The members of the notorious Committee of Five, a brazen band of fraternity brothers who, fueled by a “two-kegger night,” stole the whistle in late August 1978, have never been unmasked. Until now.
Steve Copeland, ME 79, says it’s time to set the record straight. Copeland, the guy on the far right in the photo holding a cigar in one hand and a glass of wine in the other, found a reference to the Committee of Five on Wikipedia that said they all were expelled for the prank. That’s not true, he says.
In on the caper with Copeland were, left to right in the photograph, Mike Oglesby, EE 80; Russell Hill, ME 78; Mike Sowell, CE 79; and Dan Richards, EE 81. They have not all been together since the photograph was taken, about a week after the Aug. 25, 1978, issue of the Technique, which published a Polaroid picture of five hooded men submitted to the student newspaper with a ransom note.
The theft of the whistle was not a well-thought-out mission.
“We had a keg of beer at the fraternity house. We were all pretty well lit, so we said, ‘Let’s go see Animal House.’ It had just come out,” Copeland says. By the time they arrived back at the Tau Kappa Epsilon house later that night, a second keg had been tapped. “A two-kegger night really gets you rolling.”
Copeland and Hill wanted to pull a John Belushi-like stunt. Hill had graduated, but was living at the TKE house until leaving for medical school. “So he was up for anything. We decided to go saw the whistle off.”
They acquired a hacksaw, climbed the side of the boiler building and started sawing. “I know we sawed for three or four hours. As we were lowering the whistle down off the building, the sun was coming up,” Copeland remembers.
“Mike Oglesby had some military-type walkie-talkies. He and Dan Richards were running around with these walkie-talkies … and keeping an eye on the cops,” says Copeland, who was warned to duck down and keep quiet now and then to avoid detection.
At one point, the rope used to ring the dinner bell at the fraternity house was fetched, Copeland says. “We tied that rope to the whistle and lowered it down the side of the building. Then Mike Sowell brought his car over, and we threw it in the hatchback and took it away.”
It was Sunday morning by this time, he says. “Monday morning I had an 8 a.m. fluids test. Fluids was hard. I was sitting in this exam, and I knew the whistle was in my closet back in the fraternity house. … I heard the whistle blow, but there was no whistle. It was just the sound of the air. The boiler building was right next to the ME building then. I just broke out laughing.”
As the weeks passed without warrants being issued for their arrests, the Committee of Five grew cockier. The stolen whistle became an integral part of the TKE entry in the Ramblin’ Wreck Parade during Homecoming 1978.
“We had the whistle buried down inside the hood of the car. We had it on a hydraulic lift off the power steering pump, so it just kind of rose up out of the hood of the car when we got in front of the judges stand,” says Copeland, who has seen film footage showing Tech President Joseph Pettit pointing at the whistle.
Since everybody already knew TKE had the whistle, some of the committee members approached Miller Templeton, Phys 61, MS NE 63, himself a member of the fraternity and the assistant dean of students. Templeton was asked to negotiate with Pettit’s office. The committee wanted to engrave the whistle and present it to Jimmy Carter, Cls 46, when the president visited campus. Administration denied the request.
“So we left the whistle with Mike Sowell over the Christmas holiday. He said he just carried it down to a Tech cop who was riding around on a motorcycle and gave it to him,” Copeland says. “It’s not a very exciting ending.”
The Committee of Five members continued to keep their identities secret for fear of repercussions. Copeland figures it’s too late to get in trouble now.
“Nobody ever said a word to us, and until now nobody knew our names,” he says. “There’s a portrait just like the photograph hanging in one of the rooms of the fraternity house, but those guys don’t know who we were. It wasn’t hung up in there until 10 or 15 years later.
“We thought we were something,” Copeland says of himself and the four other dressed-up young men, all wearing their fraternity pins, posing with the whistle for the formal portrait, taken at his brother’s studio in Atlanta. “We had stolen the whistle. We had gone down in history with the very few who had done this.”