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.