To woo students, tour guides blur fact-fiction line

Each variation of the story is different, but there are some irrefutable facts. A statue of Nathan Hale stands next to Connecticut Hall on Old Campus, and a carbon copy of the same statue stands in the entrance of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Langley, Virg. headquarters.

But after that, the story gets confusing.

A prospective student rubs the statue of Theodore Woolsey, which brings good luck, according to tour-guide legend.
Han Xu
A prospective student rubs the statue of Theodore Woolsey, which brings good luck, according to tour-guide legend.

Nathan Hale, America’s oldest, and possibly worst, spy — he was captured within 48 hours of his first assignment — was a Yale graduate who famously told his British captors, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” In 1914, Yale commissioned a statue of the renowned patriot, but in 1969 the CIA made a generous offer for a statue to the University.

According to tour-guide legend, Yale refused. As the story goes, on a moonless night, CIA operatives scaled the walls of Welch Hall and entered Old Campus, shrouded by darkness in the dead of night. Conveniently — for the sake of the story’s dramatic power — all the students on Old Campus were asleep. Some guides say there were helicopters involved. Some say that photos, measurements and finally a mold were cast so the CIA could copy the statue. Others suggest that the statue standing in Virginia is in fact the stolen original.

Immediately after telling his version of the story, Ned Mitchell ’09 asks his tour group to trust his credibility.

“Everything I say is completely true,” he says. “I fact-check everything.”

Mitchell’s assurances aside, the story appears to be at least partly apocryphal. While the CIA operatives make for interesting characters, Gaddis Smith ’54 — Larned Professor Emeritus of History, who is writing a comprehensive history of Yale — maintains that the true story is somewhat less exciting.

“The story of the theft is not true,” he said. “The CIA asked permission for measurements to make a replica for their Langley office.”

Such embellishment is a mainstay of Yale campus tours, Smith explained. Not only do tour guides provide insight into student life and academics, he said, but they are also charged with entertaining the throngs of students and parents who come to New Haven to scope out Yale’s campus. Tour guides, in fact, are hired partially for their storytelling ability, said Thomas Ginakakis ’09, a tour guide now in his third year on the job.

Mitchell, another seasoned tour guide, said a big part of his job is to excite people about Yale lore, regardless of whether or not his anecdotes are based on hard facts.

“People who come to Yale are discerning consumers of a wide range of college opportunities, and it is our job to show that Yale is more than buildings,” Mitchell said. “We want people to see Yale in a larger sense as a place with a lot of energy and tradition.”

It appears to be working. Yale received a record number of applications this year — a whopping 22,528, up 16.6 percent from last year. Jeremiah Quinlan, senior assistant director of undergraduate admissions, said he has noticed a correlation between the numbers of tours and the number of applications submitted to the University.

“The total number of visitors to the Admissions Office has gone from 8,748 in 1994 to 25,434 in 2005, a 190-percent increase,” Quinlan said. “The Visitor Center has seen a similar increase.”

The 10 students interviewed for this story said they have fond memories of their tours, although as seasoned Yalies, they are now able to recognize several inaccuracies in the yarns their tour guides spun.

The biggest surprise for many students, such as Ali Hamedani ’08 and Andy Detty ’09, was the realization that no one actually visits the statue of Theodore Dwight Woolsey for good luck, as they were told on their tours.

“I remember them telling me that lie about people rubbing that foot,” Detty said. “But that’s totally not true. No one rubs the foot. It’s covered in bacteria.”

Mitchell tells his tours that this foot-rubbing tradition is as old as the Woolsey statue’s presence on Old Campus, where it has stood since 1896. According to campus lore, the foot was supposedly made famous because in all his years as president of the University, the crew team never lost a race that Woolsey attended. As the foot that launched a thousand ships — a thousand fast ships — Woolsey’s foot thus became a symbol of luck.

While tour guides may exaggerate the presence of podophilia — an obsession with feet — on campus, this superstitious act may have once been common practice among Yale’s undergraduates.

Judith Schiff, chief research archivist for the University Library, explained that students used to rub Woolsey’s foot for luck sometime in the past, although the origin of the tradition is unknown. But she speculated that Yale traditions are as much tied to these embellished stories as they are to the established facts.

“My impression is that they add false details to the stories on tours,” Schiff said. “But that’s how traditions grow.”

Even Yale historians, including Smith and Schiff, are unsure about the validity of some rumors. The backstory of Vanderbilt Hall and the perks assigned to a Yalie heir is one example of such a rumor.

Ginakakis told the story this way in an interview with the News:

“Cornelius Vanderbilt donated the money to build Vanderbilt Hall under two conditions: that it would be named after his family and that there would be a fantastic suite built for the heirs. When they admitted women in 1969, they put all of them in Vanderbilt Hall. Apparently that year, there was also a Vanderbilt heir on campus, and Yale ended up having to give him his suite.”

Mitchell tells the story, too, but he punctuates the ending by referring to the Vanderbilt heir as the “luckiest man at Yale.”

Schiff said she is not familiar with this rumor.

“But,” she added, “I don’t believe that one is true.”

Despite repeatedly insisting that “everything I say on my tour is completely true and fact-checked,” Mitchell admits that he embellishes some facts.

