The Phi Beta Kappa Dinner Coat Thief!
82 Year-Old Prof Thwarts Coat Heist at Phi Beta Kappa Dinner!
“Stop! Thief! Thief!” I cried out as I raced after a fellow sprinting away with an armload of coats. The costs belonged to students, parents, and faculty members who this evening had been attending the annual Phi Beta Kappa dinner in the Memorial Union’s Great Hall. Thus began 20 minutes of excitement that all but a few of those attending the dinner missed.
It all started when I arrived in Great Hall. I am always wary about hanging my coat on one of those free-standing coat racks wheeled in for occasions like this. Mainly I worry that someone will walk off with my coat. To guard against that possibility, I always button up the coat to give pause to anyone who might mistake it for their own.
The Phi Beta Kappa dinner is always a glorious occasion. There we recognize our top undergraduate students for their outstanding academic accomplishments. As always, many of the inductees attend the annual dinner with their parents. After the dinner, topped by the Union’s always delicious fudge-bottom pie, we listened to the first of two speeches. This year’s PBK President, Professor Jenny Saffron (psychology), introduced Steven Olikara, a 2010 PBK Inductee who spoke for the new Inductees. In an inspiring speech, he urged them to continue broadening their learning and to apply that learning in the service of others. He was followed by the main speaker, Capitol Times Editor Emeritus Dave Zweifel, who spoke on “The Importance of Being Informed.” He challenged inductees to make it their business to keep themselves well informed in an age when we are overwhelmed with information coming at us from all directions, electronic and otherwise. With that, the gathering came to an end, or so I thought.
Afterwards I chatted briefly with Jenny whom I have known for some years and whose father was a fellow economics graduate student with me many, many years ago. Next, I visited briefly with Alison Rice who is the Chapter Secretary. Then, an economics major, Eugene Wai Kit Yoong, overhearing our conversation, asked me about Milton Friedman’s brief service in the Economics Department during the late 1930s. I told him where he could read more about that sorry episode.
The crowd was now thinning out so I went to retrieve my coat. When I arrived at the coat rack, I noticed not only the absence of my coat but also all the other coats that had hung on that section of the rack. I thought: “Who took my coat? How could they mistake it for theirs?” Looking farther down the rack I first noticed a young man with a bright red, white, and blue cap. Next I saw that he carried a large bundle of coats in his arms, including my coat! I started toward him saying “Hey, you’ve got my coat.”
Ignoring me, the guy took off, running around the other side of the coat racks and then heading into the hallway that separates Great Hall from the alcove where the coatracks were located. I thought to myself: “I can’t let this guy get away with all those coats, including mine.” So, I wheeled around in pursuit, yelling out as I ran “Stop! Thief! Thief!” and adding to attract attention, “You’re taking our coats.”
He continued running through the hallway (to the west), then started up the stairway to the next floor. As I caught up to him (despite my age, I am still pretty quick on my feet) and approached the foot of the stairway, he was about a quarter of the way up the stairs, scrambling over the coats he had most likely dropped or tripped over. Doing so, he then sprinted up the rest of the steps to the next floor.
Realizing I could not catch him, and that he had to get back down by some other route, I ran back to Great Hall yelling “Somebody tried to steal our coats. They’re on the steps.” At that very moment, I saw this guy with his brightly-colored red, white, and blue cap flash through the hallway on the other side of Great Hall; he had come down the other stairwell. I then yelled as loud as I could to the people still standing around: “There he goes. The guy in the red, white, and blue cap. He’s a thief.. He took our coats. Go after him!” Whether anybody did was not clear. I decided it would be fruitless for me to pursue him. So, I turned to several student waiters to explain what had happened and asked them to alert Memorial Union officials. I then went to look for my coat. In the meantime, somebody had gone up the stairway and brought back the pile of costs. Mine was there, I put it on, thankful it had not disappeared forever.
As I walked down the stairs to the first floor of the Union, I noticed a big party in Tripp Commons–it was probably a wedding reception judging by those milling about. It occurred to me that the thief might have tried to lose himself by slipping into that party. I decided to have a look and while doing so passed an adjacent room filled with racks of coats. Thinking the guy might strike again, I told two Memorial Union employees at the door to Tripp Commons they should watch that room carefully because a thief had tried to steal coats from the Great Hall area.
As I spoke to them, I noticed some activity in the narrow hallway adjacent to Tripp Commons that leads to an outside exit. I looked, and what did I see? Three men had somebody pinned on the floor. Who was it? The guy in the red, white, and blue cap who had tried to run off with our coats. I quickly found out he was being held down in a vise-like grip by Psychology Professor Keith Kluender; he and his wife had attended the dinner because their son Raymond was a PBK Inductee. I quickly recognized the second person, namely the student speaker and PBK Inductee Steven Olikara. The third person turned out to be Steven’s father. I exclaimed: “You got him. Wonderful! How did you catch him?”
