Leon Varjian and Me: Class Clowns

 By Sarah White

I wrote this essay in response to the theme “I was/wasn’t a joiner…” which I assigned my Fitchburg writing class in Spring 2008. I instructed the writers to “focus on action and its repercussions.” 

In late August 1974 I arrived on the campus of Indiana University, in lovely little Bloomington, Indiana. I knew a few people there, close friends from Indianapolis, but I was ready to expand my horizons. Time to find something to join.

But first the duty of every student: register for classes.

Registration took place in a big athletic hall. All students were assigned a time for entry based on their seniority and surname. As a freshmen named White I was among the very last. When I arrived, the waiting line snaked out the door and wrapped around the lawn in front of the big red-and-white building. VERY slowly the queue progressed toward the door.

Thank goodness there was something entertaining to watch while we waited. A little troupe of clowns were goofing around, presenting a bit of street theater about registration. They were handing out Monopoly money to the students on line, spieling off schtick about student loans. “Hey Leon,” somebody yelled, “got some for me?” “Lots,” yelled back the ringleader, a chunky, swarthy fellow in a red I.U. band jacket and bright red high-top sneakers. A little red wagon at his side overflowed with piles of the play money and more red band jackets.

I don’t know what came over me, but I broke from my place in line, grabbed up some handfuls of phony cash, and handed them to the fellow who had yelled at Leon. Then I did more of the same, shrugging on one of the red band jackets, blending in with the other half dozen boys and girls goofing around with Leon.

I didn’t know it yet, but this was Leon Varjian, campus clown and math T.A.

Since 1970 he’d been a legend at I.U. for promulgating a parody of student activism, a leavening agent against the waves of unrest that washed back and forth across that campus. By the time I arrived in 1974 the student protests were a thing of the past, but Leon was still in full swing with his goofy schtick. They looked like campus radicals, but had no serious political purpose. This was about reminding students to have FUN, after those hard years of trying to stop the war and change the world.

I don’t remember transitioning back that day, from volunteer clown to freshman registering for classes. I do remember joining Leon and his friends later in the campus snack shop, where at some point he turned to me and said, “So who ARE you?” He’d just assumed I was a friend of one of his gang, and when no one turned out to know me, he was surprised and, I think, I little impressed. I didn’t have a clue who I was, myself. I just gave him my name.

Shortly following registration, the student union offered an Activities Fair, with all kinds of student groups on display, eager for joiners. I could’ve found any sort of interest to pursue there, but what did I do? Work Leon’s booth where he was recruiting for the SLA, complete with a Patty Hearst look-alike on display bound to a chair, reciting “I love the SLA! I LOVE THE SLA!” at mock gun-point.

After that I joined Leon’s little band of clowns once or twice a week for “actions”. Every Wednesday at noon, he’d present some kind of public fun in front of Ballantine Hall, the hulking 10-story undergrad classroom building. He’d arrive with his red wagon filled with props and we would find him there, get our orders and proceed with the goof. It might be launching flights of paper airplanes from the top stories. It might be a ping-pong ball regatta on the little creek in front of the building. It might be rubber band assaults, or free paper hats of folded newspaper for all comers. You just never knew. But there he’d be, ringing an old school bell and making some crazy pronouncement: President Nixon had resigned because of an ingrown toenail, or IU was to become an amusement park.

Leon Varjian poster

That fall Leon ran for student body vice president on the Birthday Party slate. His girlfriend ran on the “Garden Party” ticket. There was lots to do. I went to planning sessions at his little apartment with the Murphy bed. The amount of paraphernalia, props, trash, he housed there was truly amazing. Grocery carts full. I seldom said anything at those gatherings, as I recall. In me were a clown and a shy girl, and I had little control over which would appear. Quiet girls who admire the guys are welcome in that sort of group, and I felt liked by all.

My birthday came in early October. Leon presented me with my own red I.U. band jacket—he had purchased 50 of them at an auction at some point. He tucked a Donald Duck Pez dispenser in its pocket. I wore that jacket everywhere that fall.

Halloween came, and Leon announced a costume parade. I made my only visit to the campus library, to research just what the Statue of Liberty’s crown looks like. I manufactured a lovely costume for myself, granny dress draped in a flag and wearing a hat of rays covered in tin foil, holding a foil-wrapped flashlight. At twilight we paraded through campus. After the crowd broke up, I spent the evening playing living statue on a pedestal outside the student union, holding my flashlight-torch aloft and observing the revelers flowing past my feet.

