chewing their way into University buildings or interrupting new student orientation at Foellinger Auditorium, the U of I’s squirrels have found a legion of ways to make their mark on the campus, and in alumni’s hearts. (Image courtesy of Illini Media)

You know the feeling: You’re sitting on a bench outside the Illini Union, minding your own business, eating a sandwich, when all of a sudden, you detect a presence. And then there it is—a gray squirrel, mouth open wide, dead-set on your BLT.

Illinois students have been having some version of that experience since 1901, when geology professor Charles Rolfe, 1872, and University President Andrew Draper decided to rebuild the local squirrel population, which had been decimated by hunting and habitat loss. Rolfe and Draper strongly believed that squirrels would provide a nature lesson and a morale booster (!) for students, so they set to work, creating a campus squirrel breeding program.

Black and white portrait of U of I President Andrew Draper

U of I President Andrew Draper, who led the campus squirrel breeding program. (Image courtesy of UI Archives)

More than a century later, the little critters are so ubiquitous that many Illinois alumni can tell you a squirrel tail—I mean “tale”—or two.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the majority of them are about food.

According to some alumni, the U of I’s squirrels are expert foragers—and they’re not talking about acorns. To cite only two examples: John Darragh, ’04 LAS, once spotted “a little dude” popping out of a trash can, French fries “sticking every which way out of his mouth,” while Andrew Ross, ’10 ACES, saw one dragging a slice of pizza up a tree. “It was Drew’s chicken-bacon-ranch, and it was as big as he was!” Ross says.

Others have fond memories of feeding the squirrels. Susan Shane Winslow, ’96 FAA, recalls that they’d eat right out of her hand. Bob Rudnick, ’86 ACES, MS ’88 ACES, often gave them peanuts near Altgeld Hall. And Tim Hickernell, ’85 ENG, formed a dorm-room friendship with a squirrel “that would come in my window in Townsend 1N and eat crackers.”

But as generous as the students were, sometimes the squirrels’ snacking involved thievery. Jennifer Sweda, ’92 LAS, MS ’94 IS, recalls watching a squirrel steal an Oreo out of a student’s backpack, while Stefan Abraham, ’09 LAS, was the victim of another crime—a chip robbery, “right out of the bag,” he says. “Absolutely no manners!”

Image from 1912 of a squirrel on a tree branch

Campus Squirrel, 1912 (Image courtesy of Illini Media)

Meghan Yearta, ’14 LAS, concurs. She recalls a harrowing scene in which a squirrel jumped onto Alanna Kowalzyk Glomb’s backpack—which Glomb, ’14 AHS, was wearing at the time. “I respect the squirrels,” Yearta says, laughing. “You’ve got to.”

All joking aside, some alumni legitimately don’t like the squirrels, viewing them as a menace. “They are evil!” says Laura Karpiel Eisinger, ’83 BUS, who remembers how she and Karen Foley, ’83 ENG, “used to try and dodge them” on their way to class.

Still, more often than not, the squirrels have a way of bringing people together. Just ask Mindy Spencer, ’97 ACES, MBA ’98, who shared a magical moment with a squirrel and a well-known alum one early Sunday morning. “I was walking across campus to get to a choir performance,” she recalls, “and I stopped on the Quad to check out a super-cute squirrel.” It came right up to her, and there they stood, human and rodent, sizing each other up. “It was very quiet and calm,” she says, “and no one was in sight. Then all of a sudden, someone said, ‘Well, that is precious.’”

Spencer recognized his voice—one of the most distinctive in American media—and looked up. Sure enough, it was Bill Geist, ’68 MEDIA, HON ’05, the beloved journalist from CBS Sunday Morning.

And there they were, two members of the Illinois family, standing on the Quad admiring a squirrel, basking in the beauty of nature, their morale boosted, just as Rolfe and Draper had intended.

Then, just as quickly, the moment had passed, and the student and alum went their separate ways.

As for the squirrel?

The day was still young, and she had some foraging to do.