In 1973, the University of Maryland’s acting vice chancellor, William Thomas, sent an open letter to the student, um, body.
“Please be assured,” wrote Thomas, “that neither of those impressions is correct.” That activity was “nude running,” what today we call streaking. Back then, it was understood that the fad started there, at least by those at the College Park campus.
The nation reached peak streak in 1974, the year Ray Stevens released his novelty song “The Streak” and Time devoted 1,100 words to what the magazine called “the epidermis epidemic.” Wrote Time: “With astonishing swiftness, streaking, the art of the point-to-point dash in the buff, has burgeoned into an unabashed, pandemic American fad.”
It may have seemed as if the streaking pandemic had exploded swiftly, but it had been percolating for at least five years at the University of Maryland. A front-page story that ran in March 1969 in the campus newspaper, the Diamondback, was headlined: “Why nude runners do what they do.”
The article recounted the “barrage of nude runners” that had broken out the previous week, including a nocturnal jog taken by four men from the Prince George’s Hall dormitory. The story placed nude running in the category of campus high jinks, such as goldfish eating and flagpole sitting, but also mentioned a more political aspect. “It is a reaction over a reaction,” professor of psychology Robert Waldrop explained.
The catalyzing incident had occurred the previous week, when university president Wilson Elkins was summoned to Annapolis and grilled by state politicians over the latest issue of the literary magazine at the Baltimore County campus. The magazine had published photos from a Corcoran Gallery exhibit by photographer Bob Stark that included 10 photographs of two naked dancers.
Lawmakers wanted to know what Elkins was going to do about it. “The filthy minds have taken over the colleges,” said state senator Frederick Malkus (D-Lower Shore) at the impromptu hearing. “Would good schools like Brigham Young or Notre Dame allow this sort of thing?”
When an Associated Press story about of this and other nude runs at Maryland spread around the country, appearing in such places as San Angelo, Tex., Charleston, S.C., and Rockford, Ill., it omitted the protest angle. For their part, the nude runners told the Diamondback reporter that running naked helped relieve the monotony of campus life. They said it was a fad they hoped would bring attention to their dorm.
Over the next few years, naked runs became a feature of dorm life at Maryland. Some runs were carefully orchestrated, with cars and drivers strategically positioned for the naked runners to hop into. Some runs were massive, featuring up to 600 naked students.
Occasionally, security was called. In October 1972, a senior named Jeffrey Dulberg was brought before the student-run Campus Judicial Board at Maryland and accused of injuring the well-being of the university by running naked around the Ellicott Hall dormitory complex.
Dulberg argued that he had not been charged with indecent exposure, had not jeopardized anyone’s safety, and had acted totally within the customs and traditions of the university. He was found guilty and ordered into academic probation. He appealed the decision and won.
By November 1973, the naked runs had become so common that the editors of the Diamondback felt compelled to announce they would not be covering every single one of them. “We do not consider nudity obscene nor do we condone censorship in that respect,” they wrote. “We do, however, reserve the right to avoid day-to-day coverage of college pranks.”
That same year, the alternative campus newspaper, Argus, tweaked the pastime in its April Fools issue, running a parody classified ad: “Will the guys who gave the nude run the other night please contact the girls of LaPlata 5. We want to laugh in your face.”
Some sources claim the word “streaking” was born around this time when a Washington television news reporter covering one of the mass nude runs at Maryland said, “They are streaking past me right now. It is an incredible sight!”
Perhaps, but Answer Man found the word used in that context as early as 1969. And it is impossible to say whether the fondness University of Maryland students had for the practice directly influenced other campuses. But it is clear the Terps thought they were pioneers.
In March 1974, during a spate of high-profile streaking incidents around the country, including at the University of South Carolina (with over 500 streakers) and the University of Georgia (with nearly 1,000 streakers), a reporter for the Washington Evening Star wrote: “Maryland streakers claim the nation’s first nude run in 1969, from the Bel Air Dormitory, and that the words ‘Nude Runner’ were etched into the pavement outside the building to commemorate it. The run was made by a streaker known only as the ‘Snake,’ who took off to the strains of the ‘William Tell’ overture.”
If the Snake was 20 in 1969, he would be 74 now. Is he out there, ready to go on the record and claim his place in history?