I remember very little of that semester after Halloween. It all caught up with me—the stimulation, the effort to keep self fed, clothed, and showing up for work and class on time. What I do recall is that I took a class entitled “Survey of Eastern Religions.” Each six weeks we studied a new religion—Bhuddist, Hindu, you name it—and I converted to it. By November we were learning the Hindu principle of “neti neti” which means, “not that, not that.” By voluntary withdrawal from action one becomes closer to God. But I became closer to dropping out of school, and indeed, neglected to register for classes or for my dorm room the following semester.

Somehow it came as a surprise to me when the semester ended and the RA came to tell me I had to leave, I was no longer an I.U. student.

All the things I could’ve joined, and I chose the dada activist from New Jersey, until the path of neti-neti caught up with me. By Christmas I was home in my old bedroom, surrounded by suitcases I refused to unpack.

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About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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15 Responses to Leon Varjian and Me: Class Clowns

  1. What a great piece. I think it says so much about “who we are” during those growing years of college. Trying to find an identity, or maybe being saddled with one we are to wary to let go. And maybe it’s not who we are, but who we become.
    On another tangent, I’ve so enjoyed Leon hijinks here in this neck of the woods over the years. He made the UW seem like fun. I’ll never forget our own Statue of Liberty on Lake Mendota. Wonder if you were the inspiration for that, Sarah!

    • I read this piece to a Freshman class in “Reading and Writing Memoir” at Edgewood College this week, and felt like such a Holy Fool…I hope they got the message & choose their actions with a bit more thought to their repercussions than I did!

      Thanks, Brian, for the insight–I’d never connected my memory of Leon/Statue of Liberty with his famous Lake Mendota installation. Proud to think I might have played a small role in that.

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  3. I just found this article and enjoyed it immensely. Though it is a lesson on actions and consequences, I read it to learn more about Leon Varjian’s fun life before he came to Wisconsin and brought some fun here. I met him years ago through a mutual friend but he was already legend here as the Pres or VP of the Wisconsin Student Union. When I did, I had to explain to him how his “persona” was that of witty activist, perhaps even a bit “dangerous”. We had a laugh because I had just learned how quiet, shy and normal he actually was — in addition to be creative, intelligent and witty. We, who lived in Madison during Leon’s reign, knew all about his exploits here. Many have made the record books. It was only through a mutual friend that I got a glimpse of his life at UI. And when he spoke of that time, it seemed to be in a whistful way. I really enjoyed reading of your time with him. Peace out! 🙂

    • magie read says:

      I covered one of his press conferences he held when he ran for mayor of Bloomington, and promised to oppress the masses equally. He always made me howl.

  4. bluesprof says:

    Leon and I were undergraduates together at Montclair State College in New Jersey (which we fondly referred to as Monkey State). The pranks began back then. He was titular head of a group of crazies called Provo (of which I was a member) and I was the titular head of a bunch of guerilla art students called The Machine Sky. Together we put on some of the most memorable pranks one could imagine (which would later inform what he did at IU and Wisconsin)… (as an interesting aside I went to IU for my doctorate in 1980, just as Leon left to go to Wisconsin)…
    Among our many endeavors were:
    Publishing a Disorientation Handbook which we gave out to Freshmen attending the college’s Orientation weekend. Our book basically told them how to live for free – where to get free food, or how to scam the cafeterias, where and how to take free showers, etc. etc. etc.
    Holding the Miss Montclair Steak Pageant in front of the auditorium at the same time that the Miss Montclair State pageant was going on inside. Parents and friends had to enter the auditorium by passing our “contestants” – Large meat-riddled bones and chunks of meat we obtained from a butcher shop and strung up as puppets, dancing in front of their horrified eyes. When our winner was announced we all piled into the back of a convertible and had a triumphant motorcade around campus…
    We built a HUGE guillotine that appeared to actually work and, “borrowing” black choir robes from the music school and donning hoods had a VERY medieval procession to in front of the Student Union Building and proceeded to decapitate a victim (complete with a balloon inserted in the neckpiece that was filled with Ketchup) much to the horror of onlooking students…
    We assassinated Richard Nixon (Leon in a Nixon Mask) in front of the Library and then conducted our own Warren investigation about the killing…
    Leon and I both ran for Student Government – we were successful in winning seats but both lost our presidential bids – despite the fact that I ran on the “Give A Shit” ticket that featured a poster of my female vice presidential candidate and I holding a pile of real shit…
    We used to toss out bags of peanuts at Student Government meetings, much as they do at the circus… we’d submit dozens of bills every meeting proposing myriad insane ideas…
    Our Clowning accomplishment, however, was when we re-enacted the Passion of Christ on Good Friday with a half naked (only a loin cloth) female accomplice as Jesus. I was Barabus. Leon was Pontious Pilate. I had constructed a huge cross with a small foot platform in the art building’s sculpture lab that morning. The trial of Jesus was held on the steps of the Library at noon (our usual time) with me being freed, the female being condemned, and Leon washing his hands of the whole thing. Jesus (actually named Cora) was then given the cross and a huge procession made it up the hill of the amphitheater that was directly behind the Library. Earlier that day I had dug a hole at the top of the amphitheater to plant the cross in. Jesus (Cora) carried the cross up the hill as the whole campus stopped to watch. I was told by a friend who worked in the Library the the whole Library ran to the back windows to watch. Once the progression made it to the top we laid the cross down, stripped Jesus naked to his(her) loin cloth, tied her to the cross, and erected it. I was told that one Librarian passed out and as she did yelled “Oh my God, they’re crucifying her!”

