A stroke of good luck in Terps sculpture

WAY BACK WHEN

March 23, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

If the Maryland Terrapins succeeded in beating Kentucky last night (I'm writing this on Friday morning, so here's hoping!) and continue on their roll toward the NCAA's Final Four soiree in Atlanta next weekend, perhaps they would owe a bit of their good fortune this season to the magical powers of Testudo, a 1,000-pound bronze talisman that sits on a pedestal in front of the school's McKeldin Library at College Park.

For 69 years and in a variety of locations, Testudo has been a sort of on-campus St. Jude, offering hope and inspiration to the desperate and those short on luck. They come seeking solace and good fortune as they stroke its bronze body and leave offerings. Visitations, especially for procrastinators, increase dramatically during exam week.

Like religious pilgrims visiting a hallowed spiritual shrine, many leave gifts for Testudo. It's not unusual for his perch to be covered with candy, wine, beer, money, tobacco products, jewelry, candles and even condoms.

A story is told that during repairs to McKeldin Library in 1989, construction fences went up, limiting access to the fabled terrapin. Students were unable to rub his nose for good luck or leave presents.

"That semester the campus GPA fell 1 percent," Rebecca Schwartz, student coordinator for the school's campus ambassadors, told The Sun in a 1998 interview. "The next semester, when Testudo was back in reach, the GPA went back up to its original number," she said.

"Like other freshmen, I snickered when I first heard [the Testudo] story nearly four years ago," wrote D.A. Leary in 1991, then a senior at College Park. "Foolish superstition foisted off on new students - that's what I thought at the time. How many seniors, I wondered, laughed to themselves as gullible new freshmen wandered by the silly-looking brass turtle and rubbed its nose?"

Navigating his own educational high seas turned Leary into a believer.

"Seniors will really get into it; they will try to pull the nose right off. They know, you see," he writes.

Leary explains why he once chose to give Testudo's nose a thorough workout on the way to a final exam.

"Why not? It can't hurt. Each develops his or her own beliefs about why Testudo might help; my own Testudo-worship involves the metallic smell a good nose-rubbing leaves on your fingers, a magical tribute to the gods of testing."

Testudo owes his birth to a suggestion of Dr. H.C. Byrd, then football coach and later president of the University of Maryland, that the diamondback become the school's official mascot.

Picking up on Byrd's suggestion was the Class of 1933, which began raising money for a mascot sculpture. As times were tight, the class decided to hold its prom on campus rather than in a downtown Washington hotel. It sought donations and even directed yearbook profits to the cause.

Edwin C. Mayo, a member of the Class of 1904 who was president of Gorham Manufacturing Co. in Providence, R.I., offered to donate at cost the expenses for the casting.

Ralph Williams, president of the Student Government Association, boarded a New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad train for Providence, carrying along in a box a live terrapin that was needed by sculptor Aristide Cianfarani to create the famed Testudo.

The 300-pound sculpture - mounted on a pedestal overlooking Ritchie Coliseum on Route 1, head uplifted - was officially unveiled in ceremonies on May 23, 1933.

The name Testudo, scholars say, most likely comes from testudines, the scientific designation for turtles. (The diamondback terrapin, however, is officially known as Malaclemys terrapin; it was designated the state reptile and the official UM mascot in 1944.)

"Or the name could have come from a dictionary definition that says the word, testudo, was derived from the Latin and meant a shelter held over the head of Roman soldiers - like a tortoise shell," according to an official University of Maryland Web site.

From the beginning, Testudo became the object of theft by rival colleges, especially during intense athletic rivalry.

A year after his installation, Testudo was ripped from his mount by several Johns Hopkins students who painted "J.H.U." in green paint marking the spot where the turtle had stood. Testudo was found on the Homewood campus and returned.

Perhaps the most celebrated Testudo abduction occurred before the 1947 Maryland-Johns Hopkins national lacrosse championship game. Stolen by Hopkins students, Testudo was buried in a temporary grave. Realizing that an attack by Maryland students to reclaim the terrapin was imminent, Hopkins undergrads brought hoses and soap flakes into their dorm.

At 2 a.m. on the day of the game, some 250 students hell-bent for reclamation arrived from College Park. Greeted by fire hoses, those who did manage to penetrate the dorm were soon slipping and sliding over soapy floors.

Baltimore police arrived on campus and it took them two hours to bring the melee under control. They arrested three Hopkins students and 11 from Maryland.

G. Wilson Shaffer, Hopkins dean, ordered the unearthing of Testudo and his return before the opening face-off of the game. The Hopkins students reluctantly gave in to the dean's wishes but not before painting a large, blue H on Testudo's back.

The bronze terrapin's perambulations took him to other campuses as well before college officials took decisive action, filling Testudo with cement and steel rods and increasing his weight to 1,000 pounds.

He was then mounted permanently in front of the library, where he has reigned since 1965, giving hope to the hopeless.

Sun staff researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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