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Russell Frank: 50 Ways to Leave a Message: A Columnist Culls His Wardrobe

by on February 24, 2012 6:00 AM

ANCIENT STATE COLLEGE, Feb. 24, 2512 — Archeologists sifting through the ruins of this town site in Central Pennsylvania have unearthed an extraordinary trove of clothing from the turn of the 21st century.

“They’re what people back then called T-shirts,” said Professor Patricia “Potsy” Potsherds of the Institute for Millennial Archeology. “Fifty of them.”

What makes the collection so valuable, explained expedition co-leader Professor Arthur Artifact, is that the shirts all have messages on them.

“We know that there was a town and a university here, and that they were razed by vigilantes after a terrible scandal of some kind, but there is much we don’t know about the life of the place,” Artifact said. “We’re hoping these shirts will shed light on a lost civilization.”

Several of the tight-woven garments, which were designed to be pulled over the head and to bare the wearer’s arms (the right to bare arms was an important tenet of early 21st century life), share a common theme:

  • Penn State Journalism
  • Penn State College of Communications: Communicating globally into the 21st century
  • Penn State Institute for High School Journalists
  • National Society of Newspaper Columnists/ Columnists do it: write!

The archeologists were particularly excited about the shirts that bore precise dates:

  • Centre Region Bicycle Coalition presents “Bike to Work Day” May 17, 2002/ We are traffic
  • Evolve! Bike to Work – Centre Region Bicycle Coalition presents Bike to Work Week -- May 17-22, 2004

Three of the shirts, dating from 2002, 2003 and 2004 bore the identical inscription: “The Proud The Few The Trash Crew/ State College Recycles -- Arts Festival.” 

“We think,” Artifact said, “that the shirts all belong to that turn-of-the-century period, and that the ones with the older dates were commemorative items.”

Many of the shirts were from far-flung locations:

  • Jazz a Vienne 2003
  • Montreux Jazz Festival 2003
  • Diamondback Grill -- Serving the biggest and best burgers in Sonora since Oct. 28, 1991
  • The Second City -- Est. 1959 -- Chicago
  • Guanajuato
  • Cook Forest
  • Bar Harbor ME
  • National Aquarium in Baltimore
  • Imported from Detroit
  • UCLA
  • Center for Southern Folklore – Memphis/ To preserve, defend & protect the music, culture arts & rhythms of the south
  • Petaluma Farmers Market
  • New York Bagel – Budapest
  • Little League Baseball – Williamsport, PA
  • Russell Square
  • Nantucket
  • Jim the Wonder Dog – Marshall MO
  • Herrell’s Ice Cream -- Northampton MA
  • Lagunitas Kronik Ale - Beer speaks. People mumble.

The archeologists admit to having been baffled by some of the messages:

  • Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend; inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read./ Swarthmore College Bookstore

The inscription was accompanied by an image of a man with eyeglasses and an enormous black mustache. “At first,” said Potsherds, “we wondered whether there were any dogs big enough to read in during that era – or why anyone would want to -- but then we figured out that the guy with the mustache was a comedian named Groucho Marx and that the inscription was a joke.”

  • BO 4 BO 08

“This one took us a while,” Artifact said. “The accompanying image turned out to be Barack Obama, who was elected president of the United States in 2008. The other ‘BO’ stands for Bolinas, a little town in Northern California. In other words, ‘Bolinas for Barack Obama, 2008.’”

  • “Buckeyes team from Penn State University club matches sprouted from national and regional events.” – Mickey Mantle.

“We’ll get back to you on that one,” said Potsherds. “No idea.”

Despite such gaps in their knowledge, the archeologists have arrived at a few tentative conclusions about their find. Assuming the shirts belonged to the same person, here is what they think they know about him:

  • He was a big: All the shirts have XL labels in them, for extra-large.
  • He had an advanced degree in folklore. One of the shirts displayed the inscription, “Russell Frank – Phreed at last – August 1992. Ask Dr. Folklore. He knows more than you do.”
  • He was a journalist or a teacher of journalism. “Journalists were the fact gatherers in those days,” Potsherd explained. “It was a respected profession until the people decided that there were no such things as facts and that everything was a matter of opinion.” The demise of journalism, Artifact added, may have contributed to the collapse of this once-thriving society.
  • He traveled on a bicycle, a self-propelled two-wheeled vehicle.
  • He liked jazz, a barbaric genre of music that was thought at the time to be the height of musical sophistication.
  • He either traveled a lot or knew people who traveled a lot “and all he got were these lousy T-shirts,” Potsherds said.

“There’s only one real mystery about this Russell Frank guy,” Artifact said. “Why in the world did he need 50 T-shirts?”

A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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