    Those years were amazing… Not a week went by that we didn’t do something… and it obviosuly gave Leon a lot of fodder for his later exploits!

  5. bluesprof says:

    Leon and I were undergraduates together at Montclair State College in New Jersey (which we fondly referred to as Monkey State). The pranks began back then. He was titular head of a group of crazies called Provo (of which I was a member) and I was the titular head of a bunch of guerilla art students called The Machine Sky. Together we put on some of the most memorable pranks one could imagine (which would later inform what he did at IU and Wisconsin)… (as an interesting aside I went to IU for my doctorate in 1980, just as Leon left to go to Wisconsin)…
    Among our many endeavors were:
    Publishing a Disorientation Handbook which we gave out to Freshmen attending the college’s Orientation weekend. Our book basically told them how to live for free – where to get free food, or how to scam the cafeterias, where and how to take free showers, etc. etc. etc.
    Holding the Miss Montclair Steak Pageant in front of the auditorium at the same time that the Miss Montclair State pageant was going on inside. Parents and friends had to enter the auditorium by passing our “contestants” – Large meat-riddled bones and chunks of meat we obtained from a butcher shop and strung up as puppets, dancing in front of their horrified eyes. When our winner was announced we all piled into the back of a convertible and had a triumphant motorcade around campus…
    We built a HUGE guillotine that appeared to actually work and, “borrowing” black choir robes from the music school and donning hoods had a VERY medieval procession to in front of the Student Union Building and proceeded to decapitate a victim (complete with a balloon inserted in the neckpiece that was filled with Ketchup) much to the horror of onlooking students…
    We assassinated Richard Nixon (Leon in a Nixon Mask) in front of the Library and then conducted our own Warren investigation about the killing…
    Leon and I both ran for Student Government – we were successful in winning seats but both lost our presidential bids – despite the fact that I ran on the “Give A Shit” ticket that featured a poster of my female vice presidential candidate and I holding a pile of real shit…
    We used to toss out bags of peanuts at Student Government meetings, much as they do at the circus… we’d submit dozens of bills every meeting proposing myriad insane ideas…
    Our Clowning accomplishment, however, was when we re-enacted the Passion of Christ on Good Friday with a half naked (only a loin cloth) female accomplice as Jesus. I was Barabus. Leon was Pontious Pilate. I had constructed a huge cross with a small foot platform in the art building’s sculpture lab that morning. The trial of Jesus was held on the steps of the Library at noon (our usual time) with me being freed, the female being condemned, and Leon washing his hands of the whole thing. Jesus (actually named Cora) was then given the cross and a huge procession made it up the hill of the amphitheater that was directly behind the Library. Earlier that day I had dug a hole at the top of the amphitheater to plant the cross in. Jesus (Cora) carried the cross up the hill as the whole campus stopped to watch. I was told by a friend who worked in the Library the the whole Library ran to the back windows to watch. Once the progression made it to the top we laid the cross down, stripped Jesus naked to his(her) loin cloth, tied her to the cross, and erected it. I was told that one Librarian passed out and as she did yelled “Oh my God, they’re crucifying her!”

