1970 jokester upset candidates through widespread write-in campaign

For many, Homecoming represents a time to honor one's school with pride. For Vince Staten, Homecoming served as an opportunity to stage one of the most elaborate jokes in UT history, a prank that changed the school's Homecoming nearly 40 years ago.

In 1970, Staten, a Daily Beacon humor columnist and graduate student, used a write-in candidacy and the help of friends to earn the UT student body's selection as that year's Homecoming Queen. It was an election — and an ensuing aftermath — that cemented Staten's escapade among one of UT's most memorable Homecoming weekends.

The catch? Staten won the election without a true campaign — all while wearing a bag over his head.

"It was a total fluke," Tom Jester, a freelance journalist and friend of Staten, said. "It just was. It was just a little bit of the spirit of the times. People were in sort of a 'protesting mood' anyway.

"Here we have a guy who was a humor columnist for the Daily Beacon running as a write-in with a bag over his head. How obvious could that be?"

Staten, who once pitched the idea of wearing a bag over his head in a Beacon columnist mugshot, was no stranger to campus-wide jokes. In the SGA election of 1969, Staten created an election party within his column known as the "Apathy Party." He counted every student who failed to vote in the SGA election as a member of his party.

"Everybody who didn't vote was casting their ballot for me, so I declared myself the winner of the SGA elections that spring," said Staten, who is now a metro columnist for the Kingsport Times-News in Kingsport, Tenn. "The Homecoming Queen was yet another Apathy Party campaign, though there wasn't really a campaign. I didn't even announce I was running."

The apathy that resonated from UT's student body regarding Homecoming Queen elections sparked the "paper bag" idea in Staten and other Beacon staffers. Jokes of Staten's Homecoming Queen candidacy began to spread across campus, and when Staten denied running, the Beacon ran a front-page story denouncing its columnist's candidacy.

But the student body didn't take the hint.

"That's how it all started," said Staten.

Through a strictly word-of-mouth campaign, Staten, Jester and Beacon photographer Don Dudenbostel spread the news of Staten's candidacy. Groups quickly formed in support of the faux campaign — one such group named itself "Former SGA Presidents for Vince" — with students casting write-in ballots in favor of Staten's bag-headed candidate.

"In one of the big, tall dormitories, somebody hung a sheet out their window," Staten said. "They'd copied the picture of me from the Beacon, and they'd written under it "'The Un-Candidate.'"

When the winner of the election was announced, the student body was shocked: The bag-headed Staten stood on top with nearly 2,500 votes, garnering close to 60 percent of the student vote using a write-in campaign.

"My first runner-up got about 300 (votes)," Staten said.

Though it was clear UT students found humor in Staten's antics, the Homecoming Advisory Board wasn't laughing. Homecoming bigwigs quickly declared Staten ineligible because he was a graduate student. A handful of Staten's friends — many former SGA presidents — rushed to his defense, complaining to the Student Tribunal on the grounds that Staten's ineligibility was unjust. The Tribunal then threw the election out, leaving no Homecoming Queen selected in 1970.

"The candidates were really upset," Jester, a graduate student at UT from 1969-71, said. "There was this one woman who went to the president of the SGA and said this had ruined her life. There was one fraternity who organized some student squad who wanted to beat up Vince.

"... There were people who were very literal and not good at getting the joke. But the students, they accepted the Homecoming Queen candidate. It was just a big joke."

Today, the effects of Staten's Homecoming victory are still felt on UT's Homecoming weekend. The crowning of a queen was discontinued after Staten's win until the mid-'80s, though no Homecoming Queen has been crowned since 1985. Instead, UT selects Miss Homecoming each fall.

The trio of Staten, Jester and Dudenbostel still reminisces about the Homecoming election four decades ago. The men meet once a month at Old College Inn on the Strip — a gathering the group calls "The Queen's Court." The three former students even recreated the famous bag-headed pictures earlier this year in Neyland Stadium, an ode to Staten, who still finds humor in his farfetched idea.

"I like to think I'm still reigning (as queen)," Staten said.