How Mary Desler saved Dillo Day

    113 police citations.
    7 arrests.
    199 incident reports.

    Even on a day known for its boisterous behavior, the statistics from Dillo Day in 2003 are staggering. Instead of heading to the Lakefill to see bands like Robert Randolph and the Family Band or The Crystal Method, students were getting in trouble and drinking heavily. So heavily that dozens were sent to the hospital. Hospital employees at the time told The Daily Northwestern that there were so many drunk students, the waiting room smelled like a bar.

    “The scariest thing to me was that the Evanston emergency room had to divert emergencies to St. Francis because there were too many Northwestern students there,” says Mary Desler, Northwestern’s associate vice president and dean of student affairs.

    The utter chaos that year almost ended Dillo Day for good. But thanks to Desler (yes, that Mary Desler) and the creation of the Dillo Day Task Force, the tradition carries on. That Task Force has taken steps to make Dillo Day safer and has seen citations, arrests and hospitalizations drop drastically since 2003 with only one arrest made last year.

    Desler, who will retire from her current position in July, recalls feeling scared and shocked by the numbers in 2003. Dillo Day had always been marked by drinking and partying, but that was a wake-up call as to how dangerous the day could be. Talk immediately turned to what to do about the annual spring celebration.

    “I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, can we keep this safe?’” Desler says. “There was much discussion in 2003 about whether we should cancel Dillo Day. There was serious talk about why we even do this day.”

    Administrators and Evanston residents were considering shutting Dillo Day down for good. Ultimately, Desler says her office decided that the community spirit and general fun of Dillo Day were worth preserving, but only with some radical changes. So they set out to organize the Dillo Day Task Force, bringing together representatives from every sector of the university and Evanston community to discuss ways to make Dillo Day safer on a one-year trial basis.

    They developed a list of seven goals ranging from enticing students to the Lakefill to engaging the community to creating an educational campaign. They brought in representatives for students (Panhellenic Association, Mayfest, Associated Student Government, Residential College Board, Residence Hall Association), the administration (Student Affairs, Center for Student Involvement, Health Services) and the community (Evanston police and some Evanston residents) to have an open discussion about ways to keep students out of trouble and out of the hospital without coming off as disapproving or preaching about the dangers of alcohol.

    To that end, the task force has taken out ads in The Daily Northwestern and distributed flyers laying out the real consequences of breaking the rules — hurting study abroad applications and increasing the risk of sexual assault, for example. They arranged for more alcohol-free events, like the Panhellenic Association’s pancake breakfast at Deering Field. They distributed information to Evanston residents about Dillo Day and warned them that the day was ahead, which ASG external relations director Jilian Lopez believes has been helpful on both ends.

    “There’s a really active community member on the task force,” the Weinberg junior says. “She said that before the task force, it was horrible and loud and neighbors were concerned and confused. But now things are relatively quiet and calm. It’s important that we make an effort to be respectful.”

    But members of the task force say the easiest way to keep students safe is also the most fun. Will Hamlin, the director of university relations for Mayfest, says it’s all about the music.

    “When students are on the Lakefill, they’re not drinking, so the safest place for students to be on Dillo Day is the Lakefill,” the Weinberg senior says. “If Mayfest can provide quality entertainment, that draws students and gives them a place to go. We want to make sure that the first act is high quality.”

    That means having Ben Folds play at noon in 2006 and spreading out the headliners to keep students coming back to the concerts. The task force has also arranged for water bottles on the Lakefill (this year, various students groups even chipped in after Pepsi declined to give Mayfest the water for free) and keeping Lisa’s Café opened all day. But Desler says one of the biggest ways they’ve changed security is simply visibility.

    “[In 2003] our staff weren’t expected to be there. We just didn’t do the work going into Dillo Day that we do now,” Desler says. “Now you’ll see University Police, student affairs staff, student leaders, IFC, Panhel, RHA, RCB, Mayfest. Everybody’s out there with a common goal — make this day spectacular and make it safe.”

    Desler says the task force has been wildly successful and the numbers support her. The number of citations dropped immediately in 2004 to 42 and have steadily declined to only 14 in 2008. Arrest numbers have dropped as well — last year’s only arrest was made on Friday and not related to Dillo Day. And the hospitals have been relatively clear of drunk students — last year only four alcohol-related ambulance calls were made.

    “Mary Desler showed us some numbers from previous years at our first meeting about students taken to the hospital and the numbers have gone down dramatically,” Lopez says. “The numbers show that it’s really worked out, which is satisfying.”

    The task force’s immediate success not only kept Dillo Day going, but also encouraged more funding to attract better bands. In its five years, the task force has changed little but hasn’t lost a step. Hamlin says that now the panel works like clockwork.

    “We only had three meetings this year because we’re able to follow precedent,” he says. “We know what works now. There’s nothing too surprising coming up this year.”

    The task force may have attracted better bands, increased police presence and, most importantly, saved Dillo Day. But Desler says that even with its success, there’s still work to do.

    “All of our efforts pay off and they will continue to do so. But there’s always that question,” she says. “Every year we say ‘It’s safer than it was, but how can we keep it safer?’”


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