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Barry Schrader
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I have been writing a column for the Chronicle most of the time since December 2007, with two breaks, one in 2016 and the other in 2017 when my wife Kay suffered a stroke. Due to pancreatic cancer this is my final article. Thank you all for following my articles over the years. Sorry I am not able to read any of your messages. All the articles are archived here for DeKalb County Life, as well as History Detectives.

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Be they gargoyles or grotesques atop The Castle?

By Barry Schrader Senior Columnist....................................Feb 14, 2020

When walking around the Northern Illinois University campus people can see some figures atop Altgeld Hall, also known as The Castle, but probably don’t know much about them. Actually there are both gargoyles and grotesques up there, terrifying creatures in mythology but one serves a purpose.

The gargoyles are on the ends of the roof with open mouths that in some cases served as spouts to carry water off the roof away from the building. The grotesques are just an ornamental touch, according to Glen Gildemeister in his book “Castle on a Hill.” He writes that originally there were 11 grotesques on the battlements, but some were lost over the years, leaving eight. They were struck by lightning more than once, one of them falling to the ground some time in the 1960s. The hideous-looking figure was then placed in the garden area between Altgeld and Still halls.

At some point, vandals knocked the head off, but it was repaired and re-attached. On holidays, art students have been known to adorn the statue with colorful costuming. The Northern Star held a fun contest in 1996 to give it a name. “Olivegoyle” was the winner, even though it is not a gargoyle but a grotesque. Somewhere in all this history I read there is mention of a gryphon as well, another mythical creature.

Now here is the local legend, dating back to the World War II era. According to lore, if a virgin walks under the archway, the gargoyles will break into a grin. I didn’t research the validity of that one.

On the left is a gargoyle hanging off the edge of The Castle. At right is the grotesque in the garden area nearby. (Photos courtesy of the NIU Regional History Center and Archives)
Classic Pictures From LIFE Magazine’s Archives

Another tradition involves the Freshman Bench located near the lagoon. Supposedly a young woman doesn’t become a co-ed until she is kissed by an upperclassman on that bench. When I was an upperclassman I would occasionally drop by the concrete seat, but never found a freshman coed waiting. Since this is Valentine's Day maybe one will show up, but 50 years too late for me. Now as an elder, I enjoy sitting on a newer, more comfortable bench on the north side of the lagoon, placed there by a son and daughter to honor Mill Misic, a fellow scribe in the journalism field. But that’s another story.

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