A Purdue University representative visited Brownstown Central High School during Clate Kaiser’s senior year in 2013.
Looking through a pamphlet, he came across a short article and a picture of Purdue’s official mascot — the Boilermaker Special. He was drawn to the size and uniqueness of the black and gold custom-built truck that’s a replica of a Victorian-era locomotive.
Before moving in at Purdue his freshman year, Kaiser and his parents were exiting the bursar’s office when the Boilermaker Special drove by.
“It was at that moment I realized I wanted to drive it someday,” he said.
Kaiser attended an information session and a few prospective events to learn about the Boilermaker Special and the organization that oversees it, the Purdue Reamer Club.
He was asked to join the club as a pledge and spent eight weeks learning about 60 traditions and 40 different songs and cheers.
“During the Reamer Club’s weekly meeting, we were tested in front of active members to see if we retained the information given,” Kaiser said. “It was difficult to learn everything while being involved in getting used to college and 16 credit hours, but it was definitely worth it.”
After completing the pledging process, he became a pilot in training, which involved 40 hours of training and practicing basic driving maneuvers, becoming familiar with maintenance procedures and learning how to parallel park the Special.
“Since the Boilermaker Special is on a 4300 International Navistar chassis, it is not like driving a car,” Kaiser said. “Before coming to Purdue, I was familiar with driving larger trucks and machinery, so getting used to the size and power of the Special was not a tough transition.”
Once training was complete, Kaiser passed an extensive driving exam and was officially a certified pilot of the Boilermaker Special.
He became an operator in October 2014 and now is in his second school year with the Special.
“After finding out I had passed my pilot examination, I was thrilled as well as humble,” said Kaiser, 20, a junior at Purdue. “At the time, I was one of five students on the entire campus able to drive the Special. I am now one of four. It is an honor as well as a privilege to be able to drive the official mascot of such a prestigious university.”
Kaiser said joining the Purdue Reamer Club helped him because it was a big adjustment going from 150 students in his high school graduating class to tens of thousands of students at Purdue.
“I thought that the best way to transition from high school to college was to be involved with something that was unique to Purdue,” he said. “I was able to find a very good group of student leaders and those I consider my best friends through my involvement with the Purdue Reamer Club.”
The club was founded in 1923 as a spirit organization for independent students. At the time, there was a large gap between those who were independent and those involved in Greek life. It gave those not interested in Greek life an opportunity to be involved in a group.
“The Purdue Reamer Club is a traditions club and is deemed the ‘Spirit of Purdue,’ so those going through the pledging process get the opportunity to learn more about the club as well as the university,” Kaiser said.
Today, the club is involved with several different services, such as fostering the observance of school traditions, supporting major and Olympic sports and aiding in the development of proper school spirit. One of the responsibilities is serving as the caretaker of the Boilermaker Special.
The Special was the idea of a student in the 1930s who wanted something to exemplify the engineering and agrarian heritage of Purdue. The first Special was provided by a group of alumni working in executive positions in the rail and automotive industries.
The Special debuted on the first day of classes in 1940, and then-President Edward Elliott assigned the Purdue Reamer Club to maintain and operate it.
As the Special has worn out over the years, alumni, students, faculty and staff have raised funds to replace it. The university is on its fifth version of the Special.
The Special, which was built to be roadworthy, appears at all football games at Ross-Ade Stadium, travels to road games and can be rented out for rides or special appearances and events promoting Purdue.
The only time it was not driven to an event was when the football team played in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. That time, it was shipped.
“We drive the Special to and from all games, taking the interstate or any highway that can get us there,” