Forty years ago, on September 4, 1979, students on their way to the first day of classes for the new school year at UW–Madison discovered 1,008 plastic, pink flamingos covering Bascom Hill.
It was the work of the Pail and Shovel Party, the mock political organization that had taken control of UW student government that year. Led by Leon Varjian and Jim Mallon, the Pail and Shovel Party used its $80,000 budget for a series of legendary pranks.
Varjian and Mallon also brought the Statue of Liberty (replicated using chicken wire, plywood, and papier-mâché) to Lake Mendota and helped organize a boom box parade, with Varjian and his cardinal-clad crew high-stepping through downtown Madison with giant radios playing march music.
Students quickly swiped the pink, plastic flamingos from Bascom Hill, though more people claim to have an original than could possibly be true. Not every student was pleased with Pail and Shovel’s antics, but enough students enjoyed the jokes to reelect Mallon and Varjian for a second term in 1980.
The flamingo tradition is revived each fall when the Wisconsin Alumni Association holds its annual Fill the Hill fundraiser. With each donation given during the one-day event, a flamingo is added to the lawn of Bascom Hill.
In 2009, the city of Madison designated the lawn ornament as the city’s official bird.
The plastic pink flamingo prank is also memorialized on the Badger Pride Wall in the Wisconsin Alumni Association’s Alumni Park, which opened on October 6, 2017. The park is located between Memorial Union and the Red Gym on the UW–Madison campus and is open year-round.
For more information and a virtual tour of the park, please visit alumnipark.com.