Matilda ringing the "borrowed" birthday bell

Matilda’s “Borrowed” MSU Birthday Bell

On the 81st birthday of Matilda Dodge Wilson, the founder of Oakland University, the students of OU planned a special – and mischievous – surprise. At the stroke of midnight on October 19, 1964 Matilda was presented with a “borrowed” MSU touchdown bell, which she rang 81 times to be heard across campus.

When Mrs. Wilson donated 1400 acres and 2 million dollars to start a university in Rochester, she worked with Michigan State to create a satellite campus to be named Michigan State University – Oakland. When the campus established itself as an independent institution, Oakland University still treasured its familiar ties to MSU – as well as some of the time-honored traditions. 

The MSU Fraternity Delta Upsilon were the stern protectors of the Michigan State Touchdown Bell. The bell was rung at every touchdown made by the Spartans, and sometimes for special events. The brothers big and small protected the trailer-mounted bell day and night since it was purchased in the summer of 1954. 

A decade later, the bell was reported missing by the MSU fraternity when it was snatched up in the night by Oakland University students posing as high schoolers, who hatched a plot to bring the bell to Rochester for Matilda’s birthday celebration. They repainted it for the occasion in white with the gold Oakland seal.

To begin the birthday celebration, Matilda enjoyed dinner in the Oakland Center with Chancellor Varner and students from the birthday party committee. Students presented Matilda with a gift of thirty-two roses and a birthday card signed by over 1,200 Oakland students, faculty and staff members.

Matilda Dodge Wilson dancing with student

At midnight, Matilda was brought out to the “borrowed” MSU bell, which she rang 81 times as the students around her counted and cheered. In the following years, OU students made a tradition of stealing the MSU bell for Matilda’s birthday. Matilda and students would end the night dancing to her special song “Waltzing Matilda.”

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