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A picture of the UFO sighted in Hillsdale in 1966.

A picture of the UFO sighted in Hillsdale in 1966.

Several girls living in Mac­Intyre Res­i­dence of Hillsdale College looked out their back windows and noticed flashing lights hov­ering over the Arb on March 21 around 10:30p.m. Gidget Kohn ‘69 detailed the event in a Col­legian article written three days later.
“I ran to my window and there it was, radi­ating intense silver-white light and heading directly for the dorm,” she said. “A brief flash of lightning illu­mi­nated it for just a second and in that second I saw what appeared to be a squashed football or bas­ketball.”
When more of her dorm mates reported seeing the object, Kohn called the Civil Defense Director, Bud Van Horn. Nineteen girls in the dorm wit­nessed the incident. They watched the flashing object whirl and dive up and down until about 5:10a.m. when it dis­ap­peared for good.
“It is not nec­essary to describe all the movement,” Kohn said. “Let it suffice to say that it moved like nothing earthly and Mr. Van Horn was seeing it too.”
In the days fol­lowing, a number people reported seeing a similar lights and flying objects in Vicksburg, Frankfort, and Battle Creek. The rash of sightings made national news, and the Air Force sent J. Allen Hynek, a pro­fessor at North­western Uni­versity, to Hillsdale to inves­tigate on behalf of Project Blue Book, the Air Force’s UFO research program.
In his report, Hynek dis­missed the event as a phe­nomenon caused by “swamp gas” and said it was also pos­sible the girls had been fooled by “pranks with flares.”
Hynek’s reported caused an outrage among many who had reported UFOs. In defense of the girls who had seen the Hillsdale UFO, Van Horn pub­lished a 15 point rebuttal seeking to dis­credit Hynek’s opinion as unin­formed and lazy.
“It was my con­sidered opinion that Dr. Hynek had his mind made up as to what his findings would be before he ever reached the City of Hillsdale,” he said. “I also observed that his main line of ques­tioning was rel­ative only to that which would fit the Marsh Gas Theory.”
Van Horn also orga­nized lab tests on the soil in the Slayton Arboretum which revealed unusually high levels of boron and radi­ation present in the soil. The report also showed that all micro­scopic life in close prox­imity to the spot where the lights had been seen was dead.
The flim­siness of Hynek’s report com­bined with the massive volume of Michigan UFO sightings in 1966 has given the Hillsdale incident the dis­tinction as one of the most notable UFO events ever reported.
“It would not be over­stating it to say that the sightings in Dexter and Hillsdale two nights in a row each with a large number of wit­nesses are amongst the top two or three most pub­li­cized UFO events of all time,” said Will Matthews, a his­torian from Kala­mazoo. “It resulted in Gerald Ford, who was a senator in Michigan in 1966, to call for con­gres­sional hearings.
The hearings in turn prompted the Uni­versity of Col­orado project, which was when the Air Force allowed the Uni­versity to conduct its own UFO research. They came up with fairly neg­ative results, making it pos­sible for the Air Force to close down Project Blue Book. All this hap­pened because of the sightings in Michigan.”
Matthews explained the out­pouring of UFO reports in Michigan as a com­bi­nation of both genuine sightings and mass hys­teria caused by the news cov­erage sur­rounding the Hillsdale sightings.
“Once a couple of reports get a lot of pub­licity, then the dam breaks.” he said. “After Hillsdale in 1966, reports came in from all over the country.”
Jack Butler ’15, a UFO enthu­siast, said although the 1966 events are fas­ci­nating, they are ulti­mately inex­plicable.
“By most con­ven­tional expla­na­tions, there is no reason why Hillsdale, or even Southern Michigan would play host in such prominent UFO sightings,” he said. “Even fifty years we’re still won­dering what exactly hap­pened.”
Hynek himself acknowl­edged this fact, years after he made his “swamp gas” assessment.
Pro­fessor of Religion and Human­ities Tom Burke reported that when he took a class with Hynek at North­western Uni­versity, the pro­fessor once shared his thoughts on the incident during a lecture.
“Hynek said he had no expla­nation at all, but the Air Force kept bugging him to come up with an one, so just to get them off his back, he said what he con­sidered the most ridiculous expla­nation he could think of, one they would clearly rec­ognize as silly and so just leave him alone until he came up with a real­istic expla­nation,” Burke said. “So he said the sightings were caused by swamp gas, knowing this was not only not the case, but on its face a silly, absurd, impos­sible expla­nation.”
Neither Hynek nor anyone else has been able to sci­en­tif­i­cally explain exactly what hap­pened in Hillsdale, but Butler has his own inter­pre­tation:
“Maybe the aliens were just attracted by all the freedom.”