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Remembering Sister Julia Clare Fontaine, who created ‘Running of the Rodents’

Liz Dallmann

The Spalding community joins the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth in saying a loving goodbye to Sister Julia Clare Fontaine, a former Spalding biology professor and department chair who died on Feb. 22 at the age of 97. Here is a link to her obituary and video replay of her funeral.

Among Sister Julia Clare’s many contributions to Spalding and her religious community, she will be fondly remembered as the creator of one of the university’s proudest and most fun campus traditions: the annual Running of the Rodents. The first Spalding rat race, as its commonly called, took place in 1973, and the 46th edition will be held on April 12.

In honor of Sister Julia Clare, let’s look back at an interview with her about the history of the Running of the Rodents that was originally published in the Winter 2012 issue of the former Spalding Magazine:

When former biology professor Sister Julia Clare Fontaine overheard a student complain about the “rat race” of finals, she immediately had an idea for a stress reliever before spring session final exams—racing lab rats. Since 1973, the Running of the Rodents has been a fun-filled, annual Louisville tradition that serves as both a stress reducer and a unique method of teaching students about animal care as well as behavior modification techniques.

Since its inception, the Running of the Rodents has received much attention, and, according to Sister Julia Clare, it has made news on national syndicates as well as BBC London, BBC Mexico and BBC Canada. Trivial Pursuit® coined the race as “The Most Exciting Two Seconds in Sports” after 1987’s rat, Deep Throat, won the Rodent Derby in 1.8 seconds.

This year marked the 40th anniversary of the event. With the theme “Viva Rat Vegas,” the campus was alive with decorations and costumes representing everything Vegas from Elvis and Frank Sinatra to characters from movies such as “Vegas Vacation” and “The Hangover.” Racing rodents donned names such as Lady Luck, Roulette, Burlesque and LibeRATce.

Spalding University sat down with Running of the Rodents creator Sister Julia Clare after the event to talk about the event’s history.

SU: From your perspective, how did the rat race begin?

SJC: It was a biology senior seminar, and I was giving out assignments when one of the students said, “Oh, I’ll be so glad to get out of this rat race.” And I thought, “We have pet rats in the lab. Let’s go outside and race them.” We found boards about 10 feet long, and we assembled them in to four tracks. We put the rats in and let them run. And then, [over the years], it developed into a whole take on the Kentucky Derby.

SU: In what ways has the rat race developed?

SJC: Well, we had a student’s father who made us a round track, and then a few years later, [Spalding alumna and former Rat Queen] Madonna (Ebernez) Wilson, who was studying architecture at U of K, constructed a oval track with an infield, starting gate, a quarter pole, a three-quarter pole and a final. I think it’s the one they are still using today.

Two to three years after the first race, we got the students, regardless of their major, to train the rats prior to the race. We used FrootLoops® in those days. A rat would run so far. and then it would get rewarded with cereal. Then it would run a little farther, then farther, then farther. It took a long time to train them, but those students were very careful with training and taking care of the animals, and the rats would learn to know their trainers. It’s a whole thing on animal behavior.

Students also used to use what I call thoroughbred rats—the Norwegian lab rat—a black and white rat. They are a loving animal like a kitten, and they are not as big as the other rats. One student said her rat would watch television with her. They learn their trainers so that as soon as they hear the trainer’s voice they will come to him [or her]. I used to get them from the medical and dental research building.

SU: Tell us a little bit about the themes of rat race over the years.

SJC: The students picked the themes over the years, but my favorite was probably the year we used the theme of Dallas. Of course, we had a rat named JR. At the time on the show, there was a character named Kristin, and I don’t know if she had her eyes on JR or what, but she got pregnant. It just so happened that year, one of the rats was named Kristin, and don’t you know, she got so pregnant that she wouldn’t fit in the starting gate so we had to scratch her. CBS national news picked it up that year, and they started the news program with Cliff [from Dallas] saying, “I’m gonna get that dirty rat.”

SU: It must be satisfying knowing that something you created has grown from something so small to something that has lasted the past 40 years. How do you think the Running of the Rodents has changed over the years?

SJC: Well, we used to race outside in the [Mansion] parking lot and in those days I got four sets of bleachers from Metro Parks brought in to the lot. [The location now in the ballroom] is the biggest change, I think, but we also used to have betting. You’d put a quarter down on a winner, and you got 30 cents back. [Laughs.] There was one Courier-Journal reporter that said, “Now, how can you as a Catholic condone gambling?” And I said, “You’ve got to be kidding; it’s more of a gamble to walk across Fourth Street and get there safe then it is to put a quarter down on a rat.” [Giggles.]

I’d be interested to see the trainers get back in to using the “thoroughrats”—it would be more scientific. Honestly, I can’t think of anything more that Spalding could do for the Running of the Rodents that it isn’t doing now. When I was there, I was a full-time professor with a full load organizing the race. It’s nice that university has [Student Development and Campus Life] to organize things like the cereal eating contest and penny wars. It’s all right. … I am proud of them.