FEATURE — Spring 2004


Behind the Facades

Alumni of the Thurtene Honorary recall their experiences with the wonderful, magical—and, most of all, beneficial—Thurtene Carnival.

by Eileen P. Duggan

Thurtene Carnival isn't just fun and games. For the Thurtene junior honorary members who organize it each year, it's a lot of hard work—and one of the most rewarding experiences they've had in their lives.

This year, Thurtene will mark the honorary's 100th anniversary with special themes during the spring carnival, which was first held in 1907.

The oldest student-run carnival in the country, Thurtene Carnival boasts some 14 major carnival rides, 16 game booths, 15 food booths, and eight themed facades housing student plays. The two-day event typically draws about 100,000 people and requires dozens of student volunteers from more than 50 other student organizations. But it is all organized by just 13 people.

"It's a very big undertaking and involves many organizations in and outside the University," says 1982 Thurtene president Mitch Walker, B.S. '83, who wrote the official history of Thurtene. "It's a big challenge and requires a lot of work from very, very dedicated people."

As president, Walker's job was to coalesce the 13 members into a cohesive team to organize and execute the carnival. Each year, each member has a specific job, such as interior and exterior business, publicity, security, and construction and electrical. The Thurtene members pull together various campus organizations, which develop and staff their own booths or activities.

Thurtene members also secure a corporate sponsor and negotiate with outside vendors, such as a carnival supply company and a professional ride operator.

"It's run like a business, and in a very professional way," says James Burmeister, A.B. '61, M.B.A. '63, M.A. '67, executive director of University relations and Thurtene's volunteer "coach" since 1970. "That's what I've always admired about the students over the years. They've always been able to do that." [The Burmeister Cup, awarded for the best overall carnival participation, was named in Burmeister's honor for his many years of service.]

"The carnival takes a complete team effort," says Walker, now a missionary in inner-city Philadelphia. "I don't think I've ever worked with a more effective team in my life."

As a two-time All-American member of the Lady Bears volleyball team, helping win three consecutive national championships, Amy Sullivan Nordmann, A.B. '94, M.A. '99, M.D. '99, already was well-versed in team effort before she served as Thurtene's charity/alumni chair in 1993. About Thurtene Carnival, she says, "It taught me a lot of organizational skills, trying to balance such a large extracurricular activity along with my studies." Nordmann, now a resident physician at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, adds, "It made me well-rounded and taught me how to manage my time, prioritize, and take on more responsibility."

"Working as a team" is one of St. Louis attorney Mitch Margo's fondest memories of his stint as Thurtene's publicity chair in 1976. "The most fun about putting the carnival together was the camaraderie that developed among members—on very little sleep, mind you—in the trailer the week before the carnival was scheduled to go on," says Margo, A.B. '77, J.D. '83. "The idea that you're going to put a carnival on in a week seems impossible a week before, yet it all comes together."

In addition to the excitement of "lot week," 1993 Thurtene president Tim Laczkowski, B.S.B.A '94, M.B.A. '02, recalls most fondly "the great relationships I developed through Thurtene," he says. "It was a tremendous experience for me to grow personally through daily interaction with 12 outstanding and talented individuals."

Laczkowski, an investment associate with Prudential Capital Group in Dallas, met his future wife, Amy Albers, B.S.B.A. '95, during the selection process for the next year's Thurtene class. "It was such an honor to be chosen to be part of such a prestigious group and work for such a great cause," says Albers Laczkowski, also a standout for the winning volleyball Bears and a Honda Division III Athlete of the Year in 1994-1995.

The Thurtene committee ... became personally involved with the kids, and that took the children's experience to another level," says Andrea Vent, volunteer coordinator for Epworth Children and Family Services, the 2002 beneficiary.

As 1994 charity/alumni chair, Albers led the process of choosing a local children's charity to receive the carnival proceeds. Thurtene bases its final decision on applications, presentations, and on-site visits. In 1994, the beneficiary was Matthews Dickey Boys & Girls Club. "I feel we were able to serve as positive role models to these children," she says.

The beneficiary charities gain not only a large cash donation and extensive publicity, but an invaluable interactive experience between the children they serve and the Thurtene members.

"The Thurtene committee ... became personally involved with the kids, and that took the children's experience to another level," says Andrea Vent, volunteer coordinator for Epworth Children and Family Services, the 2002 beneficiary.

Thurtene also provides free carnival tickets to the children of the beneficiary charity as well as to many other local children's charities.

Attending the carnival provided "a great opportunity for the children and their families to bond," says Kelly Ethington, development director for Friends of Kids with Cancer, the 2003 Thurtene beneficiary.

Thurtene was formed in 1904 as a secret society of men chosen for their leadership, character, and participation in campus activities. Membership varied in the early years from 4 to 14, then finally settled into a consistent 13. Thurtene found its purpose in 1935 when it was asked to rescue the floundering student circus from the senior honorary Pralma, which had merged with another group. Thurtene rose to the occasion and steadily improved the carnival and itself, while weathering the storms of World War II, the turbulent 1960s, the entrance of women, and the threat of carnival cancellation.

Only in 1943 was there no Thurtene Carnival, when the war so decimated the organization's ranks that the remaining members voted to replace themselves with a complete set of 13 new members the same year.

Another important landmark for Thurtene in 2004 is the 13th anniversary of the entrance of women into the honorary in 1991. "The honorary was all men when I was in it in 1976," says Margo. "And it is good that it's not anymore. That's the way it ought to be. You ought to have the 13 best 'people.'

"There were two women who really wanted to be in Thurtene, because they identified that putting on the best university carnival in the nation was a great experience," Margo adds.

The two women brought the issue before the University administration, which was already considering making all campus honoraries co-ed. The trailblazers did not make it into Thurtene themselves; Suzan "Suki" Kotler, A.B. '92, became the first female Thurtene member in 1991. By 2004, the roster included six women and seven men.

Historian Walker's memories of his 1982 Thurtene experience center on the University's decision to cancel the carnival the following year because of the cost of relocating it to the Brookings parking lot from its home near the new Athletic Complex, then under construction.

"Our Thurtene group worked in conjunction with the 1983 group to pass a referendum in the Student Union that would increase the student activity fee to pay for half the cost of moving the carnival," Walker says. After the referendum passed with 87 percent approval, Walker wrote an impassioned but well-reasoned letter to then-Chancellor William H. Danforth detailing how the funding would work. University officials agreed to continue the carnival.

"The administration wanted to work it out as much as we did," Walker says. "They recognized the importance of the group and the importance of the carnival itself."

Thurtene Carnival is a "tremendous means for the Washington University community to showcase itself internally and externally while providing needed financial resources for a great cause," says Albers Laczkowski. "It provides a forum for students to interact in a social setting and for talented individuals and groups to participate in a University-wide event. It's an opportunity for all Washington University students to interact with the surrounding community in an untraditional manner."

Eileen P. Duggan is a free-lance writer based in St. Louis, Missouri.
Photos by Joe Angeles, Mary Butkus, Carol House, B.F.A. '91, and Herb Weitman, B.S.B.A. '50