On a cold, snowy Monday morning, back in January of 1984, the University of Lethbridge awoke to a perplexing situation that would become a 33-year mystery.
Perched on the roof of University Hall sat the shell of a Volkswagen Beetle, any evidence of the journey to its resting place erased by an early morning snow.
For the last three decades, we have wondered who did it, why and how? And now, after three decades, one of the masterminds behind this legendary prank has come forward to share his story.
For Keith McDonald (BMgt ’87), it all began innocently enough, with a bit of exploring while living in residence.
“I found an access panel up on the eighth floor that could easily be opened,” he says. “Once I was in, it was just a matter of climbing up a ladder to access the roof.”
After his discovery, he says, the roof quickly became one of his favourite places on campus.
“I would just walk up and down looking at the stars, looking at the river,” he says. “The view was amazing! I was up there for weeks.”
Looking back, McDonald takes great pride in the fact that he was able to get up and down without being noticed.
“I was very neat and clean,” he says. “No damage was ever done and the security doors were very easy to open. No one ever knew I was up there.”
As the weeks went by, McDonald told a few close friends about his trick to access the roof. One of those friends, Frank Jetter (BASc ’85), quickly became McDonald’s co-conspirator.
“He was the one who came up with the idea of putting a car on the roof of University Hall,” McDonald says.
Jetter, who passed away in 2010, had a friend back in Warner who owned an auto wrecker with the perfect car for the job.
“I believe the owner donated the Beetle to us for free,” McDonald says, “He got a real chuckle out of it all.” The owner helped remove all the extraneous pieces of the car, then helped cut the shell into pieces. The group of co-conspirators then settled on a Sunday night as the best time to perform their deed.
Rigging up a cantilever crane on the east side of E Block, they slowly began lifting the parts of the Beetle to the roof of University Hall.
“Professors usually won’t be in their offices on a Sunday night and any students in residence really wouldn’t care,” he says. “We had people on Level 6 watching out for security, even though they had no way of contacting us.”
McDonald now marvels at how they were able to pull it off without the modern communication tools of today.
“There were no cell phones or anything else like that,” McDonald says. “Even walkie-talkies were just starting to come out. We did this like ghosts, if you can imagine.”
For the next few hours, the group worked feverishly hauling the car parts up the side of U Hall, using chicken wire to hold the parts back in place. With all trace of their crane removed, the group descended from the roof with a late-night snow following to cover their tracks. As morning crept over the Lethbridge skyline, the new silhouette of U Hall began to reveal itself.
“They didn’t have a clue!” McDonald says, referring to U of L security and maintenance, “They were wondering who stole a key, how’d they break in the door, who did this?”
Coincidentally, events occurring elsewhere in the city at the time added to the joy McDonald got out of his prank.
“That Monday, the City of Lethbridge raised parking tickets downtown,” McDonald says with a laugh, “and we’ve got a Volkswagen on the roof here.”
U of L Archivist Mike Perry (MEd ’06) says that after years of research, it’s satisfying to put some of the rumors around the Beetle to rest.
“There have been all sorts of stories that this was done to protest parking on campus, or that it was hauled up through the freight elevator,” Perry says. “It’s nice to finally put those rumors to rest.”
For McDonald, the prank was the end of his nightly stargazing from the roof. He says after three decades, and with the U of L celebrating its 50th anniversary, it was time to set the record straight.
“If you don’t come forward with these stories, they disappear,” he says. “I figure after 30 years it was time. They can’t really give me a parking ticket now!”
The U of L invites everyone to attend Homecoming Sept. 1-3 and exchange more stories just like this one.