“When people step in off the New Haven Green, they are there to see the myth and lore of the University,” he remarked.

Some of the stories on the tours are blatantly false, such as Mitchell’s mention of cooling systems in renovated dorms. Other times, the dates are mixed up. But while the facts often blur into fiction, the tours are ultimately designed to entertain, enlighten — and occasionally get a laugh out of their group.

“When I take my tours to Beinecke Library, I tell them that I was actually giving a tour when E. Forbes Smiley, the international map thief, was there,” Ginakakis said. “And that I actually tackled him when he tried sneaking out with the stolen maps.


  • Yale Grad

    I find all of this just a little upsetting - these stories are presented as facts and are often received as such. I've told that story about Vanderbilt a dozen times, and now I feel a bit like a liar and a bit like a fool. I now find myself doubting anything that a tour guide has ever told me about Yale. Did artisans really figure out a way to chip glass panes in the shape of a Y and continue doing so on purpose (explaining the y-shaped window cracks all over campus)? Was the special translucent stone for Beinecke really flown in all the way from Italy? Did the architect for SML really want to build Yale a cathedral but had to settle for building a cathedral of knowledge instead? Was the artist of the painting in SML behind the circulation desk really a communist who snuck in that hammer and sickle? Did Yale's founders really name the school after Elihu Yale on the supposition that a donation would be made only to find out months later that no donation would be made? Did Maya Lin really design the women's table to commemorate Yale's admission of women? Was Yale really a leader in allowing women equal access to education? Do freshmen really live together on old campus? Are Yale students actually happy? See the problem yet?

    I've tagged along on many tours even after coming to Yale just to learn more about my beloved school. How much of what I "know" is actually false? It's a little sickening, to tell the truth. If guides develop a reputation for "embellishment" (read: outright lies), how is anyone supposed to trust them when they talk about how fantastic Yale life is or how stimulating Yale's intellectual atmosphere is? I can't believe they're even suggesting that Yale's dorms have cooling systems. This has really gone too far. It's not just the boy who cried wolf all over again, it's also just downright unethical.

    Please just start saying "rumor has it" when that's appropriate. Sheesh.

  • Anonymous

    Yale's tours are completely off-target. Their biggest fault, however, is not that they tend to embellish historical facts--it is that they talk too much about Yale's history, traditions, and useless anecdotes and too little about academics and student life.

    Also, the tour guides love throwing around dollar amounts--Yale is spending $100 million on this building, $20 million on that building. Useless.

    My family was appalled by the pretension exhibited by the guides during my visit, and we learned almost no information during the tour that was useful in making an intelligent college decision.

    Tone it down a notch, tour guides.

  • cox'n

    Please, it's "crew" or "rowing team." "Crew team" is redundant as a crew and a team are essentially the same. How would "American Medical Association Society" or "Massachusetts Medical Society Association" sound? So, from now on it's either the "Yale Crew" or the "Yale Rowing Team."

  • elgrandecocacola

    Hardly surprising given Yale's dificulty distinguishing fact from fiction, ie Bush,Korean degree scandal, read my lips, no we are not making these changes to compete with Harvardm(financial aid)

  • to cox'n

    the girl who wrote this article is a member of the yale womens CREW TEAM.

  • Anonymous

    The only thing worse than the fibs told by the tour guides is the phony jollity peddled during "Bulldog Days."

  • Anonymous

    My goodness. Some of you who have posted need to calm down a bit. I agree, some of the stories told on tours are a bit over the top, which is probably why my tourguide told it with a slight smirk, acknowledging his audience's skepticism. I went on the tour to learn about student life, a bit of history, and have some fun. If you are going on a tour to find primary sources for your history dissertation, maybe you need to rethink yourself a bit.

  • Anonymous

    There are so many true stories that outshine these pointless fish tales. Clearly the tour guides are just doing this to cure their own boredom or (try to) impress visitors with their creativity. It doesn't serve Yale or the prospectives well.

  • Anonymous

    Ummm… these comments are a little intense/way too focused on the details. Most college tours are crammed with "useless" anecdotes. If you want to learn about the specifics of a certain program or student life… ask! The tour guides definitely leave time open for questions so use it wisely. And chill, everything works out in the end.

  • Anonymous

    I agree that the info is useless and silly, but that's not the point. The problem is that it is also false. Lies have no place in tours to learn about a college. Find new silly stories - ones that are true.

  • alum

    As a former tourguide, I can attest that almost everything in the tour is a lie. I quit the tourguides because I refused to peddle their worthless baloney.

    If the tourguides had half a brain, they would realize that the amount of true historical information about Yale and New Haven could fill up several Ken Burns documentaries. Stop peddling meaningless, trashy stories and use some of it.

    Also, if you want to design a tour route that makes more sense, start by talking about the churches on the New Haven Green and development of New Haven, which is directly linked to the development of Yale. Tie in Yale's art museums and discuss the residential college system in more detail. Most importantly, stop telling lies and spouting completely inaccurate facts and figures about the campus, history, student demographic, surrounding town, and/or building costs.

  • Anonymous

    That she is a rower makes it that much worse. cox'n is entirely right, it is a redundancy to say crew team. A boat has a crew, a rowing team rows, a crew rows a boat.