    Those years were amazing… Not a week went by that we didn’t do something… and it obviously gave Leon a lot of fodder for his later exploits!

  6. J. Kevin Wright says:

    I was one of Leon’s merry pranksters when he ran for Mayor of Bloomington. 19% of the vote, I believe, for an open mockery of the system. Remember the campus map turned amusement park he used as a prop? I worked on that with a friend in 1976.
    Though, I wouldn’t say Leon was ‘swarthy’ or ‘chunky’ as when I knew him he was a vegetarian, quite skinny, and of small stature, but he was quite creative when it came to getting attention.

  7. Leon: I still have your hat, the hard white safari hat you used to wear when styling around Bloomington. It’s on a hook in my office on Lake Wawasee in northern Indiana — in fine condition I might add. You want it? Sherman

  8. Patrick McGuinness says:

    I was an undergraduate w/Leon Varjian at Montclair State – in spite of all his “shenanigans” I knew he was a very intelligent student – he challenged us to think since Montclair State was such a conservative institution and Leon wanted to “wake us up”. I always enjoyed him, he always made me laugh and although he wouldn’t have a clue who I am, I never forgot him. I noticed on this blog that nobody mentioned he came to graduation in May 1972 wearing Mickey Mouse ears and once he was decked out as “Mother Nature” (It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature).

  9. cgr says:

    Mr. Varjian is my teacher. He is thoughtful, kind, and one of the most selfless men ever. He is funny, a jokester, and my favorite teacher. Every new week he hangs the stop and shop coupon paper on the board and tends to tell us the best sale. He brings in different food for the changings of the seasons (even though hes not supposed to) and plays goofy old music which everyone likes because it was Mr. Varjian. Most of the students he teaches have read this article but never had the nerve to ask and now I regret that I hadn’t because of yesterday Mr. Varjian passed suddenly. I went to school as usual and was surprised to see him absent (never absent) and that no lesson plan was assigned. Then later that day found out that he had died. I was and still am crushed. He taught with such a passion that no other teacher could attain and all the students had high respect. I think about the last day we all had with him, we walked into class reviewed the study guide for our chapter 3 test and then when we were done we celebrated a classmate’s birthday with mallomars. He was so funny and even bought candles stuck though the mallomar, lite it, and we sang. The last day I had him showed a perfect example of who he is a great teacher and a genuine man

  10. Donald Allen says:

    It is with a sad heart that I have to inform your group of the passing of Leon Varjian today 9/29/15

  11. anon says:

    I knew Leon after his prankster years, as a math teacher at Midland Park High School in NJ. Somehow he took all of that passion and hard work and creative energy and used it to enlighten the minds of thousands of students and turn even the biggest “math-phobic” into, at very least, someone who appreciates the art of it. He ran the student senate there too and rather than make a mockery of it really threw himself into the philanthropic side of student “politics”. He worked tirelessly organizing food drives and used book sales, on top of all those hours preparing lessons. If you ever needed to find Mr. Varjian, we knew he was at the copy machine running worksheets and examples for the next day’s classes or running to the library to borrow a VCR so he could show us one thirty-second clip where “Bo knows calculus” or something equally ridiculous. He threw a birthday party for Einstein every March 14 in all of his classes and an I Love Math Day party every February 14, complete with streamers and I Heart Math cookies. He had an 8-foot diameter paper mâché likeness of his face hanging in the back of his classroom, made by a former student, so he could “always be watching us” even when his back was turned. And, just like his college days, that classroom was just full to overflowing of paraphernalia for the Stident Senate drives, props for his lessons, VHS tapes… just an unbelievable amount of things one would never even think to use to teach math. I always thought that he was a little disappointed that I’d decided to follow in his footsteps and become a calculus teacher; like he wanted more than his life for me. That was his curse though; we all wanted to touch the lives of so many students, just like he did. Leon Varjian died last night, and the world lost a genius, a great soul, and a gifted teacher. I’ll never forget him and his Mets stats, or the Wonderlic tests he made us take, all those pencils, and my favorite Varjian quote:
    “So much math… so little time.”

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