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At one time in its 97-year history, Washington University's Thurtene Carnival was a circus. Later it was staged as a vaudeville show. World War II briefly interrrupted its run; 1943 marked the last Thurtene-less year. Over the decades, Thurtene has included a "freshman-powered Merry-Go-Round" and a rotten-egg toss.
In recent times the event, whose 2004 incarnation takes place April 17 and 18 in the parking lot of Wash. U.'s athletic complex just off Forsyth and Big Bend boulevards, has induced tens of thousands of students, alumni, local residents and children to assess their intestinal fortitude via the time-tested combination of midway food and carnival rides -- not to mention student-produced plays.
And it's for a good cause: For the past 30 years or so, the Thurtene Junior Honorary has made a donation to a charity. According to Thurtene's 2004 press release, "[a]n expected 120,000 people will share the spirit of the Thurtene Carnival, which benefits Youth In Need, a local St. Louis charity."
How much do local charities receive from Thurtene? The carnival's organizers refuse to say. And to some students involved with the event, that secrecy bears a taint reminiscent of the rotten-egg toss of days gone by.
"I think they don't disclose how much money they donate because I don't think it's a significant amount," speculates Emily Reinhart, a senior studying business and Spanish who has been involved with the carnival for much of her tenure at Washington U. "Thurtene advertises the event as a charity event, which I think is just false advertising to the campus community and the St. Louis community. They think [the carnival] is for charity."
Despite the verbiage of the group's press release, the Thurtene Junior Honorary begs to differ. Honorary president Kevin Rollag supplied a statement the organization prepared last year to address questions about fundraising and disclosure practices. "Thurtene does not want the success of the Carnival to be based solely on monetary terms," the statement reads. "The purpose of the Carnival is to bring together Washington University student organizations and open our campus to the surrounding communities. The fact that the net proceeds from the Carnival are donated to a local charity strengthens this objective but is not the primary purpose of the Carnival."
A century-old organization that comprises thirteen WU juniors, Thurtene was once a secret society along the lines of Yale's renowned Skull and Bones. The group now has something of a public profile -- complete with a Web site: www.thurtene.org -- but it continues to keep details of its membership-selection process and rituals under wraps. Because Thurtene receives no funding from Wash. U., the group is not obligated to open its books to university bureaucrats -- or, for that matter, to anyone else.
"It's a completely independent organization," says Judy Leicht, the school's associate vice chancellor for communications. "They have their own treasurer." Rollag confirms that the university doesn't charge Thurtene for use of the school's facilities for the carnival.
Judging by the advertised size of the expected throng, large sums of money -- well into the six figures -- are involved. The carnival is bankrolled in part by the participating student groups. Thurtene also enlists a corporate sponsor to help cover overhead -- Ackerman Toyota in 2004. According to the honorary, the sponsor's contribution is kept confidential. (Asked to disclose the amount of this year's sponsorship, Ackerman general sales manager Brian Hacay responds, "That's none of your business.")
When the receipts have been tallied, Thurtene makes a lump-sum donation to the designated charity. Again, Rollag says, the donation represents the proceeds generated by the carnival -- there's also a donation box at the carnival, where patrons are encouraged to make a contribution to the charity -- but the total amount is kept confidential.
Citing Thurtene's policy, Judy Ciapiak, director of administration for Friends of Kids with Cancer, declined to disclose the amount of Thurtene's donation last year. A spokeswoman for 2002's beneficiary, Epworth Youth and Family Services, says the group received a total of $14,500 from the carnival that year, $3,000 of which came directly from the fraternity Beta Theta Pi. The designated 2001 charity, Make a Difference Center, reports an overall donation of $8,500.
Given the large amounts of money that go into staging the event, Emily Reinhart thinks the charities ought to be getting more. According to Reinhart, her sorority required its 100-plus members to raise $50 apiece for the carnival effort last year. Pairing up with the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity (which also raised funds), the team invested $8,000 to build a booth and stage a play. They took in $7,000, which they opted to donate directly to 2003's designated charity, Friends of Kids with Cancer.
Student groups can simply make out checks directly to Thurtene, but Reinhart says her group chose the direct route because of Thurtene's insistence on secrecy. "There was a suspicion raised as to whether or not the money actually went to the charity," Reinhart says.
Adds Karin Johnes, director of Greek life at Washingon University: "[Student groups] have no way of knowing: 'Did Thurtene actually give that money to charity, or did Thurtene use that to pay for the Ferris wheel at the carnival?'"