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From the Archives: King Kersten, oligarchist and student body president

, , , and | Monday, February 24, 2020

Diane Park | The Observer

Notre Dame’s student body elections have been host to plenty of too-strange-for-fiction tales. Here’s just one of them. This week, From the Archives tells the story of Bob Kersten (’74) and UnCandidate the Cat, the satire ticket that won.


Bob Kersten and his cat advocate for oligarchy, restricted free speech

February 22, 1972 | T.C. Treanor | Researched by Meg Pryor

We are all aware that political candidates will do anything to grab our attention. But what happens when these candidates really push the envelope with their unconventional ideas? Do they have a chance of winning? 

Just ask Bob Kersten (‘74), who was elected the Notre Dame student body president in 1972 based on the promise that he would turn the student government into an oligarchy. Kersten was joined by a feline running mate known as “UnCandidate the Cat.”

“I don’t think Notre Dame is ready for a democracy yet,” he said in an article by Observer writer T.C. Treanor.  

Observer archives, Feb. 22, 1972.

Kersten ran on a 12-step platform calling for sweeping reforms in all areas, including student life, academics and the Notre Dame administration. First and foremost, Kersten said he would clear out student government entirely, with him and his friends assuming its place. 

His other ideas were similarly ambitious. For example, Kersten also said the bookstore should raise the price on student textbooks. This move, Kersten argued, would bolster its income and prevent inflation from “biting into the alumni market” for Notre Dame accessories. He introduced creative solutions to the financial aid area, as well, proposing that scholarships should be granted by lottery rather than on the basis of need.

He even wanted to take over The Observer to ensure its content aligned with his own policy positions. 

Why’d he decide to run? For the popularity, namely.

“I was looking for some sort of affirmation,” he said in the article.

Kersten ‘kidnapped’ by campaign dissidents

Feb. 24, 1972 | Jim Rose | Researched by Evan McKenna

On the evening of Feb. 23, 1972, the contentious candidacy of Bob “The King” Kersten culminated in a kidnapping.

The crime occurred as Kersten addressed a group of supporters in a third-floor Keenan Hall bathroom, a typical campaign event for the student body president hopeful. (He had previously announced his candidacy in fourth floor bathrooms of Walsh Hall.) 

As his speech concluded, three unidentified students snatched up the candidate “without a struggle” and dragged him out of the building.

Kersten is kidnapped by political opponents. Observer archives, Feb. 4, 1972.

Kersten’s running mate, UnCandidate the Cat, barricaded himself inside a second-floor bathroom stall immediately following the incident. 

UnCandidate’s official spokesman, Ed Gray (’74), later gave The Observer an official statement: the cat would stop at nothing to catch the kidnappers, and “would tolerate no pusillanimous pussyfooting in obtaining the release of Kersten.” 

Campaign manager Dennis “H-Man” Etienne (’74), who was seen trailing Kersten’s abductors out of Keenan Hall, believed the crime to be a desperate call for attention. 

H-Man said the incident was a “cheap ploy for garnering votes” and ultimately elected not to call security. He also reported receiving a ransom note demanding 27 cents for Kersten’s release — the same amount of money in the campaign’s treasury. 

Following Kersten’s release — the details of which remain largely a mystery — the candidate hopped right back onto the campaign trail. He spoke at a fundraising event at Saint Mary’s the following weekend, hoping to recover the 27 cents spent paying his ransom. 

Kersten elected with 65% of the vote

March 3, 1972 | T.C. Treanor | Researched by Mary Steurer

Maverick politician Bob Kersten and his running mate UnCandidate the Cat were elected student body president and vice president, respectively, March 3, 1972 with a record 65% of the vote. Kersten and UnCandidate claimed the majority vote in 19 of 20 halls, as well as Moreau Seminary, St. Joseph’s Hall and among off-campus voters. Observer writer T.C. Treanor reported Kersten and UnCandidate pulled a 1500-vote lead over opponent Paul Dziedzic in the victory.

In some dorms the margin was not so wide. In Cavanaugh Hall, for example, Kersten won by only four votes.

“Cavanaugh Hall will be the next woman’s [sic] dorm on campus,” the president-elect announced before a crowd in front of LaFortune Student Center.

Kersten, in the likeness of President George Washington, was reluctant to take office.

“Ketsten had earlier urged His people not to vote for Him, revealing that God the Father had appeared to Him in a vision and told Him to ‘get Yourself the hell out,’” Treanor wrote.

In response to inquiries about how long he planned to stay in office, Kersten said “all I can say is that the Feast of the Ascension is May 11.”

Professors react to Kersten’s election

March 6, 1972 | Art Quinn | Researched by Adriana Perez

After Kersten emerged from the election victorious, The Observer asked Student Life Council professors to weigh in.

Their reactions “range[d] from disappointment to delight to wait-and-see,” Observer writer Art Quinn said. Some declined to comment at all.

(The SLC, made up of faculty, administration and students, informed policy decisions on matters relating to student life, similar to today’s Campus Life Council.)

Some SLC faculty members, like professors William F. Eagan and John J. Borkowski, were wary of judging Kersten’s motivations and character. However, they said if his electoral support was any indication, Kersten’s platform must have resonated with the student body.

Professor William D. McGlinn called the election “a slap at the idea of student government.” 

Some professors were delighted with Kersten’s surprise victory. Edward J. Cronin called Kersten’s election “one of the best things that has happened at Notre Dame in a long, long time.” In his opinion, the win had humorously uncovered student government as a farce. 

Professor Robert Goodfellow said Kersten was worthy of the position.

“I know Kersten and he’s a very good student. I think it is very good; he is honest, he is flamboyant. If he can deliver half of what he hopes to, he will be very good,” he said. “I think it is time in student government where maybe someone as eccentric as Kersten is needed. I see no harm that he can do and a lot of good he can.”

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About Mary Steurer

Mary is a senior sociology major and journalism minor from St. Louis. An aspiring religion reporter, Mary has spent the last year covering conversations about the Catholic Church sex abuse crisis at Notre Dame.

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About Adriana Perez

Adriana is a junior from Guayaquil, Ecuador majoring in Political Science and minoring in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy and Sustainability. You can find her on Twitter @adrianamperezr.

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