CORRECTION: A previous version of the caption on the article's image incorrectly identified Walter Thompson's position at the University. Thompson is a member of UNC's staff. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error.
The thievery normally happens under the cover of darkness. Perhaps it’s a big game, perhaps the semester’s nearing a close and nostalgia’s kicked in, perhaps it’s just the right crowd.
It’s a UNC tradition — but unlike drinking from the Old Well or climbing the Bell Tower, it has the added bonus of being illegal.
For decades, UNC students have been stealing campus bricks as a rite of passage. But the holes left behind never stay unfilled for long.
That’s where Walter Thompson comes in.
Every day, he drives around campus in a Gator Utility Vehicle, always on the search for missing bricks and holes in the sidewalk. Thompson has worked for UNC for 21 years. He’s a brick mason in charge of replacing the stolen bricks around campus.
“I ride around campus putting in missing bricks like this,” Thompson said. “Students be taking bricks like this, so I have to ride around, look for them and put a new brick in the hole so you all won’t trip.”
Thompson explained that he normally starts his days with a visit to Chase Dining Hall.
“Every day when I get up on the Gator, I go straight over to Chase Hall because I know some bricks are missing,” Thompson said.
After the last Duke vs. UNC game on March 6, three large holes were left in the sidewalk by Chase Hall after a mass brick-stealing event. Thompson said that he spent an hour-and-a-half the following Monday replacing the roughly 70 bricks that were stolen that weekend.
The process of filling in the bricks involves cleaning out the hole, putting in a new brick and knocking it in place with a hammer, Thompson explained.
“We don't want nobody to fall and get hurt,” Thompson said. “That’s my job.”
In addition to filling in holes from the missing bricks, Thompson also helps to fix the rock walls and pour concrete.
On average, 7,500 bricks are replaced each year, Stephanie Berrier, interim director of marketing and communications for finance and operations, said in an email.
In total, about 1.4 million bricks cover the six miles of campus walkways.
“Rumor is that most of them just take it as a souvenir,” Masonry Shop Supervisor Barry Kelly said.
Each brick costs 43 cents to replace, he said.
UNC’s masonry design guidelines outline that any bricks that are torn down for renovation projects need to be carefully saved for potential re-use, when possible, to keep the aesthetics of the sidewalk homogeneous.
“We try to match up,” Kelly said. “If we remove a walk, we save the older bricks in case we need to patch up.”
Normally, Kelly said, more bricks are stolen at either the beginning or end of the school year.
It is a criminal offense to steal bricks.
Large holes in the sidewalk from missing bricks can be hazardous to people on wheels in the area.
“I have to always avoid them when I’m riding cause I’ll just get a fat bump,” sophomore bike-rider Desireé Lockhart said.
Another biker, first-year Robert Dimitrov, said that one time he hit one of the holes on the bridge near Rams Head Recreation Center, but managed to stay on his bike.
“On the bridge there were three bricks missing, and I almost went through and face planted, but it’s fine,” Dimitrov said. “Occasionally if you’re not watching out, and you’re moving too quickly, you might fall in one of those bricks, but besides that it’s not a problem.”
Arjun Pajni, a frequent Tar Heel Bikes user, said he had a close call on a busy sidewalk. He said that sometimes the brakes on the Tar Heel Bikes don’t work, making it harder to avoid the holes in the sidewalk.
“I don’t have much money to buy a bike right now, so I have to deal with this,” Pajni said.
But not all students on wheels feel the same. First-year unicyclist Cole Prezant said that the missing bricks don’t bother him that much.
“The missing bricks certainly add some hazardous obstacles to my unicycling, but I am never one to shy away from a challenge,” Prezant said. “I say let the seniors take the bricks.”
Brick-stealing has long been a UNC tradition, but compared to pre-COVID-19 years, students like senior Prashil Thaker noticed that not as many bricks have been stolen this year.
“I remember walking to class early on, and there were times where a substantial number of bricks were taken off,” Thaker said. “Sometimes I would trip and stuff, but I know that after COVID it’s been a lot better.”
Even with the pandemic, many students have still been able to grab their piece of UNC’s campus.
“First semester, before I got sent home, I was walking back from Chase — tripped on a little bit of a brick graveyard,” William, a first-year, said. “There was just a loose brick chilling there, and I grabbed it.”
Another student confessed that she, too, took home a brick after tripping over it. First-year Grace said she didn’t want anyone else to trip over the loose brick.
“I thought it was like a thing — if you trip over it, you’re supposed to take it,” Grace said.
Despite UNC’s brick-stealing epidemic, many students noted that the holes in the sidewalk never stay for long. Yet, the savior of UNC’s sidewalks remains unknown to most.
“I don’t have a good idea of who normally fills in the bricks that are missing,” first-year Lisa Okoth said.
But for now, Thompson won’t be leaving UNC anytime soon.
“I sleep better at night knowing the campus is safe,” Thompson said.
Any damaged sidewalks or missing bricks can be reported to UNC facility services on the online campus maintenance request form. Damages can also be reported to customer service at 919-962-3456.
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