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Decade-old UNC tradition spurs students’ robbery under foot

D’Angelo Gatewood, a chemistry and public relations double major, crosses a patch of missing bricks on his way to an Admissions Ambassadors interview.

D’Angelo Gatewood, a chemistry and public relations double major, crosses a patch of missing bricks on his way to an Admissions Ambassadors interview.

Doug Pass premeditated his crime.

Ayashe Ramey said her heist was a product of peer pressure. Her peers beg to differ.

All three are brick-robbers, just a few of the hundreds of UNC students who by moonlight pluck from the 6 miles of sidewalks crisscrossing the campus’s 729 acres — a tradition that dates back at least 10 years.

“Yeah, it was 1 or 2 a.m. on a weekend, and I was walking back from some... venue,” Handy said, hedging his words. “Maybe a little inebriated. And then I just remember looking ahead and seeing other people pulling out bricks.”

The delinquents down the path inspired Handy, a first-year at the time, to grab the first loose brick he could find on his walk through Rams Head Plaza. He and his roommate each lifted a brick — maybe on the bridge, maybe farther down. They stashed their quarry in backpacks and made their getaway.

Handy, who is now a junior, remembers the thrill, if not all the details: “I think there’s just a rush. Breaking the rules a little is exciting.”

It took Pass all four years at UNC to muster the boldness to break those rules. Since his first year in 2010, he saw friend after friend steal bricks.

“It’s always been a thing,” he said. “Everybody does it. I just had to work up the bravery.”

The 2014 graduate made his claim as a senior after weeks of seeking the perfect spot. One spring night, he wobbled over a brick walking to his car on Stadium Drive.

“It was a now-or-never decision,” he said. “I picked it up, and I threw it into the backseat, where it stayed for months.”

Hal Sanders, the project manager for UNC Facilities Services’ masonry unit, said he doesn’t know for sure why, but about a decade ago, students got it into their minds that every one of them had to leave the University with a brick in tow.

“And just all of a sudden, it got this bloated,” he said. “Everyone wanted a brick.”

Sanders’ office occupies the corner of the masons’ off-campus workshop. A blown-up map of campus hangs on one wall; he uses it to point out areas with high brick turnover. Piled-up maintenance requests — each reporting a sidewalk hole — flutter when the air conditioning kicks on.

“We really discourage it,” Sanders said. “It’s a lot of labor for my folks to continuously put these bricks back. And not to mention the cost of the bricks that we don’t recover.”

Rengate Alston is Sanders’ right-hand masonry replacer. Alston, who has worked at UNC for 15 years, rides his Gator every weekday morning from the campus planetarium to Morrison Residence Hall, scouting out the sidewalk. He said the quarter-mile stretch from Kenan Memorial Stadium to Morrison is especially troublesome.

“It’s every morning when the students are back. Just like this morning, I probably put in 50, just in that area,” he said Sept. 14. “And tomorrow morning, there’ll be some more. And I’ll put those back in.”

He said the total easily tops 100 a week. To get his replacements, Alston heads to the open-air brick stockpile the masons keep in the woods by their shop; at any one time, the unit has at least a couple thousand spares on hand.

Alston and Sanders — and supervisor Mark Bristol, who regularly pops into the shop to ask what the day’s damage is — agree the high numbers aren’t just costly, but dangerous. Even one missing brick can knock over a biker or a student in a wheelchair, they said.

“I even seen a girl on a unicycle this morning,” Alston said. “And you know how that one would go.”

Though most students interviewed in the Pit on an early September Monday said they’d already stolen a brick or intended to, a few conscientious objectors sided with the maintenance crew. They worried for the safety of others, and a handful of admittedly clumsy students said they’d fallen more than once.

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Ramey, the first-year plunderer allegedly coerced into her theft, shared her disapproval, too. She pilfered in a trio of suitemates.

“Like all good stories, it starts at Late Night,” said Samantha Huffman, one of the accomplices. Huffman said she persuaded her friends to take bricks by Ehringhaus Residence Hall because her sister told her “it was definitely a thing.”

“It’s not a thing,” Ramey said. “It was peer pressure for me.” She said she felt guilty.

The struggle of conscience other students go through is understandable. Some rationalize by merely “borrowing” the bricks.

Senior Adam Bock yanked up five well-packed bricks at the beginning of his first year so he could raise his futon a few inches. He made sure to take from a side path, though, and he neatly laid them back out after exams.

He does, however, plan to take one for good before he graduates.

“Now that it’s senior year, I’m looking for more keepsakes to take with me afterward,” he said.

The Department of Public Safety’s leniency also tempers students’ consciences. Spokesperson Randy Young said the department doesn’t approve of the practice, but unless someone calls in brick-stealing as suspicious, the authorities generally don’t investigate. The force charged someone four or five years ago with misdemeanor vandalism, but that case hinged on “a ridiculous amount of bricks.”

Even the men in the mason shop understand.

“It’s at UNC-Chapel Hill,” said Bristol, the supervisor. “It’s hallowed ground.”

Alston said the tradition meant one thing for him: “Job security.”

And Sanders, when pressed with a scenario, caved.

“OK, I’m about to graduate, and I’ve spent four years working hard and all this stuff? Yeah, I would take a brick,” he said. “Take Grandma one, too.”

“A brick’ll last forever,” he said. “That’s something you can put on your mantel and say, ‘This is from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.’”

After the rush and the naughty giggles, that’s what it really means, most students said. That piece of home.

Pass, the 2014 grad, now lives in New York City. In the few suitcases he took with him, he made room for his brick.

“It’s a reminder of the time of your life that you’ll never be able to go back to,” he said. “Chances are, you walked over those bricks during many stressful, anxiety-filled, dark days in college. But after you graduate, you’ll do anything to get those back. So sometimes, it’s nice to have a piece of the school that I can touch. I’m able to go back there.”