This School’s Most Famous Student Never Existed

Georgia Institute of Technology is a research university based in Atlanta, Georgia. Since its establishment in 1885, Georgia Tech has awarded degrees to tens of thousands of students. None of them have come close to surpassing the fame and accomplishments of 1930 graduate George P. Burdell.

Although nearly a century has passed since Burdell’s enrollment, his name is fresh on the lips of the institution’s current student body and faculty. Not only that, Burdell’s name has appeared in publications, on the battlefield, and in the remarks of the President of the United States. You can even find his name in orbit around our planet.

Not bad for someone who never existed.

The story of George P. Burdell begins back in 1926 when William Edgar “Ed” Smith was accepted for admission to Georgia Tech (then known as The Georgia School of Technology). The school somehow managed to send Smith two enrollment forms. Rather than discard the extra, Smith chose to use it to create a fictional classmate: George P. Burdell.

“Burdell” began his academic adventures at Georgia Tech that autumn, along with Smith. Smith enrolled his brainchild in the same classes he was taking. He perpetuated the hoax by enlisting the assistance of some friends, who would call out “Here!” when the professor said Burdell’s name during roll call.

The most remarkable part of this tale is the lengths to which Smith went to keep the hoax alive. For every assignment, Smith did it twice. Once for himself, and the second time for Burdell, with different handwriting and a different linguistic style.

The fact that Smith kept the faculty from discovering the rather significant issue that no professor ever saw Burdell’s face is an indication of his creativity. That he kept it up for four years and earned Burdell a Bachelor of Science degree is a testimony to his dedication and ingenuity. Smith had, effectively, done all the work for two degrees all for the sake of his little joke.

Only after George P. Burdell was awarded his degree on June 9, 1930, did Smith and his friends let the administration in on the prank. That is when the name of George P. Burdell achieved legendary status and a new tradition was born at Georgia Tech.

For nearly a century, students and alumni have kept the legend of George P. Burdell alive. The tech-savvy students always try to find a way to enroll him in classes. On several occasions, someone managed to hack the registrar’s computer and place Burdell in every class being offered.

The Burdell legend has also inspired several pranks. One of the first happened not long after Burdell’s graduation. One of Georgia Tech’s students pledged to join a fraternity and was offended that he was turned down. In retaliation, he had a truckload of furniture delivered to the fraternity, to be paid for upon receipt. The order was made in the name of George P. Burdell.

As Georgia Tech alumni spread around the world, so did Burdell’s legend:

  • Burdell’s name appears on the roster of crew members of a B-17 bomber. As part of the 8th Air Force, he flew 12 missions over Europe during World War II. Burdell’s assignment came to an end only after a Georgia Tech alumnus was named as the operations officer. Upon recognizing the name of his infamous fellow alumnus, he had Burdell’s name stricken from the flight log.
  • MAD Magazine boasted Burdell as a member of its board of directors for twelve years.
  • Burdell was the leading nominee for Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” in 2001 until editors disqualified him.
  • His name joins those of other team members on an engraved plate on the Prox-1 satellite that was designed and built by the Guggenheim School of Aerospace Engineering at Georgia Tech. It was part of the Space Test Program 2 launch on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy Rocket.
  • He is listed as the baritone player in the 1995 album Jesus Christ Superstar: A Resurrection.
  • He was an alternate delegate to the Democratic National Convention from Georgia in 2000.
  • He was credited as a member of the choir of the 2006 album There is a Place.
  • President Barack Obama spoke at Georgia Tech on March 10, 2015. He told the audience that he was supposed to be introduced by George P. Burdell, but no one was able to locate him.

Sometimes a joke can go too far. On November 27, 2014, Georgia Tech’s online master calendar was hacked. Initially, it appeared to have been done by George P. Burdell. Authorities later determined the culprit was undergraduate Computer Engineering student, Ryan Pickren. He was arrested and charged.

The university appears to have embraced the legend of its most famous non-student:

  • At commencement, the school has posted a mock diploma in Burdell’s name as part of the festivities.
  • It is common for Burdell to be paged over the loudspeakers during home football games.
  • He is listed as a staff member at the school’s radio station, WREK
  • His son, George P. Burdell, Jr., has been a proctor for several classes at Georgia Tech.

Burdell’s birthday is also a big cause for celebration, and students do so each year. His birthday, most appropriately, is on April 1st.

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