Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in Our State’s April 2014 issue.
One cold winter’s night 40 years ago, when Dwight Sparks was a Western Carolina University junior — an otherwise clean-cut, reasonably serious undergrad from Davie County preparing for a career in journalism — he did something crazy.
That is, under the pseudo-cover of darkness, he sprinted across the chilly Cullowhee campus, almost as naked as the day he was born, while a small gathering of startled onlookers gawked, laughed, or cheered for him and his two fellow streakers.
Sparks wore tube socks and a pair of sneakers — possibly for comic effect, but more likely to help him run faster — for his mad dash past, ahem, Hinds University Center. He also wore a look on his face that captured exactly what he was feeling during that brief, surreal moment of his youth — half terror and half exhilaration.
“In all my life, I have never run so fast,” says Sparks, now a 61-year-old grandfather and the editor and publisher of two small North Carolina newspapers. “It was exciting, but it was also cold. A Cullowhee winter night is not suitable for running naked.”
As if running naked might seem perfectly logical on a Cullowhee night during some other season of the year.
How, he must have wondered as he ran in the raw, had it come to this? How had streaking made its way to Western Carolina’s remote campus in the North Carolina mountains?
He blames his mother.
No, really. Sparks says one of his dormmates, Rich Hall — a Charlottean who later became a comedian and joined the cast of “Saturday Night Live” — used to hang out in Sparks’s room and read his issues of Newsweek magazine, which had been sent to Sparks by his mother. It was in one of those magazines that Hall read about a streak of some 125 students at the University of Maryland, purportedly a national record.
“We can beat that!” Hall shouted.
Sparks chuckles at the memory.
“Rich was just a man possessed after that,” he recalls. “I don’t think we thought it would be easy getting people to take their clothes off and run outside naked — that’s not something people just line up to do — but for the next few days, that was Rich’s total focus. He somehow talked people into doing it.”
First, though, Sparks and Hall — plus another buddy and a couple of accomplices — decided to stage a mini-streak of their own, hoping to garner publicity and boost participation in the upcoming attempt to break Maryland’s streaking record later that week. They arranged for the campus newspaper, The Western Carolinian, to photograph the three-man streak; the photo would be published in the next day’s paper, along with a story written by Sparks, a staff writer for the paper.
The plan was for the three young men to disrobe in the backseat of a car driven by an accomplice, then jump from the car at an appointed drop-off site and sprint madly across the quad to another location, where the accomplice would be waiting with the car. Nerves overcame them, and it took three passes before they finally jumped from the car, with Sparks leading the way.
“I ran about 10 steps and suddenly was concerned that I was the only one running,” he says.
So he looked back and, with a sigh of relief, grinned at the sight of his two fellow streakers dashing from the car with their clothes in hand. He hadn’t grabbed his clothes for the run. Amateurs.
Not many students saw that first streak — “We were just three fools out in the night,” Sparks says. But after the photo and article ran on the front page of the next morning’s Western Carolinian, the added exposure made them the talk of the campus, and the stage was set for a record-breaking streak. Hall, who was known as a bit of a character on campus, milked the opportunity by climbing onto the overhang of a dorm and shouting at students with a megaphone as they exited the cafeteria.
“He was announcing there was going to be a big streak, and he was telling them when to gather and where to gather,” recalls Bob Sabin, then a WCU junior, who reported on the streak for the campus radio station, WCAT. “He definitely got people’s attention.”
For the larger streak, which took place on the night of February 21, 1974, some 138 students — 113 men and 25 women, according to the, um, raw data — dashed from separate residence halls and streaked before a crowd of about 900 cheering onlookers, according to the article Sparks wrote for The Western Carolinian. (He didn’t participate this time.) The streak did, in fact, break Maryland’s record and gain national notoriety for the school — but not for long.
“We were the new world leader in coed streaks,” Sparks says, “but only for about a week, if that long. A streak at another college outclassed ours very quickly.”
Meanwhile, WCU officials — much like college officials elsewhere across the country — responded to the streaking fad with a grin-and-let-’em-bare-it attitude, rather than getting uptight.
“We didn’t get excited and overreact too much,” Glenn Stillion, former WCU vice chancellor for student development, told Western Carolina magazine for a story last summer. “Some people across the country were burning buildings down in the ’60s, so we thought running around naked was fine, compared to that.”
Good, clean fun
What happened at Western Carolina was a microcosm of what was happening on college campuses across the country in early 1974. Streaking was quickly becoming the collegiate fad du jour, following in the flaky footsteps of goldfish-swallowing, telephone booth-stuffing, and panty raids. At the height of streaking’s popularity that February and March, newspapers published stories almost daily about the latest college streaks — how many students ran, where they ran and how far, what accoutrements they wore (sneakers, hats, and the occasional ski mask were not uncommon), and how many spectators showed up to watch — as if they were sporting events. The craze even spawned a No. 1 hit single, “The Streak,” by singer Ray Stevens.
