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The Deacon Blog

A magazine staff blog with news of alumni and the WFU community

Maria Henson

Demon Deacon wields plunger. What’s up with that?

The Demon Deacon and his plunger scored a question in today’s Winston-Salem Journal in the “Ask SAM” column. I was glad to see it, because my Homecoming guests on Saturday wondered why our Wake Forest mascot waved around a bathroom plunger. I had no idea. I couldn’t remember seeing the prop in my time at Wake Forest. As we gathered back at the Sues’ tailgate party, I forgot about the unanswered question.

Hands free of plunger for the full-on "Go Deacs!" shout-out

A newspaper reader didn’t forget, however, and decided to ask the answer man at the local newspaper. Here’s what the Journal had to say: “The origin of the plunger seen in some illustrations of the Demon Deacon dates to Bill Shepherd, a 1960 Wake Forest graduate who performed as the Deacon for three years while he was a student.

‘He was known at the University and throughout Winston-Salem for his plunger twirling atop the goal posts in the late 1950s,’ according to The Little Black Book, the Tradition Council’s reference book compiled by students for students to educate them about the University’s history and ‘to embolden the evolution of their own Demon Deacon spirits.’

‘According to newspaper clippings in the University archives, the plunger was the crowd’s favorite Deacon antic. The mascot would twirl the ‘plumber’s friend’ like a baton and swing it to the chants of the crowd.’

Dressed in a scissor-tail coat and a high silk hat, Shepherd would use the plunger as a weapon — especially against the Duke Blue Devil and his pitchfork — and do various stunts, including sticking it to things such as a Carolina license plate. Some of his predecessors had carried walking sticks, umbrellas or canes.”

I looked a bit deeper into our our Wake Forest history and discovered “probably no Deacon ever contributed more than Shepherd (of Linville, N.C.). From answering the Auburn fans’ cry of  ‘War Eagle’ with his own of ‘Turkey Buzzard’ to hitting ‘the shot heard around the state,’ Shepherd was a genius at eliciting crowd support for the Wake Forest cause.” The “most notorious plunger event” occurred during a Clemson game. At half-time when the national baton twirling champion was performing, the Demon Deacon mocked her by twirling two plungers. Distracted, the champ dropped her batons. As “The Little Black Book” says, “The crowd went crazy and the plunger tradition was born!”

So in the spirit of Shepherd’s skill with that special baton, it’s time to bring out the plunger again on Saturday to joust with the dreaded pitchfork. Twirl on, Deacs!

Archimedes: the talk of NY, Washington and The Atlantic

The Archimedes Palimpsest, the subject of the current Wake Forest Magazine cover story, along with Michael Toth’s (’79) work to restore it, continued to make news this weekend. The exhibit that displays the ancient documents opened at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore on Sunday.

From The Washington Post: The exhibit is about “a book, a 10th-century manuscript that was overwritten in the 13th century with Greek Orthodox prayers. But it is also an exhibition about the iceberg, the laborious work it has taken to make the book legible, understand its origins and importance, decipher its text and translate its contents. It is an exhibition about ancient science and the drama of how thoughts from the 3rd century B.C. were transmitted from the mind of the great mathematician Archimedes to papyrus to sheepskin to digital files now available to anyone with access to the internet. It is a smart and engaging effort that forgoes the usual sacralization of the object itself — a musty old book — in favor of the tools and techniques and especially the passion that has motivated work on this ancient codex …. If you have a sentimental attachment to rationality, enlightenment and science, it is infuriating to think of Archimedes defaced with a prayer book. (curator William) Noel argues otherwise — that the recycling of Archimedes helped preserve what otherwise might simply have been lost or discarded.”

From historian Edward Tenner in The Atlantic: “All this is a great tribute to conservation and imaging science. But it’s also a reminder of how incredibly durable analog media can be, retaining information through earthquake, fire, scraping, and damage by insects and molds. In desert conditions, even older documents have survived, like a 3,200-year-old dream book from Deir el-Medina, Egypt. And the study of the new Archimedes treatises are likely to deepen our admiration for what ancient thinkers were able to accomplish with the technology at their disposal.”

From Edward Rothstein in The New York Times: “’The Archimedes Palimpsest’ could well be the title of a Robert Ludlum thriller, though its plot’s esoteric arcana might also be useful for Dan Brown in his next variation on “The Da Vinci Code.” It features a third-century B.C. Greek mathematician (Archimedes) known for his playful brilliance; his lost writings, discovered more than a hundred years ago in an Istanbul convent; and various episodes involving plunder, pilferage and puzzling forgeries. The saga includes a monastery in the Judaean desert, a Jewish book dealer trying to flee Paris as the Nazis closed in, a French freedom fighter and an anonymous billionaire collector ….

