The inanimate alumnus

    Public DomainOne of the cool things about going to Northwestern is the fact that a ton of our alumni went on to do great things, such as founding one of the most prestigious medical facilities in the world, becoming a Supreme Court Justice, and being generally awesome. But in over 150 years of passing out degrees, there has to be at least one recipient that you might be less than thrilled to associate yourself with. Which brings us to this week’s question: Who is the strangest person to hold a Northwestern degree?

    I’m going to be honest and admit that my research on this was not that exhaustive. But I find it hard to believe that there are any cases in the university’s annals weirder than that of Charlie McCarthy. McCarthy was a well-known entertainer, whose Chicago-based radio show, The Edgar Bergen/Charlie McCarthy Show, aired on NBC from 1937-1956. In August 1938, during an appearance on the show, School of Speech dean Ralph Dennis awarded McCarthy an honorary “Master of Innuendo and Snappy Comebacks” degree. What’s so strange about that, you ask? Well, McCarthy is a dummy. No, I’m not insulting his intelligence–McCarthy was actually a ventriloquist’s doll.

    McCarthy’s creator, Edgar Bergen, discovered at a young age that he had a talent for throwing his voice. So while attending high school in Chicago he created a dummy, named Charlie McCarthy and modeled after a local newsie, and began performing as a ventriloquist. In the 1920s, Bergen came to Northwestern originally to study medicine, but soon decided to transfer to the School of Speech and eventually dropped out to pursue his career in entertainment. After a few years performing in vaudeville shows and short movies, Bergen landed the aforementioned radio show in 1937. The McCarthy character soon became famous for his witty lines, which were allowed to be much racier than other performances of the day because the character was supposed to be a young boy. Bergen was posthumously inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1990, but McCarthy received an even greater honor: he now resides in the Smithsonian, right next to Fonzie’s jacket.

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