From soon-to-be-President John F. Kennedy in 1960 to the beloved Bernie Sanders in 2016, the UI has hosted its fair share of political heavyweights over the years.
But no candidate on campus experienced anything quite like what Republican U.S. Sen. Ralph Tyler Smith did 48 years ago.
Trust then-freshman and now-Cook County attorney Michael Strom (BA '74, political science) on this one:
“In 1970, I was a freshman at the University of Illinois. Early on, I noticed a big political rally for the senator about to start in the Quad. Typical red, white and blue bunting and decorations were in place, with a lectern near the Illini Union building.
“An impressive crowd turned out for the event. Perhaps a third of the massive Quad was filled with students, supporters and passers-by like me. Senator Smith was appointed in 1969 to fill a temporary vacancy. Smith was running to retain his seat in the 1970 general election.
“I’m from Chicago, and maybe that’s why I didn’t know anything about this veteran politician from downstate Granite City. But the crowd seemed reasonably enthusiastic, so I figured I would hang around a while.
“Memories can play tricks on you, but I recall Senator Smith beaming when he was greeted with a rousing ovation from the young crowd. Since riots in this very same Quad the year before required help from the National Guard, he had to be feeling good about the event.
“A huge banner was unfurled by the crowd. It said ‘Junkies for Ralf! He gives us a shot in the arm!’ This catchy slogan was bracketed by hand-drawn hypodermic needle images.
“Senator Smith appeared confused. Shortly thereafter, an adaptation of the call-and-response ‘FISH cheer’ — see ‘Woodstock’ or ask old people — began:
Give me an R. Give me an A. Give me an L. Give me an F. What’s that spell? RALF! What’s that spell? RALF! What’s that spell? RALF!
“I have never seen a more perplexed politician in my life. College kids didn’t know how to spell Ralph? The senator concluded his participation shortly thereafter, with no apparent idea of what just happened. It was hilarious.
“I came away from the experience impressed by the amount of work that obviously went into mustering a large group of students to pretend they supported a relatively obscure politician, only to viciously prank the guy.
“Eight years later, the movie ‘Animal House’ included the memorable lines: ‘I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture to be done on somebody’s part! We’re just the guys to do it.’
“I presume there was similar dialogue at the planning committee for the Ralph Tyler Smith rally. A Ralfmobile would have really topped it off, but that’s 20/20 hindsight.”