Building Community through Shared History - A KU Memorial Union Program

Lorenzo The Magnificent

If there had been an award at the University of Kansas for not taking oneself too seriously in the early 1970s, Dan Wessel certainly would have won it. The fine arts major billed himself as “The Great Wessellini” and “The Great Lorenzo: The Human Cannonball.”

In two springtime stunts, he gave the KU campus a welcome respite from the prolonged emotional intensity associated with that era’s student strikes, anti-war demonstrations, and civil rights protests. As Wessel himself reflected in a personal interview in July 2001, “I think I provided some comic relief.”

In 1972, Wessel began constructing a fancifully designed “flying machine.” He received more than a little help from his friends to build and maneuver the contraption with a 28-foot wingspan. His fiancée sewed the canvas over the wings. He took as his inspiration such would-be aviators as Octavio Chanute and Otto Lilienthal, who tried to break mankind’s earthly bonds long before the Wright Brothers succeeded in the early years of the 20th century.

Wessel almost seemed to prefer the flying machines that had not worked over than the ones that had. “They [the early aviators] had the right idea,” he once said. “Just do it and hope for the best.” Apparently, for the Great Wessellini, success was in the attempt, not the flight itself.

“Everyone gets crazy ideas, but every now and then you have to carry them out,” he told the University Daily Kansan as the fateful day approached. The Great Wessellini pondered the scientific implications of his endeavor: “I’m dealing with a lot of concepts,” he stated at the time, “but mainly with flying and man’s futility in his attempts.” Perhaps captured by the romantically inspired aspirations of entertainers from circus performers to carnival ride boys, Wessel savored the moment: “I hope the sun shines and the wind blows from the north. Sounds kind of romantic, doesn’t it?”

Romantic as it may have been, he still needed to get permission from a committee under the purview of the Dean of Women to fly the thing. Much to his surprise, the 20-plus members of the committee initially took Wessel and his plan a lot more seriously than he was taking it himself. After recovering from this shock, he managed to convince them that there was virtually no chance his machine would actually fly. It was strictly a stunt, he persuaded them, and in the end they gave the event their blessing.

On April 27, 1973, Wessel – then nearing the end of his junior year – prepared to take flight. Studying his launch ramp, a wooden affair six feet high and 32 feet long situated below the Campanile and aimed at Memorial Stadium, the Great Wessellini declared that if he could clear the scoreboard, he would go for a touchdown. In front of over 300 spectators, he guided his contraption down Mount Oread to his destiny.

Wessel plunged over the side of the ramp without cheating gravity even for a moment. His machine was smashed, with one wing destroyed. Unhurt, the Great Wessellini held his head high convinced that the effort had not been in vain. He was presented with plastic roses and carried from the field on the shoulders of his supporters remaining, in the eyes of some, the hero of the day. (Strangely, after leaving the wreckage overnight, the undamaged wing was missing the next morning.) The Great Wessellini was down, but certainly not out.

One year later, Wessel was back in action. This time he was The Great Lorenzo: The Human Cannonball. On April 26, 1974, the soon-to-be-graduating senior donned white tights, a pink cape, and red, white, and blue swimming trunks for another daredevil stunt. This time, he would launch himself into KU’s collective memory via a Plexiglas bubble.

This feat of daring-do was highlighted by the fact that the Great Wessellini would be inside the bubble, perched on a skateboard. Employing the assistance of the earth’s gravitational pull, the slope of Mount Oread, and another wooden ramp to achieve break-neck speed, the bubble was intended to sail off the ramp, over Potter Lake, and onto a large white “X” on the other side designated as the landing zone. Again, Wessel received permission from the Dean of Women to perform the stunt, with his reassurance that the bubble was unlikely to leave the ground.

The crowd of the previous year was dwarfed by the turnout at the 1974 event. Those who had missed the Great Wessellini in 1973 were not about to pass up again the opportunity to watch the Great Lorenzo. A throng of 4,000 showed up for the Human Cannonball’s daring attempt – some classes let out for lack of attendance. A Physics 101 class had even prepared a study for Wessel on the possibilities of his becoming airborne and clearing Potter Lake, and concluded his chances were next to nil. But the Great Lorenzo was not to be thwarted by skeptics.

On cue, he entered the bubble, which was supposed to be guided down to the launch ramp by a two-rail track that would keep the Human Cannonball on his planned trajectory. Unfortunately, the bubble encountered problems almost immediately. The Plexiglas was too pliable and became wedged between the rails of the ramp. After some minor adjustments, the bubble and its passenger continued on their rendezvous with destiny. But once again, the bubble hit the ramp. This time, it spun out of control, throwing the Great Lorenzo indignantly to the ground. Not only had he missed the landing zone – the Human Cannonball failed even to reach the edge of the lake.

Most spectators did not seem too disappointed, although some “boos” could be heard. As in the previous year, the Great Lorenzo received a bouquet of plastic roses and signed autographs for fans. “Lorenzo never loses,” Wessel said after the event, “I got all these people to come out here to see nothing.” Many of the spectators no doubt felt that witnessing a man with a pink cape and white tights skateboarding down Mount Oread in a plastic bubble ostensibly to sail over Potter Lake was more than nothing. “It seemed like a fun thing to do,” Wessel said.

Today, Dan Wessel lives in Kansas City with his wife Theresa, the same woman who sewed the canvas wings on his ill-fated flying machine in 1973. He now expresses his art through the medium of architecture as a designer of homes. “It comes up from time to time,” he acknowledged in July 2001, when asked about his thoughts on the Great Wessellini and the Human Cannonball. He claimed to not worry much about whether his clients were aware of his failed attempts at flight, but joked “They might be a bit leery if they knew.”

Wessel also added an epilogue to the story of his first stunt, solving the mystery of the missing wing. According to Wessel, a German student later admitted he had made off with the wing in the night, disassembled it and shipped it to Germany, where it was put back together and displayed in the young man’s apartment. Airborne or not, the Great Wessellini could claim an international reputation.

Douglas Harvey
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: University Daily Kansan, 27 April 1973, 29 April 1974, 7 April 2000; author’s interview with Dan Wessel, 19 July 2001.]