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Remember This? Bill Rabe and the Unicorn Hunters

A look at the back story behind Lake Superior State University's popular, annual banned words list and snowman burning traditions and one of the men behind them

From the archives of the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library:

Someone might think that hunting unicorns might be an unusual and not to mention difficult task, since they are extremely elusive creatures. However, one man, Bill Rabe thought it was a worthwhile adventure.

The local Unicorn Hunter’s group was established in 1971. Bill Rabe was hired as Lake Superior State University’s Public Relations Director, and with the help of English professors Peter Thomas, John McCabe and John Stevens, the group was established. It was intended to be a fun and lighthearted way to create publicity for the new fledgling University, which had recently separated from Michigan Technical University. 

The Unicorn Hunters held events like poetry readings and the annual Snowman burning ceremony every spring to mark the end of winter. Similar to most organizations and groups, the Unicorn Hunters had their own regulations as set out by the Department of Natural Unicorns (DNU) and they include some unique ideas.

The Questing Territory includes Enchanted Forests, Earth, Outer Space and one’s Imagination. The Questing Season takes place every day of the year, except for Valentine’s Day.

Bow and arrow season runs the first week of October, when only rubber tipped arrows are allowed. The questing hours encompass day or night except when the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus are around. 

The DNU also makes some recommendations on what to take in your questing kit, which consists of serious intent, general levity, Sweet talk, cognac for adults and juice boxes for kids, currycomb, pinking shears, nail clippers with file, hoof and horn trimmer and polish, ribbons and Arthurian legend books or a work by Chaucer. Rabe stated that membership for the Unicorn Hunters was approximately 40,000 and had a circulation of 1,400 for their quarterly magazine, Woods-Runner.    

The founder, Bill Rabe was born in Detroit in 1921. He started out studying engineering at the University of Detroit in 1939 but graduated with a degree in journalism.  He served in the US Army Corps of Engineers in the Second World War.  His military service extended beyond WWII to the 1950’s during the years that the US was engaged in the Korean War.  During his military service, Rabe was stationed in Germany and served with the US Army’s psychological warfare division.  He suggested that balloons might be sent over East Germany with leaflets encouraging individuals to defect.  According to Rabe, his superiors proceeded with his plan, which led to 35 Germans defecting, citing his leaflets as their reason. 

In 1976 during his Christmas vacation, he went on what he called the “Great International Transcontinental Christmas Unicorn Quest.” 

This train trip started In Lansing and went on to Chicago, Seattle, Vancouver Saskatoon, Winnipeg and Sudbury with brief stops along the way to do radio and local media interviews.

One of the Unicorn Hunter’s most popular activities is creating a list of words and phrases that should be banned from the English language. This famous list is now an annual event and its release is eagerly anticipated and reported on by international news outlets each year. Nomination lists come from as far as Australia, Japan and Saudi Arabia. 

When Bill Rabe began his job, Lake Superior State University had a focus on technology. However, he wanted the University’s administration to show another side to their school. Rabe felt poetry and literature was the other side of the school’s focus. 

The Unicorn Hunters had their own credo “that every man has a unicorn he is predestined to hunt. It is not necessary actually to track, find and slay this beast, but only that the quest must be diligently pursued.” 

A credo many of us can use in our own lives in the pursuit of our own dreams, this is a fitting credo for a colourful group created by a colourful man.

Each week, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library and its Archives provide SooToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past.

Find out more of what the Public Library has to offer at and look for more "Remember This?" columns here.

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