- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 30, 2015

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Leon Varjian, who came to the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the 1970s to study in “the graduate school of fun” and ended up masterminding such famous pranks as the 1,000 plastic pink flamingoes on Bascom Hill and the Statue of Liberty head on frozen Lake Mendota, has died at age 64, a relative said.

A longtime mathematics teacher at Midland Park High School in New Jersey, Varjian was found dead at his home in Wood-Ridge, New Jersey, on Tuesday, his cousin, Barbara Sabonjian, told the Wisconsin State Journal. She said a heart attack was suspected.

Wood-Ridge police Det. Joseph Biamonte confirmed the death Wednesday to the newspaper but released no details.

Varjian was a noted prankster in Madison and at UW-Madison for several years in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. He took one-credit classes to remain eligible for the Wisconsin Student Association, the UW student government. He never graduated from the school.

Varjian was a student senator when he and sidekick Jim Mallon hit on the idea of making up a Pail & Shovel political party and running a mock campaign later described as “one continuing performance-art piece on the corruption of government,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.

In a 2007 profile, Varjian told the Wisconsin State Journal that he came to Madison in the fall of 1977 with the goal of studying in “the graduate school of fun.”

That first semester he set up a table on the university’s Library Mall and persuaded more than 100 students to sign a petition calling for the UW to be renamed the “University of New Jersey” so “students could go to a fancy East Coast school without moving.”

The 1992 book “If At All Possible, Involve a Cow: The Book of College Pranks,” gave Varjian and Mallon and Madison an entire chapter.

Two pranks live on in campus folklore. The appearance of Lady Liberty’s head and torch on the lake ice behind Memorial Union happened in the winter of 1978-79. Varjian and Mallon had promised to bring the Statue of Liberty to Madison, and they did - only they brought a version made of chicken wire, papier mache and muslin cloth that took three days to stage.

The pink flamingos showed up in the fall of 1979 as a celebration of the start of the school year. In 2009, the lawn ornament was named the official bird of Madison.

In 1980, Varjian organized a boombox parade, featuring a couple of dozen marchers, on Madison’s State Street. He said the marchers were wearing discarded uniforms from Indiana University, where Varjian was a student before arriving at UW.


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