Every legend has its origin.
Beowulf, Dracula, the Loch Ness Monster. Each story shapes culture in its own unique way, but some stories are more mysterious than others.
Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan has its own set of tall tales. A student drove a car into the campus pond (TRUE). There are real bells in the Welch clock tower (FALSE).
There’s a ghost outside of Pickitt Hall (?).
Now, I’m not one to believe in ghost stories, but this is one that troubles me, and it’s not just because I’ve seen too many episodes of The X Files. The first time I heard about this ghost, it was my sophomore year of college, and my second year living in the Pickitt Residence Hall.
As I recall, I overheard somebody talking about it, maybe in the student union or the cafeteria.
“Ghost?” I asked. “What are you talking about?”
“Just Google it.”
I sat down at my laptop, the same one where I’m typing now: cornerstone university ghost. I clicked the first link, and it showed a Google map of my college, with this description underneath.
Cornerstone University is haunted by a ghost girl in a 1970s-style dress who has been seen waiting outside Pickett Hall late at night. When the ghost realizes she has been seen, she disappears.
My mouse froze. What?
I chose the next link, this one dated October 6, 2005. The same exact words, copied and pasted from the previous website, by a user named ZachariahDaMan, last online activity seen on July 7, 2010.
It was crazy, right? I’ve always thought so. It was obviously posted by some trolling student with nothing better to do on a Friday night. Still, the story stuck with me until a few weeks ago, when I decided to investigate further.
I headed to the campus library, where the school keeps their yearbooks and newspaper archives. I started my search in 1969, at the turn of the decade, back when Cornerstone University was still Grand Rapids Baptist Bible College.
Now, to understand my approach, there are two things that should be known: first of all, the legend of the ghost of Pickitt Hall is told in two distinguishable versions. The original version is the one that’s posted on the Internet, at least according to campus legend. The second version is a bastardized tale of the ghost of Ann Pickitt, the namesake of the residence hall.
But I threw out the second version for several reasons:
- Ann Pickitt died in the 1960s.
- When she died, she was no young woman.
- The money for the building was donated after her death by her husband, a pastor from Allegan, who requested it be named in her honor.
There’s absolutely no evidence to support that the legend of this ghost evolved from Ann Pickitt. So, I moved on to look at the students.
Here’s what I was really looking for: any probable cause of a haunting. Sick or deceased students, especially young women; any signs of complaint or unhappiness on campus that would warrant strong emotions. Anything else newsworthy or noteworthy that would point in the direction or unresolved conflict.
In the early 70s, GRBBC’s campus, like so many Christian institutions today, was still about five years behind the times. The revolutionary changes of the 1960s were catching up to what we now refer to as “the Cornerstone bubble,” and this started with the women on campus.
Girls have started wondering why there are two sets of rules, one for boys, and then one for the rest of them. In winter of 1969, the girls are still subject to different dorm rules and curfews than male students. There has never been a female student body president. As a form of minor rebellion, students begin disobeying the campus dress code, causing then-president W.Wilbert Welch to issue statements not once, but twice in the span of one year.
“We girls don’t expect to come to Baptist Bible College and find it a place devoid of rules,” one student wrote. “We are at the point where maturity is expected of us. Maturity comes from responsibility. We sincerely feel that we are capable of taking on the responsibility of putting ourselves to bed.”
Rampant social issues gripped the opinions of the campus. Few students had ever considered the moral implications of racism, abortion, birth control, and the feminist movement. These debates, both written and verbal, considering each subject was enough to divide the population, which, coupled with low enrollment, led to a disenchanted student body.
The campus fights against the culture. Rules become stricter; enrollment grows. By the mid-70s, students speak out less and less about the rules they don’t want to follow and more and more about the blessings they find at GRBBC. Everything, it seems, has gone back to normal.
Then, on November 5, 1978, disaster struck. A houseful of young women who went to Calvin College were burgled and raped at gunpoint. Suddenly, Grand Rapids didn’t seem so safe anymore, and students at GRBBC took notice.
As student Cindy DeVries wrote: “Far too many students on campus ignore current increases in campus crime – especially in robbery, assault, and rape – and continue to act as if we are immune from it just because our college happens to be a Christian one.”
A few weeks later, Timothy Barsuhn, another student, voiced his concerns.
“Actually, our campus is a crook’s dream,” Barsuhn wrote. He pointed out the dated radio system, plus the fact the college employed one lone security guard to police nights. He asked that the administration reexamine their policies to protect their vulnerable students.
The only response he would get was courtesy of campus student government. They assured students that GRBBC was safer than most campuses, and that the burden of policing still rested with the actual police, so there would be very little additional security. A few bigger locks would be added to residential areas, but that was the extent of the change.
At the same time, the student council’s response confirmed that there had, in fact, been a recent break-in at a residential hall: Pickitt.
There’s very little information available about this crime, but here are the facts. At this point in time, Cornerstone’s campus was vastly different. Pickitt Hall sat right at the edge of a parking lot; there was even a wooden post staked into the ground to prevent students from driving their cars right up to the doors. The idea that someone could break into the hall is not a far-fetched one, with only one security guard and an easy getaway.
This, plus the fact that Pickitt’s resident director Edith McBride chose this as her final year in the building, raises some questions, at least in my mind.
Times were changing, it seemed, and not for the better.
By 1980, security concerns had reached a head. An attempted attack of a coed on campus, victim unnamed, prompted student T. Michael Salter to write a response in the school paper, urging security to take further measures to protect campus.
He received no response.
A legend of a girl long gone; a shadowy trace of a campus divided by safety. There’s something strange about the fact that after more than 35 years, there are still stories floating around Cornerstone’s campus of a person or an incident that, as far as I can tell, never existed.
But don’t take my word for it. This investigation isn’t over yet, not by far.