The three of them had responded to my cries and saw the thief sprinting down the hallway to the east. Steven followed him to the 4th floor where he cornered the guy. But the guy slipped away, running down a back flight of stairs that emerged next to the Tripp Commons entrance. Steven followed the thief down the stairs trying to catch him. He was followed by Keith who had joined in the pursuit. Meanwhile, Steven’s father in his search ended up at the door of Tripp Commons and saw the thief and then Steven emerge from the stairs. By this time one of the guy’s shoes had fall off, and it was clear he was quite drunk. All three of them piled onto the guy, with Keith gripping him tightly around the neck. When I saw him, the guy was complaining about the tight hold but Keith showed no inclination to loosen his grip.
Alerted Memorial Union personnel appeared quickly; they in turn notified the police. In short order three police officers arrived and took control of the situation. Two of them kept watch over the thief who was obviously drunk and had difficulty standing to be frisked by one of the officers. The third officer wanted to know who could describe what happened. He started taking notes from me, then the Olikaras, and finally Keith. While this was going on, people from the party congregated around us to find out what the excitement was all about; the policeman politely asked them to return to their party. After the policeman finishing taking down information on our separate involvements, he thanked us, said we could go, and joined his two colleagues who had been controlling and interrogating the thief. What they did with him next I don’t know. [On checking with the University Police on Monday April 18, I learned that the “guy” is a UW-Madison student; he was arrested and charged with theft, possession of a fake ID, and underage drinking, which means he was under age 21. He is certainly off to a good start in life! How sad.]
How lucky it was that I had not left the building. I was the only eye witness to the theft. I was easily able to identify the thief by his distinctive red, white, and blue cap, his white t-shirt, and his khaki-colored trousers.
That marked the completely unexpected end to what has always been a quiet dinner event. I credited Steven, his father, and Keith for their good work in pursuing and apprehending the thief, and Keith especially for lending his muscle in pinning the guy to the floor. In discussing the sequence of events afterward, I learned that Keith’s wife, who now joined us, figured out what was happening, heard me calling out, and then retrieved the pile of coats from the stairway where they had been dumped.
Too bad the rest of the PBK dinner attendees missed the excitement. There could have been 137 PBK Inductees plus parents and friends running through the Memorial Union halls looking for the guy. But, at least they escaped with their coats, something I had not expected to happen for me when I saw the thief sprint off with his loot.
What lessons can be drawn from this exciting event? Most of them are obvious. The thief was not very smart—if he had come earlier while the dinner was in progress, he probably could have made a clean getaway with the coats. Wearing his distinctive red, white, and blue cap proved to be a dead giveaway. Being drunk prevented him from successfully committing the perfect crime. And what would he do with an armload of winter coats with the approach of spring?
Finally, Steven Olikara proved he is not only an outstanding scholar but also a man of action, ready to put his knowledge and physical skills to the service of us all! The moral of the story: Thieves—it doesn’t pay to tangle with Phi Beta Kappas! See Dave Zweifel Cap Times Essay:
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About the Author
At age 92 I decided to showcase my recent and current writings on a variety of topics outside of my career interests as an economist. My wife Sally’s dementia, my experiences of war, and my interests in improving higher education all compel me to write.
For most of the last decade I maintained a low profile, necessitated by my wife Sally's suffering from a decade-long siege of vascular dementia. After she passed away several years ago I wrote about our experience, in the belief that this would be helpful to the many others who suffer from dementia and their family caregivers. I am currently seeking a publisher for my book manuscript: The Forgotten: Dementia and the Right to Die.
Over the past few years I began working on several other writing projects that are described more fully elsewhere in my blog. These include a nearly-completed book manuscript on my "expected proficiencies approach to the college major'' as a vehicle for reinvigorating liberal education. I continue to write on the shortcomings of UW-Madison's affirmative action policies and programs that over the years have been renamed "diversity and inclusion" policies and programs.
Within two weeks of my graduation from UW-Madison in June 1950, the Korean War broke out. I was drafted and expected to be sent to Korea to join our fighting forces there. But instead I was sent to Turkey for 18 months. How lucky I was. I am also writing a memoir of my Korean War military experience when I served as an U.S. Army adviser in our military aid program in Turkey.
Until I began branching out beyond economics, I failed to realize what a profound effect the Great Depression and World War II had on me as I grew up. I have already captured some of these recollections, with more of them to follow.
With that introduction, I turn you over to my blog entries as well as my other writing projects described more fully elsewhere in my blog. Best wishes ~ W. Lee Hansen
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Award-winning author W. Lee Hansen, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Full bio.