Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898 | SUBSCRIBE

Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

"Hell's Aardvarks" at 50

1.1.00

In the antediluvian days before e-mail, the Harvard Crimson's notice column published an alphabetical list announcing student events. Space limitations often swallowed notices at the end of the alphabet--like those of Harvard Yearbook Publications (HYP), listed under Y. Weary of the deletions, the yearbook staff counterattacked, posting its notices under "Aardvarks," a reference to the organization's longtime mascot. No more notices were cut--a triumph of the guerrilla creativity of the mavericks, rebels, nomads, outsiders, misfits, and geniuses who traditionally populate the yearbook staff.

"It's entirely personality-driven and largely humor-driven," says Maryanne Fenerjian '82, Ph.D. '91, who summarizes her aardvark years as "Lots of fun, lots of burgers, lots of croquet." For much of its history, the HYP staff styled itself "Hell's Aardvarks" on T-shirts, sweatshirts, posters, and even boxer shorts. Yet this irreverent bunch is the only Harvard student group that publishes serious, bona fide hardcover books: the freshman registers and the annuals that document each academic year in words and images.

Unlike the Crimson, Lampoon, and Advocate, the original yearbook staffers inherited no office, castle, or house. "They didn't have their own building, so they had to figure out ways to attract talented people," says Lee S. Smith '69. "They decided to be outrageous." Outrageous and shrewd: in 1955, the organization started a building fund fed by earnings from its varied publishing ventures. Investments increased the kitty, which 40 years later had grown to more than a million dollars. In 1994, HYP bought a stylish Harvard Square office condominium--miraculously, without a fund drive or major benefactor. Saul B. Cohen '55, M.B.A. '58, who spearheaded the creation of the building fund, has served as one of its trustees ever since. "We wrote the game rules: in good years, a percentage of the profits would go into the fund," he says. "But if there was red ink, you could not dip into the fund--too bad, but you had to bail yourselves out. That would be a learning experience, a way of saying, 'Let's get real.'" Real it is: current HYP president Richard Freed '01 calls the quarters at Two Brattle Square "a great space that is more than adequate to our purpose. There's good office area, a fully equipped darkroom, and flexibility for future expansion." He notes that the building fund remains an active account.

This October, with characteristic loose scheduling, yearbook alumni from all over the country converged on Cambridge for a dedication of the facility and a celebration of half a century of book publishing. The organization's prehistory stretches back to 1889, when the Harvard Portfolio appeared; Harvard Albums and Class Albums succeeded it, but by 1949, the University-subsidized production process was breaking down. "Each year a group of seniors came into existence to do the class book, but all the knowledge was lost because every year the members graduated and went away," says George Feeney '50, M.B.A. '52. "It was horribly inefficient and discontinuous."

That year, with some working capital and a credit rating from Harvard, a group of students from different classes founded HYP, which charged a fee for the yearbooks, sold advertising, and became a self-sustaining student organization. Feeney conceived of titling each yearbook after the age of Harvard College; hence, the 1950 annual is 314. Sixty-three undergraduates worked to produce 314, using rudimentary facilities in a couple of rooms on Massachusetts Avenue.

By 1954, HYP had moved into the Student Activities Building at 52 Dunster Street, and, with Cohen's leadership, had incorporated. "We were an upstart organization," says Stuart Trott '53. "We went looking for craziness to try to get more people to come out for our publication. Joining wasn't automatic--we may have called it a 'comp,' but very rarely did we ask anyone to leave. We threw parties whenever we could. One guy bought a wonderful hearse for $75--it could fit a beer keg in back along with a whole bunch of people. Once we drove it out to the beach, and on the way back encountered a funeral cortege. I couldn't persuade the driver to hook onto the procession." Trott and a fellow aardvark, both wearing tuxedo jackets and black shorts, once entered the (Harvard Square to) Wellesley Bicycle Race on a tandem bicycle. "We had a friend who owned a convertible," he says. "With his car and an intricate network of back roads, we were able to cross the finish line first!" An amusing cartoon of an aardvark inspired Trott to draw his own version; it became the HYP mascot and has been reincarnated several times by subsequent artists.

Talented designers gave the annual a look that stimulated inquiries from other yearbooks around the country. Writers contributed essays and articles that were laid out like magazine features, accompanied by excellent photographs. And the yearbook offered photographers something unique among student publications: high-resolution images reproduced on good paper in a bound book. These advantages attracted some of the top photographic talent at Harvard, and have done so ever since. Furthermore, "The yearbook had far and away the best darkroom on campus," says Linda Liu Behar '68.

