The Department of Natural Unicorns at Lake Superior State University celebrates its 50th anniversary with a wink alert: feel free to devour chocolate delectables, arrange rose bouquets, and pen poetic tributes on Valentine’s Day—but do not, under any circumstances, hunt unicorns on Feb. 14.
After all, Valentine’s Day signifies love, and because just about everyone adores the legendary horned creatures, the Department of Natural Unicorns is issuing a friendly reminder that a brief halt of the hunt protects the enduring abracadabra of the population. In other words, while omnipresent in hearts and minds, unicorns remain elusive otherwise, and ceasing the quest on this one heartfelt day helps prevent the rare commodities from going extinct.
“A half-century ago, Lake Superior State University smiled as it established one of the most fantastic branches of pursuit in all of higher education: the Department of Natural Unicorns. Over the decades, countless questers at LSSU, across the U.S., and around the world have not only embraced the unique search but also suspended their affectionate trail on Valentine’s Day as a further gesture of endearment toward the prized figures,” said Game Warden of the Department of Natural Unicorns, Peter Szatmary, who also doubles as executive director of marketing and communications at LSSU. “Unicorn hunters understand the importance of the 24-hour pause in the fabulous chase just as they know that questing hours normally run day and night except when the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus is around because there’s only so much magic available at one time.”
The late W.T. (Bill) Rabe, known for clever PR stunts when working as a Detroit-area publicist, founded the Unicorn Hunters in 1971 shortly after being hired as LSSU’s director of public relations. Assisted by Professors of English Peter Thomas, John McCabe, John Stevens, and others, Rabe envisioned the Unicorn Hunters as one tongue-in-cheek way to garner more publicity for LSSU, which had just established itself as an independent school after being a branch of what is now Michigan Technological University. The Unicorn Hunters accumulated all sorts of positive attention over the years from media and devotees alike until LSSU’s Unicorn Hunters retired with Rabe in 1987. The university continues to grant unicorn hunting licenses, currently free of charge, to anyone who wants one through its idiosyncratic Department of Natural Unicorns—so long as applicants follow the “specifications, rules, and misinterpretations” of enclosed regulations, as the license puts it.
“For instance,” explained Szatmary, “maybe through zoological, geographical, and metaphysical assessments, the Department of Natural Unicorns determined that questing territories span enchanted forests, earth, outer space, and imagination. Recommended supplies for unicorn questers include tools such as curry combs and pinking shears plus techniques such as sweet talk and iambic pentameter, the latter being optional. And Mordred red and Gawain green are the best colors for questing uniforms, although any shade of purple works well, too.”
Unicorn license holders pay no dues and attend no meetings. Questers must be nice to people and unicorns alike—and, upon gaining entry to this special club, send a photo of themselves displaying their hallowed permit to LSSU.
Under Rabe, the original Unicorn Hunters made the news often for other serious play that also continues to this day and has been spun off into separate happenings. In 1976, they began publishing an annual waggish Banished Words List against misuse, overuse, and uselessness of the English language. This yearly compendium has become a worldwide phenomenon in the intervening decades. And an annual Snowman Burning has occurred at LSSU on the first day of spring since 1971—because of the voluminous snowfall in the Eastern Upper Peninsula—to the delight of campus and community.
“We remain as proud of our singular traditions as we do of our signature programs,” said LSSU President Dr. Rodney S. Hanley. “The Upper Peninsula is a wondrous place ideally suited for hunting unicorns. Everywhere else is, too, for that matter. But not on Valentine’s Day. For 50 years, the young and the young-at-heart from near and far have received licenses from our Department of Natural Unicorns while also honoring this kindly moratorium. As our bylaws, history, lore, myths, and whimsy stipulate, all of us must ensure that unicorn herds remain at least five per square dream.”
For more information about LSSU’s Unicorn Hunters and to request a license, go online to lssu.edu/unicornhunters.