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The night of Monday, March 21, 1966 was pretty typical for the McIntyre Hall res­i­dents — until the UFO appeared.

At about 10:30 p.m., according to an eye­witness account written by Gidget Kohn three days later, dozens of girls and other wit­nesses — 87 total — began to watch an “intense silver-white light.” The event was later described in Project Blue Book, the United States Air Force’s decades-long inves­ti­gation of UFO sightings nationwide as “football-shaped.”

The room of Josephine Evans ’69 had one of the best views of the object; many girls crowded into it to watch.

“We sud­denly spotted what appeared to be this strange light in the arb,” Evans said. “It was odd the way the lights were, but it was also weird the way [the UFO] traveled.”

“There was a glow around it and the lights appeared to be pul­sating,” Kohn’s account added. “The glow was gone and there were three lights which were yellow-white…then the middle light turned red and then the one on the left. [We] watched for about 10 minutes and then the object seemed to move up and then to the right and left very slightly.”

As the object appeared to move closer to the dorm, the girls decided to call Hillsdale Civil Defense Director Buck Van Horn.

As the girls, trapped in the dorm by curfew, along with dorm moms and Van Horn, kept watching the object, it con­tinued to behave bizarrely, moving unpre­dictably and flashing lights of varying colors, inten­sities, and sequences.

“It is not really nec­essary to describe all the move­ments,” Kohn wrote. “Let it suffice to say that it moved like nothing earthly and Mr. Van Horn was seeing it too.”

Mean­while, around the same time, Harold Hess, then a Hillsdale police officer, was on a mid­night to 8 p.m. shift with his partner, Jerry Wise, checking lots on Carlton Road, near where today the CVS pharmacy stands. But some­thing quickly caught their eyes, even though Hess said it was about a mile away.

“Then, over by the college, we saw a real bril­liant light in the sky at a low altitude,” Hess said. “You couldn’t look at it, it was so bright.”

Hess and Wise drove over to the arboretum, where they dis­covered the mys­te­rious uniden­ti­fiable object that was the source of the blinding light.

“It wasn’t a chopper. There was no humming. I took my weapon out. Jerry told me to put it back,” Hess said. “‘Whatever it is, I don’t think it’ll bother it one bit what you’ve got at your side,’ Jerry told me.”

Then, Hess said, the light split, and went in two dif­ferent direc­tions. The action had physical effects on the object’s sur­roundings.

“We got into our patrol car and we couldn’t transmit. We just got static,” Hess said.

“It’s one of those things that runs your hair up on the back of your head just thinking about it.”

After that, the lights dis­ap­peared from close view. Some of the girls con­tinued to watch the night sky almost long­ingly as it faded off into the east. “We con­tinued to watch for our friend, for in a sense it had become our friend, and a few minutes later we were rewarded by a strange new light on the horizon that hadn’t been there before — a bluish whitish greenish light,” Kohn wrote. But at about 5:10 a.m., the object finally dis­ap­peared.

That was only the beginning of the saga of the Hillsdale UFO. Several nearby areas — such as Ann Arbor and Dexter — reported sightings around the same time, making the Hillsdale UFO part of a national story. So Dr. Allen J. Hynek, con­sultant to Project Blue Book and pro­fessor at North­western Uni­versity, came to Hillsdale to inves­tigate. But after inter­viewing many key eye­wit­nesses, including Evans, Hess, and Van Horn, he reached a simple con­clusion: 87 eye­wit­nesses were mis­taken, and had seen only “swamp gas.”

Skep­ticism of this expla­nation, as well as others offered, emerged imme­di­ately and remains to this day.

“It was my con­sid­erate opinion that Dr. Hynek had his mind made up as to what his findings would be before he ever reached the City of Hillsdale,” Van Horn said in a May 26, 1966 Col­legian article. “I also observed that his main line of ques­tioning was rel­ative only to that which would fit the Marsh Gas Theory.”

Kohn also said that sub­se­quent testing of the arb revealed high levels of radi­ation, boron, and destruction of micro­scopic plant and animal life.

Evans also remains skep­tical of both the swamp gas expla­nation.

“Dr. Hynek came to Hillsdale and I think he just wanted to get rid of us,” she said. “Hynek was pres­sured to play it down. Makes you wonder if there’s some kind of cover-up.”

She also doubts it was a prank.

“Some people said it could have been frat guys pulling a prank,” Evans said. “But they were way too busy drinking to do some­thing like that.

“It was a UFO. I’m con­vinced to this day that’s what it was.”

Hess also denies the official expla­nation.

“I don’t believe it had any­thing to do with swamp gas. This was just slow, huge. Swamp gas would never be bright. It was like looking into 20 spot­lights,” Hess said. “They’ll never con­vince me it was swamp gas. I just truly felt it was a UFO. I have no knowledge as to what it was, no spec­u­lation as to what it could have been.”

Even Hynek himself would come to downplay his expla­nation, according to sub­se­quent reports in Project Blue Book. “I emphasize,” he said, “I cannot prove in a court of law that these are the full expla­na­tions of these sightings.”

But the impact was much greater on a per­sonal level for those who saw the UFO firsthand.

“It was the most unusual thing that hap­pened to me in college. And it was very inter­esting,” Evans, who hadn’t even con­sidered the pos­si­bility of UFOs being real before seeing one herself, said. “I didn’t realize how unusual it was or inter­esting until much later. You grow up and look back and say, ‘holy moly, did that really happen?

The incident has also stuck with Hess, despite the inter­vening years.

“It’s just one of those things you never forget even as your memory fails,” he said.