Although the recurring episodes of mass public nudity certainly offended a sizable portion of the population — they saw such exhibitionism as lewd and crude — most Americans seemed to view streaking as a harmless, albeit silly, diversion. A flash in the pan, if you will. They figured it was just a matter of time until all those bare bottoms would go the way of bell-bottoms. For the most part, college administrators looked the other way — figuratively, if not literally — content to let the fad run its course as long as no one was getting hurt. Even a few bemused church leaders turned the other cheek and poked fun at the craze, posting facetious signs with messages such as “Repent, Ye Streakers — Your End Is in Sight!”
If streaking was shaking the country, North Carolina may have been the epicenter. In addition to the record streak at WCU, streaks took place at all of the so-called “Big Four” schools — UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State, Duke, and Wake Forest — and at many, if not most, of the smaller schools: UNC-Greensboro. UNC-Charlotte. East Carolina. Greensboro College. Pembroke State University. Chowan College. Elon College. Davidson College. Atlantic Christian College. High Point College. Queens College. St. Mary’s Junior College.
In Chapel Hill, several streaks made headlines, beginning with the lone young man who sprinted nude through the lobby of the usually staid Carolina Inn in early February. Eight unclothed men zipped through the Granville Towers cafeteria and earned a standing ovation. Nearly 150 streaked one night in near-freezing temperatures. And in a record-setting streak organized by a group of students calling themselves the American Streaker Society, more than 200 men — and another 20 women — streaked across campus and through the undergraduate library. The group even sold 25-cent stickers proclaiming, “I’m a Carolina Streaker.”
But the mother of all streaks was the run on March 7, 1974, when nearly a thousand naked students poured out of Mangum Dormitory, streaked across the UNC campus, and even posed for a group photo near South Building. Thousands more students showed up to watch the well-publicized streak. Campus police blocked off streets so no one would get hurt. Even the UNC pep band attended and provided musical accompaniment for the festive event. The final, record-setting count was 924 streakers, according to Tar Heel basketball statistician Freddie Kiger, who had been recruited to do the counting.
“It was fun and exhilarating,” recalls Mark Tuvim, a streak organizer who says he wore nothing but a bow tie and sneakers for the romp that night. “We had basically a thousand people running naked through the streets, including a number of women, but it was not a sexual thing at all — we made sure no one was harassed in any way. We just saw it as good, clean fun, and no one to my knowledge made any effort to stop it or curtail it. Campus police could’ve said no, and the administration could’ve said no, but they didn’t.”
Tuvim, now an attorney in the Northwest, says the streak was just something fun to do.
“It was college — you do stuff like that,” he explains. “I guess we couldn’t all fit into a phone booth, so we did this instead.”
Day after day, newspapers continued giving streakers more exposure: More than 400 students participated in a coed streak at Duke. A Carolina student fell and broke his leg streaking, but he returned the next night and streaked on crutches. At N.C. State, three streaks took place in one night, with 30, 50, and 80 streakers, respectively. A streak at UNC-Greensboro featured a man and woman streaking on a motorcycle, as well as five young women riding naked in a sports car chauffeured by a nude male student. During an earlier UNC-Greensboro streak, when a university policeman apprehended a female streaker and put her in a campus patrol car, streakers and onlookers surrounded the car and chanted, “Let her go! Let her go!” until the officer finally complied. A fireworks display preceded a streak at Pembroke State. Elon streakers smeared their bodies with paint for their dash across campus.
Almost all of the streaks were male-dominated but, as the trend continued, increasingly more women got involved. Eighty young women joined a streak at UNC-Greensboro, and 20 ran in the buff at Queens College in Charlotte. At St. Mary’s Junior College in Raleigh — where students made an annual tradition of visiting the school president’s home to sing “Happy Birthday” to him — they serenaded him in the nude. Newspapers reported that the president, the Rev. Frank Pisani, “stood at the door for a moment, then went back in and saw to it that the infirmary issued more cold pills the next morning.”
At Wake Forest University — where students unofficially adopted the nickname “The Streakin’ Deacons” during the fad’s heyday — student body president Beth Daniels participated in two streaks on campus. It was really no big deal, she says, but for the first streak, she admits she was nervous that the young man driving the getaway car might not show up, leaving her and six other women out in the cold without any clothes.
“He had to swear on 10 stacks of Bibles he would be waiting at the parking lot for us,” says Daniels, now an attorney in Florida.
Streaking became so prominent that even North Carolina’s arch-conservative U.S. senator, Jesse Helms, weighed in on the topic, suggesting in a letter to his constituents that streakers should be herded into their respective schools’ football stadiums, where they would periodically be doused with cold water until their parents came to pick them up. Helms later conceded no college was likely to act on his suggestion, “but if it were done, I don’t believe there would be any more streaking,” he said.
As it turned out, streaking gradually began to disappear on college campuses and was all but gone as a campus fad by the end of the 1974 spring semester. Despite the outcry streaking caused in certain circles, it is mostly remembered as a harmless activity carried out largely by carefree college students who were just looking for fun.
That’s the way Dwight Sparks chooses to remember his mad dash across the quad at Western Carolina the night he sprang from the backseat of a car, ran about 10 steps, then looked back and grinned at his buddies. He even penned a column about his streak for his newspaper, The Clemmons Courier, in which he concluded, “As President George W. Bush once said, ‘When I was young and stupid, I was young and stupid.’ ”
Forty years later, though, he still looks back and grins.