A picture of the UFO sighted in Hillsdale in 1966.

Hardly anyone on campus remembers that Hillsdale College once had its own close encounter with a UFO — and that’s why the college should put up a plaque to com­mem­orate this extrater­res­trial event.

On March 21 1966, several women living in the McIntyre res­i­dence noticed unusually bright lights floating over the Slayton Arboretum around 10:30 p.m. In an account written three days later for the Col­legian, Gidget Kohn ’69 described the event as a UFO encounter.

“I ran to my window and there it was, radi­ating intense silver-white light and heading directly for the dorm,” she wrote. “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.”

The women in McIntyre were not the only ones to report UFOs over the Arb that night. Harold Hess, then a Hillsdale police officer, was parked in a lot on West Car­leton Road with his partner, Jerry Wise. At some point in the night, the two noticed an almost-blinding light hov­ering some­where over the college. When Hess and Wise drove around campus to inves­tigate, they dis­covered the same shining disc-like object that had excited the women in McIntyre hanging over the Arb.

In an interview with The Col­legian in 2015, Hess described his expe­rience as an encounter with unearthly tech­nology.

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

Then, Hess said, the light split into two, and went in opposite direc­tions. This action damaged the equipment in the patrol car so that when the two turned the radio on, they only got static.

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

All told, 87 people in the Hillsdale area reported a UFO in the sky that night. In the days fol­lowing, more people reported seeing objects in the sky in nearby towns such as Ann Arbor, Dexter, and Battle Creek, making the incident the center ring of a national news circus.

The UFO sightings became a subject of con­tro­versy when the Air Force sent J. Allen Hynek, an astro­physicist at North­western Uni­versity, to make an official report several days later. After inter­viewing the college women and Hillsdale cit­izens, Hynek dis­missed the incident as “swamp gas” — a phrase he coined — which has since become a popular expla­nation for many UFO sightings.

Hynek’s “swamp gas” expla­nation prompted then Michigan Con­gressman Gerald Ford to take an interest in the event. After receiving numerous letters from res­i­dents who claimed to have seen the UFOs, Ford looked into the matter himself and decided this deserved the federal gov­ern­ment’s attention.

“These are inci­dents which many reliable good cit­izens felt were suf­fi­cient to justify some action by our gov­ernment — and not the kind of flippant answer that was given by the Air Force when they passed it off as swamp gas,” he said.

Ford peti­tioned Con­gress to com­mission the Air Force to offi­cially inves­tigate the Michigan UFOs. The Air Force then del­e­gated the inves­ti­gation to the Uni­versity of Col­orado, which after several years of study, came up with neg­ative results, making it pos­sible for the Air Force to close down Project Blue Book, its own UFO research project.

Half a century later, Ford’s ques­tions, along with many other uncer­tainties about the UFO sightings in southern Michigan still occa­sionally appear in pop culture. My favorite is Christopher Buckley’s 1999 political satire “Little Green Men,” which makes ref­erence to Hynek’s Michigan research. Director Whit Stillman was slated to turn the project into a film in 2006, but sadly, nothing came of it.

More recently, however — actually, this week — Stephen Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” was re-released in the­aters across the country. When it orig­i­nally came out in 1977, Hynek, by then a UFO believer, had served as the film’s tech­nical advisor, making the aliens seem as real as pos­sible. None of that could have hap­pened if it weren’t for the Hillsdale incident.

Some­thing inex­plicable hap­pened here, and the college should memo­ri­alize it. All we need is a little plaque in the Arb.

Maybe it should read, “Welcome to Hillsdale: It’s the UFOs.”


Nic Rowan is a junior studying history.