At the center is an ancient volume, its parchment recycled into a 13th-century prayer book. And at the climax we see those old folios, charred at the edges and scarred by dripping wax from the candles of devout monks, being meticulously studied for 12 years by an international team using the most advanced imaging technologies of the 21st century. And what is found is more revelatory than had ever been expected.”

It’s a point of pride that a Demon Deacon, schooled in science and history, served on that team.

The Wall St. Journal on the Archimedes Palimpsest

Michael Toth (’79) isn’t mentioned this morning in The Wall Street Journal’s “Reading Beneath the Lines” about the Walters Art Museum’s Oct. 16-Jan. 1 exhibit in Baltimore called “Lost & Found: The Secrets of Archimedes,” but I think he should be, and, at Wake Forest Magazine in the latest issue, he is.

Adventurer and historical detective Michael Toth ('79)

Toth was one of the digital-imaging experts who helped reveal the vestigial ink of the undertext of a prayer book that turned out to be treatises on math by Archimedes. Here’s how the Journal’s William Triplett describes it today: “In 1229, a monk in Jerusalem wanted to make a prayer book, but virgin parchment — the staple of medieval publishing — was hard to come by. So the monk did what most people did at the time — took existing handwritten books, removed the binding, and used a knife to scrape the ink as much as possible from the parchment folios. He then cut the folios in half, rotated them 90 degrees and started writing on them. Eventually he added a new binding, and a palimpsest — derived from the Greek word palimpsestos, meaning ‘scraped again’ — was born.

“The monk had used parchment from several books, the principal one a tome of Archimedes’s treatises on math, first written on papyrus in the third century B.C. and then copied into book form around the 10th century, (Will) Noel (curator of manuscripts and rare books at the Walters) says.”

In Wake Forest Magazine, Mark Schrope (’93) interviews Toth about the long process to recover the writings. “With all the projects I’ve worked on the goal is to always ensure the data become available for the public good,” Toth tells him.

And that’s a crucial point of today’s article about the Walters exhibit and, at Wake Forest, a reminder of how a liberal arts education allows alumni to work across disciplines and occupations. (In Toth’s case he began as biology student, shifted to history, graduated, worked in U.S. intelligence, the Defense Department and NASA before putting his experience in handling satellite imagery to work examining historical treasures as an adventurer-detective possessing a distinguished facility with multispectral imaging.)

“Quite possibly the exhibit will show that history itself may be a kind of palimpsest,” writes Triplett in the Journal. “‘Whether you study philosophy or science or whatever,’ Mr. Noel says, ‘the Archimedes palimpsest breaks down boundaries between disciplines. It contains history, philosophy and mathematics, and then all the latest technologies that were applied — the digital imaging, the metadata management — along with all the scholarship. We’d like people to know that because of all these things, history is still being written.'”

Thanks to Toth, we have a glimpse of history, the very ancient roots of our civilization, unearthed with modern technology and painstaking care.

Melissa Harris-Perry (’94): a ‘marquee name’ at Tulane

You won’t want to miss The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune’s in-depth profile of Melissa Harris-Perry (’94), who, after four years at Princeton, is now a tenured professor in her first year of teaching at Tulane University. The piece refers to her as a marquee name. “She’s a public intellectual,” says Tulane Provost Michael Bernstein.

Melissa Harris Perry shines in the media and the classroom

Aside from her 47,741 Twitter followers, Harris-Perry has viewers, listeners and readers across the country paying attention. She has been a guest host for “The Rachel Maddow Show” and “The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell” on MSNBC. She has appeared on “Real Time With Bill Maher,” writes a column for The Nation magazine and regularly comments on NPR and online on issues involving race, religion, politics and gender.  “Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes and Black Women in America,” her newest book, was published last month.

“Women in Politics, Media, and the Contemporary United States” is the political science course she teaches this semester in what sounds like a lively classroom with lots of back-and-forth questions and cultural references. “When she’s speaking, she owns the room,” Cara Fonseca, one of the students, told The Times-Picayune’s John Pope. “But she makes the environment so comfortable, bringing in pop culture. That’s what keeps students engaged, the balance between academics and pop culture.”

The Times-Picayune also mentions Harris-Perry’s time at Wake Forest. You’ll see more about that in the fall issue of Wake Forest Magazine, due in alumni mailboxes this month.  The article by Lisa Kline Mowry (’82) features a selection of professors around the country who recount experiences in their undergraduate days that sparked their interest in an academic career. Watch for those magazines soon — and Melissa Harris-Perry — and follow updates online at magazine.wfu.edu.