It was one of those rare brisk mornings in south Alabama, where your breath fogged in the cold and you debated whether walking quickly to class would warm you up or create just enough of a breeze to give your nose frostbite.
You had to make the trek between Weaver and Martin, and you braced yourself to walk by the fountain, knowing the spray of water would be icy. The sun was so bright that day, and the sky so blue, that you still remember, 13 years later, how the reflection off the gleaming white porcelain toilet nearly blinded you.
You stopped. Because, on this day that you will one day tell your kids about, there is a toilet on top of the fountain at the University of Mobile.
Best Pranks Ever
It happened at some point during your college career, whether you were a student at Mobile College in the 1960s, a member of the latest graduating class of 2013, or on campus any of the years in between. Someone – maybe you – pulled the all-time best college prank ever.
Perhaps it involved crickets, or furniture arranged on a rooftop, or a car parked on the front steps of Weaver Hall. Possibly it involved a professor; probably it involved your friends. How you did it, who helped, and what happened next became the stories of your youth. Sometimes they are the stories you tell your children; sometimes they are stories you hope your kids don’t find out because, surely, they wouldn’t do something so crazy and stupid.
The Legend of the Overflowing Toilet
It took about 13 years and a query on the University of Mobile Alumni Facebook page asking for photos of the toilet prank for the participants to agree the time had come to reveal all.
“The funnest part for us has been that no one has ever known who did it,” said Matt Wilson ’02.
“Anytime you can pull something off and keep it secret, the legend grows,” added Josh Jones ’02.
Matt, now executive director of First Priority of Alabama, and Josh, who sells surgical robots for Intuitive Surgical, both live in the Birmingham area. Each has one photo of the night the toilet made it to the top of the fountain, with the help of fellow student Alan Castleberry who attended UMobile for two years. Steve Jenks ’02 took the photos with a disposable camera.
“I was called to come there specifically to take pictures, and that’s what I did,” Steve said. His hand, he said, never touched porcelain.
“I really can’t take credit for (the toilet prank), but I can take credit for being there when it happened. I felt very honored to be the guy holding the camera,” said Steve, now youth pastor at Tompkins Baptist Church in Grove Hill, AL.
Josh’s photo, the one they all agree is the best, is usually pinned to his home office bulletin board but is packed away right now as his family is in the process of moving. Matt’s photo, pictured here, shows the young men at the moment of triumph –drinking soft drinks, he is quick to point out.
Despite an extensive search in the UMobile archives, a photo of The Fountain Head could not be located. Until one surfaces from an alumnus who captured a shot in the days before cell phones had cameras, memories are all that are left.
But that’s okay. Unlike printed photos which can fade with time, imprinted memories of a successful prank only get better as they age.
Anatomy of a Prank
It happened one night around 1999 or 2000 – the timeframe is a bit foggy. It was a cold night, and Matt and Alan drove to the trailer park where Josh lived off-campus in a 26-foot travel trailer.
Josh’s neighbor had piled up trash by the road. Sitting in the trash, ready to be hauled off, was an ancient, heavy, white porcelain toilet.
“Matt and Alan knocked on the door and said, ‘Have you seen the toilet across the street?’ I said I had, and I was wondering what to do with it,” Josh recalled.
Here’s what happened next, recounted by the two primary instigators.
Matt: We had no money and nothing to do. I said, “We’ve got to do something with that.”
Josh: It was a full porcelain pony, 100 percent porcelain, heavy, had to be at least 40 years old. It was crystal white. It was a beautiful structure. Literally, we’re standing in my front yard looking across the street and just brainstorming. Do we put it at the (college) entrance, on someone’s car, in someone’s car, change someone’s toilet out with it?
With Alan’s help, they hefted the toilet into Matt’s Jeep Cherokee and drove to campus.
Matt: Our first plan was to get into Martin Hall and somehow get onto the roof and put it on the top corner of the roof. Martin Hall was open – we just couldn’t get to the roof.
Josh: If I remember right, we both had that “Eureka!” moment – the leaking clothespin! It’s got to go on the leaking clothespin!
The fountain sculpture is actually a work by Mobile artist Casey Downing Jr. titled “Sentinal 18 Fountain.”
Josh: We went into Martin Hall and there was a full-sized fellowship table and A-frame ladder. It was a sign from the Lord. Anytime you have a toilet, a fellowship table and an A-frame ladder, the sign can’t get any clearer.
Matt: We had to watch the security guards and time them to see how long we had before they came around again.
Josh: We grabbed the table, took it to the fountain and set it up in the fountain. We put the A-frame ladder on top of the fountain. We got the toilet on top of the table, then Matt and Alan climbed the ladder with the toilet.
Matt: The fountain is taller than you think.
Josh: It was hurtful cold. It was below 32 degrees that night. You touch that water and it hurts your hand.
Matt: We couldn’t find out how to turn the water off, and it was so cold. We finally found it, turned the water off and got the toilet on top.
We turned the water back on and it was coming out of the top of the toilet, which was unexpected and beautiful.
Josh: Just about that time, we got it up there and are admiring our work, and Steve Jenks came strolling along. Jenksy is the one who snapped the pictures.
Matt: About that time, we looked at each other and said we couldn’t tell anyone we did this.
Quickly, avoiding the next patrol of security guard Ms. Lucy, they returned the folding table and ladder to Martin Hall and left the scene, promising to tell no one.
The toilet stayed on top of the fountain for several days. It was the talk of the campus. No one could figure out how it got up there, and on a small campus where most anything would be discovered eventually, no one knew for sure who did it.
When the maintenance crew gathered at the fountain with a cherry-picker a few days later, Josh was walking by.
Josh: I’m standing there with the maintenance crew of about four or five guys there. The head guy was shaking his head, saying “I don’t know how we’re going to get this down.”
I said, “Tell you what I would do. I would get a table. Put the table in the fountain. Get a ladder. Put it on top of the table. Climb up the ladder and take the toilet down.”
The guy looked at me and said, “That’ll never work.”
Eventually, the crew used the cherry-picker to push the toilet off the top of the fountain, where it hit the bricks and shattered.
Years passed, and fewer than a dozen people knew this story – until today.
“We found out last year from some friends who had moved from Mobile that people on campus were still talking about it,” Matt said.
“That was just such a fun night,” Josh said. “We had such a good time. We were pretty excited about getting the toilet up there without breaking it.”
They agreed to tell their story now because “we figured the statue of limitations had run out,” Josh said. “Literally, we put it up for a vote. When the Facebook piece came out asking who did the toilet, Matt forwarded it to me and said, ‘Do you think the time is right?’”
Matt added, “It’s time for the world to know. I don’t think Dr. Foley can hold our diplomas from us now. I hope he finds this funny.”
In telling their story, the pranksters revealed the “how.”
One question still remains: “Why?”
“The leaking clothespin is such a random, abstract piece of art,” Josh said. “Why not put a toilet on it?”
Matt answered the question of “why” with a question of his own.
“Have you ever met a 20-year-old guy before? I don’t have any explanation for why we would put a toilet on top of the fountain, except we were 20 years old.”