Memory Lane: Cold Comforts
It was a storm with chops—cyclonic winds, a prodigious payload of snow and a footprint that covered over a quarter of the nation. As it blasted through the Midwest early on the morning of Feb. 13, 2007, Chancellor Richard Herman cancelled classes at Illinois for the first time in almost 30 years, making the Valentine’s Day Blizzard of 2007 a storm of the new century.
It stirred and swirled and blew over campus, sweeping more than a foot of snow across open spaces and heaping it at inconvenient junctures. Cars were stuck in drifts all over Urbana and Champaign. Between emergency workers and stranded travelers, every hotel room in the area was spoken for that night. At the Atkins Tennis Center on campus, the men’s team from the University of Florida took a 6-1 beating from the racquets of the Illini in a contest duly dubbed “The Battle of the Blizzard.”
And for a hardy handful of students, Feb. 13, 2007, was the best snow day ever. Chi Omegas borrowed cafeteria trays and smoothed the snow-covered steps of Foellinger Auditorium into a slick plane for sledding. Snowball fights broke out across campus, some combatants expertly winging packed spheres, others flinging free-form handfuls. Cross country skiers crisscrossed the Quad. One group of undergraduates used plastic dustpans and Frisbees to engineer an elaborate, tunneled igloo out of a 15-foot mound left behind by a plow.
By longstanding policy, the University of Illinois never officially closes. Essential personnel—e.g., employees who run the power plant and care for animals at the South Farms—must report no matter the weather. University employees with nonessential status who came to campus on the morning of Feb. 13 were sent home and credited with working the day. Those who declined to brave the hazardous driving conditions were expected, per University policy, to use leave time to cover their absence from work.
Many dining and residence hall staff members worked during the closure. Some even stayed overnight in campus housing, as the blizzard slowly stomped off to crush the Northeast. Campus was closed again on Valentine’s Day. By the Thursday resumption of classes, irate letters lambasting University weather policies appeared in the local newspaper. The streets had been plowed and plowed again. The Florida men’s tennis team went home. Life went on.
Letters about the storm also were published in The Daily Illini. One was from a graduate student who drove to campus on Feb. 13. Her car got stuck twice along the way and was finally overcome by a world-class drift that had intruded into the John Street Parking Garage. She opened her car door and got out to survey her entrapment. Two more cars shortly arrived. Men emerged from each, saw her plight and came over to help. One had a shovel that he’d brought along for just such an emergency. He was Chancellor Herman. “And you all can thank me for getting my car stuck,” Jessica Horn told the student body in her letter to The DI. “Because one hour later, the Chancellor cancelled class for Wednesday citing that it had been ‘impossible to keep streets and sidewalks clear and safe.’”
The University’s weather policy stands. Classes have been cancelled just once since, on another capital letter occasion—the day following the Palm Sunday Blizzard of March 24, 2013.