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Sunday, April 14, 2024
The Observer

From the Archives: A king, a cat and the absurd student body election of 1972

Diane Park | The Observer
On Wednesday, Notre Dame students will take to the polls and elect their new student body president. A glance at the ballot suggests that this year’s candidates all appear to be human and pro-democracy. This observation may seem obvious or nonsensical, but a look back at the history of SBP elections shows that pro-democracy ideals or even personhood are not characteristic of all candidates.Exactly 50 years ago, while Notre Dame grappled with the decision over whether to merge with Saint Mary’s or become coed itself, R. Calhoun Kersten and a cat named “Uncandidate” launched their unlikely yet ultimately successful campaign for student body president and vice president. While the story to follow is undoubtedly absurd, this saga is not just pure entertainment. Upon further inspection and reflection, the election of Kersten and his cat presents implications that are more profound and more relevant than they may at first appear.

The unlikely election of R. Calhoun Kersten and Uncandidate the Cat

Feb. 22, 1972 | TC Treanor | Feb. 29, 1972 | John Abowd | March 1, 1972 | TC Treanor | March 2, 1972 | Roe, McDermott, Schaefer | March 3, 1972 | TC Treanor | March 8, 1972 | Larry Dailey | Researched by Avery Polking

Standing in the fourth-floor bathroom of Walsh Hall in 1972, R. Calhoun Kersten ‘74 had a plan — one involving divine intervention, an oligarchic vision, a feline friend and a “Rocka-Rocka discotheque.”On Tuesday, Feb. 22, 1972, the Observer announced that Kersten was running for student body president alongside Uncandidate the Cat (a literal cat).Kersten, a resident of Walsh, made its aforementioned bathroom his campaign headquarters, establishing office hours and pledging to develop “a hard-hitting campaign in which to come out unequivocally and indefinitely on every major issue.”Although the Observer labeled him a “joke candidate,” Kersten made it hard to believe his political endeavors weren’t serious, or at least comprehensive.
R. Calhoun Kersten is pictured with Uncandidate the Cat after winning the 1972 SBP election on a pro-oligarchy platform.
Kersten’s twelve-point plan covered hot-topic issues of the age. He planned to abolish all student government institutions, opting instead for an “oligarchy consisting of myself and my close friends.” He intended to replace the pass-fail grading system with an “A-B” choice (except for those in pre-med). He endeavored to establish a “Rocka-Rocka discotheque” on campus and to repeal parietals, citing a “cosmic deity” as reason enough.On election day, Kersten amassed 35.8 percent of the student body vote and drew a record turnout. He and Uncandidate were now slated for a runoff against StuGov Ombudsman, Paul Dziedzec ‘73.Faced with this final election and Dziedzec’s perhaps ironic position in government, Kersten made a statement at 4:00 am the day of the runoff, when Dziedzic was “not available for comment.”Kersten announced his intention to drop out of the race, claiming that in a storm of lightning and thunder, he received a message that: “You have better things to do and must study to get an A in med school…let your coming be a sign to smash the sacred golden image of the poobah but let You get Yourself the hell out. This is My will.”
Uncandidate the Cat "urged" Kersten, his presidential running mate, to accept the SBP position despite Kersten's desire to drop out of the race.
Despite Kersten’s desire to withdraw, he and Uncandidate the Cat triumphed in the runoff election, garnering 65% of the vote. At the purported “urging of His running mate,” Kersten changed his mind and accepted his elected role as SBP.Kersten’s victory was followed by “definitely tentative” plans for a Coronation, an Inaugural Ball and a “Feast of Ascension” after his fitting assumption of office on April Fools Day.Kersten’s election received national coverage in newspapers around the country and on NBC news. However, Kersten felt that his greatest accomplishment was making the front page of his hometown paper, the Ft. Dodge Messenger.“My grandmother is very proud of me,” he boasted.

Immediate reactions to the election of 1972

 March 2, 1972 | John BarkettMarch 6, 1972 | Art Quinn | March 10, 1972 | Jerry McElroy | Researched by Thomas Dobbs

