Grand Lemmings Unite

Grand Lemmings John Mitchell ’95 and Troy Den Herder ’92 returned for the 2017 Lemming Race.

Grand Lemmings John Mitchell ’95 and Troy Den Herder ’92 returned for the 2017 Lemming Race.

On the 40th anniversary of the Lemming Race, past Grand Lemmings look back on what was surely one of the greatest moments of their lives: leading a screaming horde toward the Central pond. Neglectful of their own safety, they thought only of the other runners and remained single-mindedly fixed on their task. No weather was too cold (or too hot). No water too brown or sludge-filled. And no costume was too outrageous to inhibit the Grand Lemmings in their quest. Looking back, their memories of the race are sometimes fuzzy, but always enlightening.


In the early days, Grand Lemmings were often guests on the Floppy Show hosted by Duane Ellett, which was broadcast live on WHO-TV. My security detail and I drove up to Des Moines, met Floppy and experienced all the pageantry associated than anyone else that day. with the life-changing event of being a guest on the Floppy Show.

A few minutes before the show went live, Duane and Floppy went backstage, leaving me and my security alone on the set, which turned out to be poor judgment on Duane’s part, though it’s not my way to be critical of his hospitality these many years later.

The Floppy set was decorated with college pennants, and in the absence of chaperones we decided to turn the William Penn banner upside down on the backdrop. Our objective was not to insult William Penn; we meant it more as a matter of disrespect. Unfortunately, and I can’t help but observe that this was poor set design on the part of the Floppy Show, the banners were glued. Which is to say that when we removed the William Penn banner, it pulled the paint off the wall as well. We rehung the pennant upside down in the patch of wall where much of the paint was gone. The banner remained upside down for many weeks, and the set was never quite the same.


Every morning, I look in the mirror and see the scar on the front of my head. The scar created a bald spot, and is a reminder of my experience as the Grand Lemming.

Homecoming was later in the year—Nov. 2, to be exact. We were having unseasonably warm weather throughout the fall, but on Nov. 2, winter came. Over a foot of snow fell just before the race. Most of the fair-weather lemmings cowered in their dorms to avoid the cold. The Central pond had not yet frozen. My plunge off the cliff into the Central pond is where I got the scar.

Troy Den Herder '92 braved the snow as Grand Lemming.

Troy Den Herder ’92 braved the snow as Grand Lemming.

My grand entrance included an entourage that carried me to the starting line to address the lemmings. The snow was coming down so hard during the race that you could not see the island from the edge of the pond. The race and celebration were over quickly, as everyone was in a hurry to finish and scurry back inside. The next morning, I found my bike frozen upright in the pond. I had to wait until spring to get it out.

After the race, my friends carried me into the house and put me in the bathtub. They turned on hot water, and I had to advise them that anything hotter than warm water would put me into further shock. I was outside for over two hours in nothing but shorts.


Our theme in 2008 was the Lost Boys from “Peter Pan.” When it was time to run, we stood before the rest of the participants and re-enacted the scene from the movie “Hook” where Rufio hands his sword to Peter. I wasn’t the first person in the pond, but I definitely had more fun than anyone else that day.

Running in the 40th-anniversary Lemming Race this year was a much different and more relaxed experience than when I was Grand Lemming, but I could tell the participants were having a great time. It brought back a lot of memories of my four years running the race. This year, I realized how terrible everyone smells after jumping into the pond. For whatever reason, it wasn’t as big of an issue for me when I ran, although I did end up throwing my clothes away after every race. This was the first year I’d been back to Central to attend Homecoming or the Lemming Race, and I will certainly be coming back to watch the Lemming Race in the future.


In the past, the means of choosing a Grand Lemming was a closely guarded secret. Today, it’s not a surreptitious process, though the only ones who know the criteria for sure are the Thetas.

Theta Kappa Alpha chooses the Grand Lemming and organizes the race. President Trent Dailey ’18 says they try to choose someone who is “an overall representation of the campus.” The Grand Lemming is someone who exemplifies the Thetas’ values of morality, brotherhood (bond with the campus) and excellence, but who is not a Theta. The Grand Lemming becomes an honorary Theta for life.

These days, the lucky individual chosen to lead the lemmings is announced in Central Market during Homecoming week, then taken outside and thrown in the pond. It’s a preview of what to expect when he or she braves the pond’s depths for the race.

Grand Lemming 2017—Jahleel Vester '18

Grand Lemming 2017—Jahleel Vester ’18


  • The first race occurred in 1977
  • 7 of the past 8 Grand Lemmings were female
  • Two Homecomings had co-Grand Lemmings (’86 and ’16)
  • Theta Kappa Alpha creates a race T-shirt each year
  • Originally, the race did not feature costumes
  • It’s a myth that real lemmings commit suicide by jumping off cliffs

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