I had the privilege of addressing the Phi Beta Kappa induction dinner in Great Hall at the Memorial Union last weekend, but the speech wasn’t anywhere near as exciting as what happened afterward.

Among those in attendance at the dinner was economics professor emeritus W. Lee Hansen, one of several distinguished Phi Beta Kappa lifetime members who came to applaud the 137 new inductees to the exclusive honor society that recognizes academic and leadership excellence in the liberal arts and sciences. One of the inductees, Steven Olikara, gave a speech on behalf of the new class.

Last Saturday, as every day has been since, was cold and blustery. So the dinner guests came in coats and hats.

“I’m always wary about hanging my coat on one of those free-standing coat racks wheeled in for occasions like this,” Hansen told me in an email the next day. “I worry that someone will walk off with my coat, so I always button it up to give pause to anyone who might mistake it for their own.”

After the dinner Hansen chatted with several friends and colleagues and then went to get his coat. Alas, the rack was completely bare. The professor then caught a glimpse of a young man with a bright red, white and blue cap, carrying a large bundle of coats in his arms.

Hansen yelled at him, but the guy took off, running into the hallway. So what does an 82-year-old retired professor do? He chases him, of course, yelling, “Stop! Thief! You’re taking our coats.”

The thief continued up a staircase with the professor close behind. As the chase continued up the stairs, the thief dropped the coats, which were slowing him down, and quickly sped out of Hansen’s reach. The professor went back to Great Hall and told others who were wondering what happened to their coats that they could be found on the stairway.

“At that very moment, I saw this guy with his red, white and blue cap flash through the hallway on the other side of Great Hall,” Hansen wrote me. “I then yelled as loud as I could, ‘There he goes. Go after him!’ ”

But the thief eluded everyone again.

Hansen went back to the stairway, got his almost-stolen coat and walked down to the first floor of the Union. He briefly stopped to peer into a party in Tripp Commons, thinking maybe the thief with the red, white and blue cap had tried to lose himself in the crowd. He then noticed a commotion in a nearby hallway and found that the guy in the colorful cap was being held in a vise-like grip by three of the attendees at the Phi Beta Kappa dinner: UW psychology professor Keith Kluender, Steven Olikara, who had been the student speaker at the dinner before I gave my talk, and Steven’s father.

The three of them had responded to Hansen’s calls for help and chased the thief through the Union until they finally cornered him. Memorial Union employees called the police and they took him away.

“That marked the completely unexpected end to what has always been a quiet dinner event,” the professor wrote. “I credited Steven, his father and Keith for their good work. Too bad the rest of the Phi Beta Kappa attendees missed the excitement. There could have been 137 PBK inductees plus parents running through the Memorial Union looking for this guy.”

Hansen added, “Finally, Steven Olikara proved he is not only an outstanding scholar but also a man of action, ready to put his knowledge to the service of all of us! The moral of the story: Thieves, it doesn’t pay to tangle with Phi Beta Kappas!”

Next time, I’ll stick around a little longer just to watch the excitement.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com

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