“I don’t understand how that is even possible,” senior Amanda Reese said Tuesday afternoon as she shaded her eyes and gazed up at least six stories to the clock face and a small square door that someone might pop open to nab the hands.
The hands disappeared sometime before dawn Monday, the last day of class. Late that afternoon, maintenance workers removed the hands from a second clock on the back side of the tower to check for damage.
Campus police are searching for a 51-inch minute hand and a 38-inch hour hand. A university spokeswoman called the theft “a serious violation of Georgetown’s Student Code of Conduct.”
There is little documentation of the history of this tradition, although generations of students have written their initials or nicknames, along with the date, inside the clock tower, according to those who have been there. The prank dates to at least the 1960s, although the tradition of mailing the hands from the Jesuit university to the Vatican apparently didn’t start until the 1970s.
The prank is much more difficult to execute these days, because the tower’s staircases and passageways are barricaded. After the last theft in September 2005, the university added more security.
“There are not a lot of ways that you can stop them,” said Thomas D. Erb, president of Electric Time Co., based in Medfield, Mass., one of the world’s largest suppliers of tower clock hands. (The company did not supply the Healy hands, and a Georgetown spokeswoman was unable to identify the provider.) Erb said he has responded to dozens of such pranks during his 25-year career. “They are very creative.”
Pranks are rife at colleges as seniors seek to make a mark before they graduate and other students try to escape the stress of finals. But college administrators worry that these adventures can lead to injuries, lawsuits or expensive damage.
The 2005 Healy hand heist was executed by a junior and a freshman who shared a love of adventure and climbing. They seized the hands early one September morning but were caught later while trying to return the goods. They were nearly suspended, but instead they had to complete dozens of community service hours and write essays about Georgetown traditions that are less dangerous.
“We were just looking for an adventure, that’s all,” said Wyatt Gjullin, now 24, who is graduated in 2009 and is living in Seattle — working, studying for his LSATs and waiting on a Fulbright application.
The two men said they learned the hard way that Georgetown officials do not approve of students risking their lives and committing crimes in the name of tradition.
“We didn’t really anticipate the university being that upset about it,” said Drew Hamblen, 27, who is in the Navy and based in Norfolk.