Montana State University

Spring 2013

Share this article

Mountains and Minds

The long, unlikely life of Clarence Mjork May 07, 2013 by Evelyn Boswell • Published 05/07/13

Everyone has a story of a favorite prank. And, through the decades, scores of infamous pranks have peppered the canon of Montana State. Yet, the university's most famous prank is now 80 years old. It began quietly on a spring day when Montana State College students, faculty and administration paged open the 1933 Montanan yearbook expecting to see photos of beautiful coeds and smiling fraternity men. What they found in addition to those images was Clarence Mjork, whose legend lives on even long after his creators are gone.

Mjork, a fictitious Montana State student who usually looked like a scraggly bum, was the unorthodox face of the yearbook. He was the brainchild of Dave Rivenes, editor of the Montanan and instigator of the prank that was more than a year in the execution. He was aided by co-conspirators, Chris Schlechten and Bill Rider, neither of whom were students at the time.

So what did Montana State College students see when they opened the 1933 Montanan? Since only two uncensored copies are known to exist, and the official version is eight decades old, rumors may be more common than first-hand knowledge.

The censored and uncensored versions of the 244-page yearbook--both available in Special Collections at the MSU Library--indicate that students who started reading at the beginning might not have noticed anything unusual until they reached the page that introduced the freshman class. There they saw a
photo of a full jug of whiskey, cork intact. The sophomore version showed the cork in place, but the whiskey down by half. The junior photo showed more whiskey gone and the cork lying on a table. By the time the readers saw the empty, broken jug that illustrated the senior class, they might have realized this wouldn't exactly be the yearbook President Alfred Atkinson described in his written introduction, which referred to the Great Depression and the Montanan.

"During periods of business depression, it is important that insofar as possible, there should be continuing records of attainment and general group activities that have proven valuable under normal conditions," Atkinson wrote. "It is gratifying, therefore, that the present Montanan staff has maintained the customary high standards in this year's Annual."

The students finally saw full evidence of the prank when they reached the student activities section.

Sorority women might have been pleased to read that "all the popular girls on campus are members of this sorority," but every sorority was described the same way. Readers saw the Exponent staff listed as if they were cast members of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," playing slaves, Simon Legree, blood hounds, cakes of ice and back stage noises. Text from "The Rover Boys Go to College," a series of popular children's books of the time, ran throughout the yearbook, describing the fictional adventures of Dick, Tom and Sam instead of the real experiences of MSC students.

Finally on page 55, readers began seeing Mjork. In real life, he was Rider in disguise.

Once he began showing up, Mjork appeared in almost every photo in the activities section. He laid across laps, held women on his lap, draped his arm over shoulders, peered between heads and hung from a lamp. In one photo, he held a giant fish. Another time, as Col. Mjork, he peered down the barrel of a gun. On one page, he appeared eight times, with each photo supposedly showing a different Clarence Mjork, all from Endgate, Mont., but unrelated.

The yearbook that included real-life faculty members who went on to have MSU buildings named after them--men like Cobleigh, Gaines and Linfield--listed Mjork as the campus playboy, escort to the campus queen, senior class adviser, junior class adviser, sophomore class adviser and freshman class adviser. He was the printer's devil and editor-in-chief of the yearbook, as well as its proofreader, military editor, power behind the throne, shadow, and friend to the editor. He supposedly worked for the student newspaper as sports editor, managing editor, society editor, business manager, circulation manager and proofreader. He apparently belonged to more than 25 clubs.

Published accounts say that Rivenes--a Glendive native who graduated from Bozeman High School in 1929--had been plotting the yearbook prank long before he enrolled at MSC. When he finally became editor, he secretly carried out his plans with Rider and long-time friend and photographer Schlechten. Schlechten took some real photos around campus, but he left space to insert Mjork later. Decades before Photoshop became available, Schlechten demonstrated his genius for doctoring photos by splicing negatives together. On some occasions, Schlechten pretended to take real photos, but only used the photos that showed students goofing around at the end of the shoot.

