Defuses Attempt at Cannon-Return Prank : Caltech’s Big Gun Calls the Shot

Times Staff Writer

Caltech students got their cannon back without firing a shot.

Students from Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, who out-pranked their Pasadena rivals by snatching the artillery piece last month, gave the gun back Thursday after the Caltech president requested it.

“We’re really sorry to see it go,” said Harvey Mudd junior David Somers, one of the masterminds behind the howitzer heist. “But if they’re going to get up-tight about it, we want it to end friendly.”

After copping the three-ton cannon from the Caltech campus just before April Fools’ Day, Harvey Mudd students challenged the world-famous pranksters to steal it back.

But Caltech students, who argued that the stunt’s impact was diminished because the cannon had been swiped during spring break, said they were not given a fair chance to retrieve the gun.

“They basically prevented us from getting it back,” said Ed Zanelli, a 20-year-old junior and president of Fleming House, the student dormitory that had adopted the cannon. “It had nothing to do with a prank anymore. They were trying to steal the cannon from us.”

Zanelli charged that Claremont police officers were summoned every time a Caltech student ventured onto the Harvey Mudd campus and that a spectacular scheme to airlift the cannon by helicopter was thwarted when the Harvey Mudd administration refused to authorize the venture.

“They didn’t play the ‘game,’ ” Zanelli said.

While Caltech students were struggling to snatch it back, Zanelli said, Caltech President Marvin Goldberger wrote a note to Harvey Mudd President D. Kenneth Baker requesting the weapon’s return.

“We didn’t ask him to do it,” Zanelli said. “I’m glad we got the cannon back, but I’m disappointed about how we did it.”

Somers, student body president at Harvey Mudd, was not sympathetic.

“I think it turned out to be harder than they thought,” he said. “They like to play the prank game as long as they’re winning.”

And as long as the cannon was in their possession, Harvey Mudd students did not mind getting in one last lick.

Before hoisting the 18-foot gun onto a flatbed truck, they dolled up the cannon in black and gold bows--the Harvey Mudd colors--and wrapped it in a homemade cardboard box.

On one side of the box, students wrote “To Murph (Caltech President Goldberger’s nickname), With Love From Harvey Mudd.” The other side was plastered with the photocopied signatures of every student who had ever attended Harvey Mudd.

“Over here we’ve just been kind of shaking our heads,” said Harvey Mudd spokesman Jim Groth. “Either they were unable or didn’t want to take the time to get it back by devious means.”

History of Mischief

The cannon historically has encouraged such mischievous maneuvers.

Constructed for use in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), the cannon spent most of the 20th Century resting peacefully on the campus of Southwestern, formerly a military academy for boys in San Marino.

During the Vietnam War era, the academy was converted into a co-ed boarding school and, in an effort to shed its military image, was more than happy to look the other way when Caltech students asked to steal the cannon in 1972.

Residents of Fleming House restored the gun for use in intramural pranks. Traditionally it was fired to signal the beginning and end of the school year, although it once was used to blow a load of Jell-O at a rival dormitory.

Once an unauthorized blast shattered the windows of an administration building, prompting its return to Southwestern. Fleming House retrieved the weapon in 1981, again with Southwestern’s permission.

Earlier Thefts Foiled

Since then, Harvey Mudd students have made several unsuccessful stabs at snatching the gun, once watching in despair as the cannon’s weight blew out the tires on a rented trailer.

But the cannon caper did not really get rolling until Harvey Mudd students abducted the artillery from the Caltech campus last month.

Donning hard hats and “H & M Construction Inc.” T-shirts, seven students spent nearly two hours jockeying the 115-year-old cannon onto a huge forklift. Another three posed as Caltech students nonchalantly playing football and tossing a Frisbee as a diversion.

When a Caltech security officer questioned them, he was referred to the “foreman,” Joe Agnese, a 27-year-old Harvey Mudd junior who is prematurely bald. Agnese waved a forged work order and said there was no time to chat.

The cannon was placed on a flatbed truck and shipped to Claremont.

“I have to look at the cannon for the next 1 1/2 years,” Zanelli complained. “It just doesn’t look as beautiful to me as if we had gotten it back in a stylish manner.”