BY MIKE LEONARD
Indiana University graduate and prankster Leon Varjian was found dead at his New Jersey home this week after he didn’t show up for work at the Midland Park High School where he was in his 30th year as a math teacher. Police speculate the 64-year-old Varjian died of a heart attack. Earlier this year, Bloom interviewed Varjian,a beloved figure to many who attended IU or lived in Bloomington in the 1970s. This story appeared in the April/May edition of Bloom.
When Leon Varjian ran for mayor of Bloomington in 1975 he campaigned on the promise to turn the downtown Square into a giant Monopoly board.
Running on the Fun City ticket, he also pledged to turn the Indiana University campus into an amusement park and to carpet the sidewalks, alternate the direction of the city’s one-way streets daily, plant marijuana in the Kirkwood flowerpots, and hire a magician to make the city’s problems disappear.
“Everyone else was taking it very seriously and there I was,” Varjian recalls. “I think the other candidates finally came to the realization there was no sense in trying to deal with me. I did come in third out of four candidates and got 776 votes. I thought that was pretty good.”
Varjian arrived at IU in 1972 in pursuit of a graduate degree in mathematics after earning his bachelor’s at Montclair State University near his home in New Jersey. Although not known to be a public prankster as an undergraduate, his talent blossomed in Bloomington. “There was the shtick with Nixon,” he recalls. “I bought a Nixon mask, set up outside of Ballantine Hall, and proclaimed I was resigning the presidency because of ingrown toenails.”
Varjian and a classmate ran for student government leadership at IU in 1973, representing the Birthday Party. Once, they announced a mud-slinging event outside of the Indiana Memorial Union, brought bags of dirt, added water, and proceeded to sling mud at each other and then, passers-by.
“I was a big fan of street theater and guerilla theater from the anti-war days,” he says.
Varjian stayed in Bloomington for a year after earning his master’s degree and published the alternative newspaper Fun City. After a short-lived (he hated it) job in Washington, D.C., working as a computer programmer, he returned to the Midwest and the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where his legend only grew.
Varjian teamed up with Jim Mallon — who later would be the producer of the cult-favorite television series, Mystery Science Theater 3000 — to become vice president and president, respectively, of the Wisconsin Student Association. There, they pulled off on-campus stunts including blanketing historic Bascom Hill with 1,008 decorative lawn flamingos and constructing what looked to be a mostly submerged replica of the Statue of Liberty on frozen Lake Mendota.
“I believe I did find my calling because I found out I got the same kick standing up in front of a class as I did standing out in front of Ballantine Hall pulling a stunt,” he says. “I believe there is a link between performance art and being a good teacher.”
After earning 11 credit hours in 12 semesters at Wisconsin, Varjian returned to New Jersey and was a high school math teacher for 29 years, earning the state’s “Math Teacher of the Year” honor in 1996 and being named one of four Bergen County Teachers of the Year, described as a “tireless humanitarian” by his principal.
Longtime Bloomington residents recall Varjian’s April Fools Day tradition, the Banana Olympics, which included a banana boat contest in which participants wrote their names on bananas, dropped them into the Jordan River, and cheered as dozens of bananas floated downstream toward the finish line.
“That period was a very fun time in my life. No question about it,” Varjian says.