Did you know the chapel stage was once almost on fire? A half-century ago, before the Benson Auditorium was built, chapel was in the Anthony and Wright Administration Building auditorium. Back then, social clubs organized some of the programs, and one club wanted to recreate a campfire singing onstage. They filled a metal tub with sand and non-flammable wood. A little dose of a certain chemical would ignite a small fire in the basin. But in the scramble to get everything ready for chapel, one club brother — Why are you not shocked that this was a men’s club? — thought the tub needed a bigger dose, so he dumped the whole bottle.
During chapel, the flame got higher and higher while the club sang its songs, and soon two brothers had to haul the tub off stage where their friend was standing ready with the fire extinguisher. Disaster was averted. This story can be told now because the statute of limitations has run out the laws broken that day.
Sometimes, bits of hilarity were only appreciated by the faculty. One semester — before we went to two services for the next few years — the Benson was so packed the faculty had to be seated in the spot under the stage usually reserved for the orchestra. When you are that close under the podium, you see more saliva spray than you want to remember. Rain hats became common. And some chapel speakers that semester took great pleasure in working specific Bible passages into their talks. “He has redeemed my soul from going to the pit,” said one wag. An inside joke to be sure, but the slightly damp audience loved it.
I admire the courage of anyone who leads singing in chapel. It’s hard enough just to start a round of “Happy Birthday” at family parties — imagine trying to turn 3,000 people into a decent chorus. That’s why I felt for the guy who was leading “When you pass through the waters” one day when he made a mistake and overcorrected. The slide said, “when you pass through the waters.” But he started the verse that said, “when you pass through the fire.” A sharp turn in the middle of a word resulted in him leading us all in a verse of “when you pass through the farter.”
Which reminds me of the time my friend was asked to lead the closing prayer at church. What he meant to say was to ask forgiveness for our shortcomings. What came out was, “Lord, forgive us our falling shorts.”
But my all-time favorite chapel story is from 2006. Dr. Jeff Hopper, who was then dean of the Honors College, came up with an idea for a spoof of “American Idol.” The show was just 4 years old then, and our version was called, “Faculty Idol.” Naturally, we had a panel of judges, based on the original cast from the show. A Walton Scholar named Denise Sandoval was Paula Abdul, women’s soccer coach Greg Harris was Randy Jackson and Keith Cronk, now vice president for IS&T, was Simon Cowell.
Several faculty members appeared as contestants. Dr. David Cole did a chemistry experiment, and Dr. Donny Lee gave a flannel-graph lesson. Always cutting edge, that College of Education. Of course, I can’t say anything; I represented the English Department and diagrammed a sentence. Then business professor Dr. Randy McLeod gave an economics lecture. Finally, Dr. David Burks got up as a contestant.
The judges asked what he did as president, and he said, “I read announcements.” Then, Burks held up his arm in a hip-hop pose and proceeded to rap an announcement — as only he could. Yes, it was awful, but that’s why the crowd loved it. Then, the judges had the nerve to critique this brave performance. Harris tried to be positive. He said, “Your lyrics are tight.” Then he said, “But your delivery,” and he put his head in his hands and moaned for 25 seconds. I don’t remember the other comments, but whatever Cronk said was the last straw. Burks stormed off the stage, went out the side door and slammed it behind him, which brought the house down again.
Proverbs tells us “a cheerful heart is good medicine,” and the psalmist says, “We were filled with laughter and we sang for joy.” Over the years, I’ve experienced a range of emotions in chapel: I’ve been moved and inspired, saddened and angered, filled with hope and challenged to think. Many a spiritual feast has been set before me. Yes, there have been some cold leftovers, but overall, chapel has been a blessing. I’m especially grateful for those times when — planned or not — something funny happened. May there be many more of those moments.