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.