Student Stories

Book explores quirky and legendary history of Scav Hunt

Leila Sales, AB’06, works with alums to compile essays documenting unique event

Scav Hunt is coming. Maybe you’re someone for whom Scav is always coming, who eagerly anticipates the annual four-day event featuring hundreds of competitors and even more quirky items on the legendary Scav list.

Since its humble beginnings in 1987, Scav Hunt has become a transformative, uniquely UChicago experience for students and alumni. One of those alums, competitor-turned-Scav judge Leila Sales, AB’06, explores that unique history in her new book, We Made Uranium!recently published by the University of Chicago Press.

Sales worked with alumni to compile essays full of heart and hilarity that explore Scav lore, notably the story that inspired the title—about students who built a working breeder reactor in their dorm. With Scav set to begin at midnight on May 8, UChicago News talked to Sales about the book and her memories from Scav Hunts past:

Headshot of Leila Sales
Leila Sales, AB'06

What inspired you to start this project?

It’s been in the back of my mind since graduating college in 2006. I got a job working at Penguin, and I went on to publish six young adult novels. Then I went back to UChicago in 2015 for the Scav wedding. It was so amazing, and it reaffirmed for me that I really did want to do this book. By that point I had put so many books out there into the world, both as an editor and an author, that I felt way better equipped to begin this project than when I first started thinking about it.

Scav is very ephemeral, and a lot of stories rely on a collective memory. What did it mean to you to have stories from Scav recorded and shared?

I think that’s really valuable. There are some really legendary stories that aren’t in here, and every year there will be more. The thing about Scav is that it is a community, and everybody who has participated in it feels connected to this community in some way. I hope this book will bring that community together even more.

For people who love Scav, you miss it when it’s not that time of year. After you graduate, it’s not Scav ever again for you. You try to explain it to people, and they’re like, “Oh, sure, a scavenger hunt; I know those,” and you say “No, no, you don’t quite understand.” I think the book will allow people to explain it to others and also relive it.

Everyone loves the story of Fred Niell and Justin Kasper's homemade breeder reactor. What other legendary Scav Hunt stories would you like to get people talking about?

Getting into the Guinness Book of World Records, of course. The Scavvie who proposed to her boyfriend for points, and they’re still married to this day. All those stories are in the book—by the people who actually experienced them. But I also think everyone has their own legendary Scav experiences, and maybe they’re not the most famous or flashy items, but they’re the ones that have the greatest impact on you.

Two men stand wearing yellow suits stand in front of a breeder reactor. One smokes a cigarette.
Justin Kasper (right) at the 1999 Scav Hunt. (Photo by Buffy Wajvoda)

Not only are there so many unusual stories that come out of Scav, but there’s a real reason why people do it. What’s your take? Why do people do Scav?

I think it’s different for different people. One of the things I tried to do in the book was highlight the weight and significance of these stories. They aren’t just these crazy things people did one time in college. Part of why I did Scav was because of the community. The teamwork in Scav is really important to me.

A lot of the work you do in college is pretty solitary. You write a paper, and it’s just you and a computer for 12 hours in the Reg. So having this collective creation is a wonderful way of building community. For four days, everybody on your team and everybody on all the other teams agrees that this matters. It gives you this wonderful thing to focus on.

You were a Scav judge. Can you talk about what that experience meant to you?

The judges would discuss and debate every proposed item, and that would often get into philosophy. It would start out with “Is this a good item or a bad item?” and then someone would ask “Well, what does it mean to be a ‘good item’?”

It’s great having that ownership in the items. The idea is that as a judge, you ask for what you want to see. Often, Scavvies will not accomplish it, or they’ll do something completely different than what you had in mind. But sometimes they do it, and you get to see your dreams come true! One time, I wrote an item asking them to reenact the cafeteria scene from High School Musical—the song “Stick to the Status Quo”—so Scavvies did that at Bartlett during lunchtime. People were playing the music and standing up on tables, throwing basketballs around. I’ve never been so happy.

You have a great essay about an item you helped organize in this book. Could you paint us a picture of how that happened?

The item was to play Tetris on the windows of the John Hancock Building or the Sears Tower. Our captains looked into it and discovered it would cost tens of thousands of dollars to rent one of those skyscrapers for the night, so we figured we couldn’t do it and moved on.

I was a first-year in the former Shoreland Residence Hall. It has all these windows that face the lake, and I thought, “We could play Tetris right here on the windows of our building.” The judges had thought that it would be automated somehow, with different lights flickering on and off, but obviously the Shoreland lights are not automated that way. So I got about a hundred people in the building to participate and put one person in each window to raise or lower the window shade on our command so that it would appear like Tetris pieces were falling down the windows. When it worked out, it was really magical getting so many people to participate in this thing in unison.

Do you have any advice for first-time Scavvies or someone who is skeptical about Scav?

Give it a try. Go to the list reading. A lot of it is not gonna make any sense, and that’s OK. See if there’s one item that you might want to help with. The idea of the list with its 300-some items is that there should be something for everybody. Regardless of what your interests are or your skillset, there should be something in there that you think would be cool to work on. I don’t feel like everybody has to be involved in Scav, but I do feel like some people dismiss it out of hand because it seems weird. It’s really no weirder than traditions around big sporting events at other universities, as far as I’m concerned.

It’s interesting to think about what you take with you after Scav is over. It’s such a high-energy moment.

You have that real crash at the end. There’s both the adrenaline and the fact that you’ve decided for those four days that this is the only thing in the world that matters. Then it’s gone, and you’re like, “Now what matters?” It’s an existential moment.

—Sales will discuss her book at the Seminary Co-op bookstore on May 11 at 3 p.m.—right in the heart of this year’s Scav Hunt.