The rest of the yearbook staff turned in their normal assignments, but they were as much in the dark as President Atkinson, according to reports. By the time Atkinson learned about the prank, it was too late to do much more than pull a few photos. One censored photo showed the rear end of a muddy white horse, gave a set of initials and asked readers to guess which classmate it represented. Other photos showed long johns and women's underwear as a way to introduce fraternities and sororities.

"There isn't any place in an annual for discourteous copy or pictures," faculty adviser Louis True wrote in a 10-page report about the caper. "College life is a happy life, filled with wonderful experiences in most all cases, and the yearbook should reflect this."

By the time Atkinson saw the yearbook, it would have been too expensive and time-consuming to turn it into a traditional yearbook, True said. And completely killing the yearbook was out of the question for people who didn't believe in censorship. Therefore, the spoof became the official yearbook of 1933.

The National Association of College Annuals declared it "most original" of the year, and it won additional awards. Writers through the years have kept the legend alive in newspaper and magazine articles.

Even though Rivenes was kicked out of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity and threatened with expulsion from school, he graduated a year late (1935) because of the time he spent on the yearbook, then moved to eastern Montana. He eventually settled in Miles City where he owned a title and abstract company, then a television station that served the smallest market in the United States and was featured across the world for its colorful approach to news. At the same time, Rivenes continued his lighthearted antics, enlivening the community by promoting rock skipping as an Olympic event, for example. When Ted Schwinden ran as a Democratic candidate for governor, he dropped by Rivenes' TV station. The phone happened to ring while Rivenes was announcing the news, so he asked Schwinden to take over the broadcast. One of the items Schwinden read talked about an upcoming Republican rally and said, "Let's have a big turnout and beat those damn Democrats."

Rivenes, Schlechten and Rider rode in the 1958 homecoming parade to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the spoof. Schlechten's son, Dave, who now lives in Hamilton, dressed up like the fictitious student introduced in the yearbook and appeared in the 2003 homecoming parade as "MSC's Most Spirited Student."

Rivenes never regretted his actions, according to his youngest daughter, Jen Rivenes Jensen of St. Louis, Mo. In fact, he relished the memories and often talked about the 1933 Montanan with his children and grandchildren. In 1990, he received the Blue and Gold Award, the most prestigious award given by the Montana State University Alumni Association. The award honors individuals who have rendered great life-time service or have brought national or international distinction to MSU or the state of Montana. Rivenes died in 2003.

Schlechten, who didn't attend MSU while photographing its students, later enrolled. He graduated from MSU in 1933, joined the family business in Bozeman and became an award-winning photographer. He died in 1979.

Rider, who never attended MSU, moved to California where he lived until
his death in 1965.

In the meantime, after the 1933 yearbook was published, MSU continued to publish yearbooks for another 58 years. The final edition came out in 1991, a year after Rivenes received his Blue and Gold Award.

The yearbook of 1933 was the one that resonated most, however. And not just for alumni, but the pranksters' families.

"We thought Clarence Mjork was our uncle," said Jensen, now 71. "We wondered why we never got to meet him personally."

Schlechten, 72, said, "Dave (Rivenes) and my dad had very similar senses of humor, pretty much off the wall."

But did the pranksters ever mention having second thoughts while they were carrying out their plot? Did they warn their children against following their example?

"I think Dad was always the kind of person that 'It was a good idea. When it's done, it's done. You can't worry about things you have no control over,'" Jensen said of Rivenes. "That's kind of the way he was."

"He did take risks, but always the kind of risks that wouldn't hurt anybody," Jensen said. "They were fun. I think my dad lived a golden life."

Schlechten, in fact, was inspired by
his father.

"I always appreciated that sense of humor," he said. "I tried to follow through and do some very humorous things in my life, although nothing quite to compare to that."