The most interesting man on Willipedia

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Brian Hirshman ’06 revealed the true story behind the ‘B+’ on Amherst College’s football field. (Photo courtesy of Brian Hirshman.)

In the digital nooks and crannies of Willipedia, one name keeps popping up: Brian Hirshman ’06. During his time at the College, Hirshman purportedly took seven classes at one time, stuck it to the man, and dug a giant ‘B+’ into the snow on top of Amherst College’s football field. His achievements are catalogued in an unlikely place.

Williams Students Online (WSO) serves a wide variety of needs for the student body. Students at the College can review professors, look each other up and repeatedly respond “sup” to a multi-year-long thread appropriately titled “Sup.” If there is one WSO project that has not kept up with the times, though, that project is Willipedia.

Just as the frequency of Willipedia usage has varied over the years, its content is far from uniform. A whole network of pages, painstakingly written and edited in the early-to-mid-2000s, detail some of the minutiae of College life — social groups, the composition of different dorms, and notorious pranks.

Hirshman’s Willipedia page describes him as the “bad-ass-est mo-fo in the class of ’06” and provides an over-20-point list of his accomplishments on campus. These range from the more mundane (“eaten a matzah bacon cheeseburger;” “learned to type using a Dvorak keyboard layout”) to the absurd (“Taken seven classes at a time;” “Worn exclusively shorts for an entire winter season in Williamstown;” “Submitted a randomly generated paper as a thesis draft.”) 

Hirshman’s legacy appears to be a mixture of fact, fiction and legend.

•••••

To understand Hirshman’s time at Williams, one must first imagine the College in the mid-2000s. Hirshman spent the majority of his years living in Currier Quad — which was then known colloquially as “Odd Quad.”

“There were five buildings, so that was where the name came from — but it was where all the nerds lived,” Hirshman said. “I say that with the fondness of having lived there, and being a nerd myself … we tended to be a little bit more studious.”

A computer science and economics major, Hirshman attended the College in the wake of the dot-com boom. 

“There were people who went and did startups. There was a guy who basically put together the equivalent of Tinder before there was Tinder — except it wasn’t really Tinder.” That program, known then as EphCatch, has survived over the years. Its most recent iteration debuted during Winter Study 2020.

According to Hirshman, a key component of his time living in Odd Quad was camaraderie, especially as it related to planning and executing pranks.

“Things like pranking culture were among the highlights of Williams for me, just because we could do this sort of stuff,” Hirshman said. “Part of growing up and being an adult is recognizing that you can’t do things like that as much anymore.”

WSO had a significant presence back then as well. Not only did Hirshman describe Factrak, Facebook and EphMatch as being in operation, but he also noted that much of the college’s IT needs, including student email addresses, were managed by WSO.

As for Willipedia? “Your friends would write stuff about you,” Hirshman said. “As opposed to writing on your whiteboard on your dorm room, you’d write it on Willipedia and the whole world would see it.”

While Hirshman’s page was dense with information, it lacked context and verification. I decided to ask him about the most noteworthy items on the list.

•••••

‘1. Taken seven classes at a time’: PARTIALLY TRUE.

“At the time, Williams tuition was, I don’t know what, 50,000 a year, right?” Hirshman said. “The greater number of classes that you take, the more bang for your buck.”

In his junior spring, Hirshman took five classes and audited two. “Not all of them were for credit,” he acknowledged. But he made sure to point out that in the courses he audited, “I showed up with more regular attendance than anybody else in the class.” For that semester, his course load consisted of two computer science courses, two economics courses, a linguistics course, a 100-level philosophy course and Music 104.

‘14. Petitioned the state of Kentucky to transfer Prof. Morgan, an honorary Colonel in the state militia, to the navy, so he would become Captain Morgan’: TRUE, though unsuccessful.

“Please quote me on [Professor of Mathematics Emeritus] Frank Morgan,” Hirshman said. “He is the man.”

The petition in question, which never received a response from the Kentucky governor, received approximately 50 signatures, including some from professors in the mathematics department.

‘19. Submitted a randomly generated paper as a thesis draft’: TRUE.

“On the last day of fall, when the intro and first chapter of my thesis were due, I sent [Computer Science Professor] Duane Bailey a copy of … the randomly generated paper,” Hirshman said. “Then I chickened out an hour and a half later and actually sent him the real work that I’d been doing for three, four months. And he responded to me, ‘One of these is nice.’ It could have been the randomly generated one.”

•••••

After verifying that these seemingly outrageous achievements were true, there was one more that I wanted Hirshman to weigh in on: the famous “Amherst B+” prank.

The version some tour guides tell goes something like this. Before a big football game, Amherst students sneaked onto Weston Field and burned a giant “A” into it. College students responded by traveling to Amherst and doing the same, but with a giant “B+.” The story, in one form or another, has become part of College lore.

But as the story gained popularity, the details changed. Hirshman told me the real story.

“Somewhere in the fall of 2002, some guys from Amherst came over with a bunch of weed-killer and burned a great big ‘A’” in the College’s field, Hirshman said. For most of the following spring, the track team competed in a stadium with an ‘A’ in the middle of it.

“A year later, I was talking to Dan Bahls [’04] about this,” Hirshman continued. “He mentioned the ‘A’ that used to be there. Like, if we go over there, to Amherst, to get revenge, we should put a ‘B’ there as opposed to an ‘A.’” An important addition was made: the plus sign, to ensure that the ‘B’ would be interpreted as a letter grade. But Bahls graduated and the prank was forgotten — until the fateful Winter Study of 2005.

“In Winter Study, we were all sitting around bored one afternoon,” Hirshman said. “I was like, ‘Well, why don’t we gather up a group of people, and like, let’s go to Amherst and actually do this B-plus prank.’ But do this in an environmentally friendly way and just dig a big ‘B+’ up in the snow.”.

Armed with Driscoll trays, Hirshman — plus Anna Tsykalova ’07 and Dan Rosensweig ’08 — traveled to Amherst and dug the “B+.” They sent pictures to both the Record and Amherst’s student newspaper, but neither publication did anything with this information.

It was only later that news of the prank began to circulate. “I remember hearing about it, third hand, from a friend of a friend of a friend — like, ‘Williams College was a place where this happened,’” Hirshman recalled. “You’re like, ‘Oh, wait, that was actually me.’ So, I guess your stories are really legends when they’re told to you by third parties.”

Interestingly, the Guardian and New York Times have both gotten it wrong. The former described the “B+” as having been burned into Amherst’s field. The latter claimed it was bleached. But Hirshman knows the truth.

“You know, things that become myth — it’s not like the facts don’t matter,” Hirshman said. “But the spirit becomes more compelling than the actual events that happened.”