In 1955, the yearbook aquired a free biweekly newspaper for freshmen, The Yardling, as a training ground for editors and ad salespeople. A year later, The Yardling organized a successful campaign to bring a student participant in the 1956 Hungarian revolt to Harvard. "He came the following year, with his full tuition raised by freshmen," says former Yardling staff member Pamela Forbes '60.

In 1957 the yearbook started publishing Cambridge 38, which evolved during the 1960s into a sophisticated magazine of essays, short fiction, poetry, drawings, and especially photography. "We had so many phenomenal photos that we couldn't use in the yearbook--dreamy rainy-night pictures, a solitary sculler on the Charles, photo essays," says Forbes. Part of the magazine's purpose was to widen advertising distribution; another impetus came from "sitting around lamenting that we were a once-a-year publication that was seen as just documenting what was going on, rather than a genuinely creative enterprise," says Dick Gunther '59, who named Cambridge 38 after the local postal zone to suggest its wider purview. In a sense, both periodicals were reactions to an essential paradox of yearbook work summarized by 334's president, Susy Saunders '70: "By the time it's published, it's already nostalgia."

Saunders's path to HYP's presidency opened in 1957, when then business manager John Fisher '58 learned that the Radcliffe Yearbook organization was having troubles that paralleled those of the Harvard class album staff a decade earlier. He successfully proposed to the Harvard and Radcliffe College deans that HYP publish the Radcliffe Yearbook and Radcliffe Freshman Register. In addition to offering business and editorial advantages, the arrangement turned HYP coed. Forbes, elected art and layout chair in April 1958, became the first woman to hold an executive position on a Harvard undergraduate publication. By then, she recalls, "We felt we were running a publishing house with multiple products." She was offered the presidency in her senior year, but declined in favor of her studies; Roxane Harvey Gudeman '62 became HYP's first woman president instead, in 1962. (For comparison, the Crimson elected its first female president in 1977, the Lampoon in 1982.) In 1965, the Harvard and Radcliffe yearbook organizations officially merged and thereafter produced a single volume.

Pamela Forbes's ascent exemplifies the aardvarks' inclusive spirit. Even graduate students are welcome. Photographers C.C. "Didi" Pei '68, M.Arch. '72, and Ivar Viehe-Naess III '67, M.Arch '72, logged seven years apiece on the staff. The African-American editor-in-chief of 353, Michael Whitmire '89, stresses HYP's diversity of leadership: during his college years, the editors included two women and two black men, and an Asian-American woman served as president. "On some student publications it would have been a big deal to have a black editor," he says. At HYP it was nothing new: two decades earlier, the black managing editor of 333 was Lee S. Smith, the "self-appointed organizer" of this fall's yearbook convocation.

In 1981, Harvard turned this tribe into nomads by evicting them from 52 Dunster Street. In succession, administrators herded the aardvarks to the Varsity Club, to a basement in Grays, to North House, to the basement of Memorial Hall, and finally to the basement of Cabot House. "We redecorated, we ironed curtains, we got kicked out," is Maryanne Fenerjian's terse account. These wandering years were somewhat demoralizing. "There wasn't even shelf space to put up our old yearbooks," says Whitmire. A North House flood in the mid 1980s destroyed many old yearbooks, and at one point junk haulers removed a safe containing HYP's official seal, stock certificates, and articles of incorporation because that year's staff was clueless about the safe's contents and the combination to open its lock.

Tumblers fell into place, however, in 1994, when the aardvarks finally bought themselves a home. There is now a yearbook website (http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~leesmith/vision.html), and display cases at Two Brattle Square contain memorabilia like a black-on-gold "Hell's Aardvarks" T-shirt worn by photographer Pei as part of another yearbook entry in the Wellesley Bicycle Race. At the October gathering, Smith recalled how Pei once injured his wrist in a legendary bicycle accident on Mount Auburn Street and sought comfort at the yearbook office before crossing the street to University Health Services. That incident exemplifies the way the yearbook "becomes a family and a home," says Smith. "The sense of inclusiveness isn't lip service--it's real." Michael Whitmire may have captured the feeling best in a recruiting talk for new staff members. "We have this year-long party," he told them, "and we put out a yearbook on the side."

~Craig Lambert