Remembering the elephant races

Jim Drummond, editor of the Titan Times in 1965, told of the early days of CSUF journalism in his talk at the 50th reunion.  A highlight of those days was the elephant races that first garnered national media attention for the new state college in Orange County.  This is the text of his presentation.

I was living in Seal Beach and was a senior at Huntington Beach Union High School in 1962, when I read about the First Intercollegiate Elephant Race at Orange County State College in Newsweek magazine.

Before that, I hadn’t heard of California’s 12th state college campus, which first held classes in 1959, so, at least in my case, the often-told story that elephant races put the three-year-old school on the map is really true.

Four elephant races were held in the 1960s, and I wrote the story recounting the final ‘60s race for the May 24, 1965, issue of the then-weekly Titan Times.  Since I was just named editor of next year’s paper and hadn’t taken the required Copy Editing and Layout class, I also was assigned to dummy this final issue of the school year “for practice.”

I was majoring in history with a minor in journalism working for a teaching credential, so I was surprised when advisor and department chair J William Maxwell selected me editor as the paper moved to a twice-weekly publication schedule for the 1965-66 school year.

In those days of lead type and engraved photographs, we thought we did remarkably well getting three pictures and a story of what turned out to be the last ‘60s race May 21 on the front page of the paper distributed on campus on Monday morning, May 24.

The history of the four elephant races from the 1960s is well-told in the contemporaneous accounts in the student-run newspapers, magazines and yearbooks, in what was called the Journalism Department before becoming the Communications Department in 1965-66.  I gathered the factual information for this presentation from those student-written reports.

Of course, the first May 11, 1962, race, held on campus, with 14 colleges entering 12 elephants, an elephant tortoise and two students in an elephant costume drew the most publicity, with some 90 reporters from newspapers, magazines, press associations, TV and radio stations—including, by one account, helicopter coverage.  The college even received a telegram of advice from former Vice President Richard Nixon, then locked in a primary fight with a conservative opponent for the GOP gubernatorial nomination.

Big name entries, such as Harvard, USC and Cal-Tech, helped hype the national publicity, leading to stories and pictures in Newsweek, the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, Seattle Times, Detroit Free Press, the BBC and the Voice of America, among others and garnered an Associated Press Top 10 Stories of 1962 listing.

One oft-reprinted photo shows an elephant breaking through some of the 10,000-or-so spectators back to the stable area, but no injuries were reported, the Titan Times noted.

The second race, held May 10, 1963, at Los Alamitos Race Track, brought a bit less national publicity, but Life Magazine was at a pre-race press conference. Elephants from Jungleland and Holter’s Animal Farm were again rented by 11 colleges for the race, with an estimated 15,000 spectators.  Members of Orange State’s Elephant Racing Club made appearances on a few local television shows and were heard on several radio stations.

By the time of the third race, held back on campus May 8, 1964, the Titan Times was reporting a host of difficulties:  funding, clearing weeds from the course and a lack of student volunteers.  Student government financing didn’t materialize until five weeks before setting a race date, which left little time for students at other campuses to raise funds and participate, so elephants, riders and spectators down from the previous year.

And the final ‘60s race, held on May 21, 1965, was a real last-minute effort.  Financing was secured from Placentia for a race to be held on a field in that community as part of that city’s Heritage Days celebration, with Placentia granted an option to host the event for the next 10 years by student government and the Elephant Racing Club. 

During the run-up to the race, a Titan Times editorial advocated appointing an Elephant Race Commissioner to provide year-round organizing support for the event, and another proposed that the 1965 race be called off and the event held every third year.

The 1965 race had no entries outside of Cal-State Fullerton 11 days before the event, but two participants in the first 1962 race did turn out for three races—the Northrop Institute of Technology and Fullerton Junior College.  Television personalities Beverly Washburn and Jody McCrea handed trophies to winners, including the last CSF rider, Bill Ramsay.

The Titan Times carried plenty of stories for an on-again, off-again 1966 race, including the withdrawal of financial support from Placentia. The newspaper’s suggestion to name an Elephant Racing Commissioner was adopted, but to no avail. The April 1, 1966 Titan Times headlined: ’66 Elephant Race Cancelled! with an exclamation point for emphasis.

Instead, the annual Day of the Titan, held May 20, 1966, featured a “Miss Elephant” contest that the newspaper described as “in memory of the ill-fated elephant race.”  The event picked a winner from four male contestants dressed “befitting a lady pachyderm,” according to the paper, with one man emerging from a coffin, symbolizing a dead race.

The 1967 Day of the Titan again featured a Miss Elephant contest, and a baby elephant rode in the back of a truck during a parade, but nothing could match the excitement and number of media stories about the four elephant races held from 1962 though 1965.

A 1990 Homecoming event had elephants back on campus, and a picture of President Milton Gordon riding a good-sized elephant was widely circulated.  Also, a reunion of the 1962 race riders and organizers was held in 1990, and the university’s 40th and 50th anniversary celebrations resulted in stories and pictures about the earlier racing days.

The April 27, 2009, Daily Titan mentioned the races in a story about last year’s Day of the Titan event, so the events of the ‘60s are likely to be recounted for another 50 years.

But, in case you think the pre-daily Titan Times only dealt with such subjects as elephant racing and stuffing students in Volkswagens, as an early editor I want to assure all tonight that the Vietnam War, student protests, censorship, academic freedom and, yes, the ever-present parking problems were staples of the weekly and twice-weekly papers of the ‘60s.

-Jim Drummond

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