The election of Bob Kersten and Uncandidate the Cat was a landmark moment in the history of student government at Notre Dame. Understandably, the unexpected course of events challenged the traditional norms of student leadership and sparked a range of reactions from the university community. At the time, some faculty members were thrilled with the election, seeing it as a step forward for the university and a sign of change in the political landscape.“I think it is one of the best things that has happened at Notre Dame in a long, long time,” Professor Edward J. Cronin ‘38 said. “Kersten has shown there is a blessed sense of humor on campus and I hope that this will be reflected in other matters.”
Self-proclaimed oligarch Bob Kersten (center, with crown) surrounded by supporters.
However, not all faculty members shared Cronin‘s enthusiasm. Some professors were concerned about Kersten’s lack of experience and feared that his unorthodox views could harm the university's reputation.“I am very disappointed,” History Professor John Smith said. “It was a slap at the idea of student government. I think [his nomination to the Student Life Council] would be contrary to what he ran for.”Despite these differing opinions, the faculty agreed on one thing: they would be closely monitoring the new president's actions and hoped that he would be able to effectively lead the student body.“I think we will just wait and see what happens,” Professor John J. Borkowski said. “If he got that much student support, the students must feel he is a good representative.”The outgoing student body president John Barkett ‘72 also weighed in prior to the runoff election.“I was so disappointed in the eight (other candidates)...that I nearly voted for Bob Kersten myself,” Barkett said.Foreshadowing the anti-establishment victory, Barkett reminded fellow students about the limitations of student government, arguing that change doesn’t “occur in one administration, sometimes not even in two or three.” 
Outgoing President John Barkett admitted that he was "so disappointed" in the SBP candidates that he "nearly" voted for Kersten.
The anti-establishment success was cheered on by an editorialist, Jerry McElroy ‘72, who saw it as a sign of progress and a step towards a more grounded student government.“Bob Kersten’s election was a witty, and at times, brilliant, slam against the oligarchical student political establishment at Notre Dame,” McElroy wrote, characterizing past student leaders as conduits of a “poobah mentality,” a condition of student politicians who, in his mind, viewed themselves as “savior(s) of the proletariat.”While Uncandidate was unfortunately declared ineligible for his elected position and replaced with a human VP, Kersten served his entire term as president/oligarch. Kersten’s incredible reign would be the subject of reflection and analysis for years, even decades, to come.

Reflections on and implications of King Kersten’s reign

Feb. 20, 1973 | Larry Weaver | March 2, 1978 | Marian Ulicny | March 18, 2016 | Gary Caruso ‘73 | Researched by Jared Meisel

The satirical, anti-establishment campaign of Bob Kersten and Uncandidate the Cat has drawn a range of reflections in the years since his victory. Kersten, his opponents and students who witnessed these events have remarked on the campaign’s successes and failures, with some likening it to contemporary national elections.In 1973 at the end of Kersten’s reign, columnist Larry Weaver acknowledged the lack of meaningful changes made during Kersten’s presidency but saw this degree of achievement as no different from typical student body presidencies.What Kersten should instead be remembered for, according to Weaver, was his entertaining campaign, which included, among other things, a staged kidnapping, promises to overthrow student government and a speech given in front of a burning bush (trashcan).Unlike ordinary, “dull and predictable” election races, Kersten’s campaign was “exciting; but most of all, he was fun. And in creating fun, King Kersten gave Notre Dame something it sorely needed, but which no other candidate ever even mentioned.”
In a retrospective interview, Bob Kersten admitted that he simply wanted to parody the election process but continued his campaign to remove the "self-centered...poobahs" from office.
In 1978, Kersten himself provided commentary on his rise to power. Admittedly, Kersten’s original intention was to parody the election and then drop out, not looking to claim victory but rather to “add a little humor” to the competition.Upon receiving massive support from the student body, however, Kersten decided to continue with his campaign, citing a legitimate need to transform the University’s understanding of student government. Specifically, Kersten’s satire was aimed at the “self-centered student officials he called ‘poobahs,’” whom Kersten aimed to remove from their offices — and which he succeeded in doing.In a 2016 viewpoint column, one of Kersten’s SBP opponents, Gary Caruso ‘78, compared Kersten’s campaign to the similarly anti-establishment Trump and Sanders campaigns of 2016. Providing context for the campus political climate at the time of Kersten’s victory, Caruso described the students’ resentment towards the “establishment” president preceding Kersten.
A former SBP opponent likened the anti-establishment dynamics behind Kersten's 1972 election to the 2016 campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.
In the already rebellious climate of the 1970s, the students united around the university’s proposed banishment of kegs from campus. While promising to fight on the students’ behalf, the then-president betrayed the students when struck a deal with Fr. Hesburgh himself in exchange for an uncontested acceptance of the prohibitory act.Such an “injustice,” in Caruso’s words, created conditions for the populist, anti-institution atmosphere in which a campaign like Kersten’s could flourish, much like how the contemporary Trump and Sanders campaigns found support amidst similar opposition to conventional authority. In both 1972 and 2016, Caruso lamented that the “wild mob electorate shut out reason and issues… by voting for a joke.”Ultimately, while Kersten and Uncandidate’s election was a singular event in Notre Dame history, the dynamics behind their unlikely victory seem to reflect timeless human tendencies. In this light, perhaps the 1972 election can be as illuminating or instructive as it is absurd.