Professor Crawford Polley’s Pants Fireby John Mikesell '64 • December 17, 2009
It was the fall semester of our sophomore year. Professor J. Crawford Polley was teaching calculus and analytic geometry in Goodrich Hall. He was teaching with chalk in one hand and a cigarette in the other, filling the blackboard while we were trying to keep track of what was going on.
It was not unusual for him to put the chalk in his pocket from time to time, sometimes pulling it out and sometimes simply going for another piece. But on this morning, he got confused as to which hand held what and, in-stead of pocketing the chalk, he stuck the lighted cigarette in his pocket. I saw it happen and I am sure that many others saw it as well, but nobody said anything. (This may have been a violation of the Gentleman’s Rule.)
However, I suspect our silence was out of a combination of fear, confusion, and wonderment about what would happen next. Or maybe we just didn’t know what to say—“Excuse me, Professor Polley, but you have just put a lighted cigarette in your pocket” would be almost certainly one of the rarest sentences in English literature.
Time passed. Finally, wisps of smoke started coming out of his pants pocket. Everyone in the class saw it because it was hard to miss, and finally Professor Polley saw it (might have felt something, as well).
He continued on with his lecture with his pants on fire while he first removed the cigarette and then slapped at his pants to put out the fire. He did this rather briskly, as you might expect, but he did not stop talking about calculus. This was some sort of wool suit, tweed in my recollection, so the fire was a smoldering one only, not something that burst into flames.
After a few moments of rather frenetic slapping, he got the fire extinguished and we proceeded as normal. He made no comment about the incident at any point, and we certainly didn’t. It was just treated like some extension of the calculus and nothing out of the normal.
Surely I am not the only one of our group to have been there that morning. But if I am the only one who remembers, I did want to get it on the record and insure that it not fall into an urban legend under the “professor sets pants on fire” category.
It is no legend.