Grant Huang is a former Staff Writer and Assistant Features Editor. He currently works as a healthcare compliance consultant.
There was a summertime murder-suicide, a gruesome off-campus rape-murder committed by a handsome young man whose hand I once shook at dinner, and two Pan-American Intercollegiate Chess Championship victories during my time at The Retriever Weekly.
But there’s this one time a girl got naked that I always remember – the college story I keep retelling, the first Retriever story that pops into my head.
As evening fell on a chilly day in November 2004, so did the clothes off Heather Preston, a senior at Harbor Hall. Preston’s roommates received no warning and little explanation (“a sociology experiment”) before she stood naked at their common room window, a floor-to-ceiling affair with a commanding view of the entire Harbor courtyard, then full of students streaming to and from the dining hall. They could hardly fail to notice Preston prancing in her third-floor room, which was lit up like a Christmas tree against the autumn twilight.
“There’s a naked chick dancing in front of her window,” one of my male residents casually informed me. I was, after all, a resident assistant. “She’s not really that hot, but she is buck naked,” he mused, for the one plainly offset the other. “Guys are taking pictures. You might wanna do something.”
In addition to her body, Preston displayed great patience and stamina and was still au naturel when I reached her door some 30 minutes after she began. My backup was a female RA and our boss, community director Katie Walrod, who was freshly breathless, wearing gray sweats and a faint residue of irritation at having her evening jog interrupted.
Preston expressed wide-eyed incredulity when told her behavior was objectionable, since she normally undressed before the same window. This time she was loitering deliberately for a good cause. Her friend, sophomore Mark Beckhardt, had an assignment for Sociology 101 to “break a social norm” and document the effects. He sat in the courtyard below, notebook in hand and waited. His reward came in the form of a raucous, mostly male crowd, which numbered 25 strong at its peak. As they blew kisses, whistled catcalls and indulged in the occasional flip-phone photo, he scribbled.
The crowd was dispersing when we approached Beckhardt, who stood alone, puffing coolly on a cigarette. He was wonderfully unrepentant, refusing to admit wrongdoing or even give his last name. Katie, irate, told him he could lose his housing privileges for being uncooperative.
Preston later surrendered his last name for my incident report to the Office of Residential Life, which ultimately chose measured benevolence, letting the pair go with only a stern talking-to.
I tipped my editor off to the story but declined to write it because I felt too involved. The front-page story went to Darla Mercado, an English-lit major who is now a personal finance reporter for CNBC.
Darla, whom I remember as being slender, bespectacled and usually serious, chortles readily over the phone when I ask her now to recall the naked time.
“It was my first hard news story and also my first front-page story,” she says. “A defining moment in my life,” she says with a giggle that throbs equal parts sarcasm and nostalgia; Darla wound up marrying a fellow Retriever reporter.
We agree that the naked time was not The Retriever’s greatest act of journalism between 2002 and 2006. For me, that would be former chief editor Joe Howley’s workmanlike 4,000-word portrait of John Gaumer, the UMBC biochemistry major, former football player, and all-around aggressive ladies’ man who raped and beat his date to death a few miles off campus.
It’s a credit to UMBC that Gaumer’s story doesn’t stand out, but charming campus peculiarities do. We talk about how our lives have changed since The Retriever days and commit to a happy hour with other veterans when she’s in town; Darla giggles again.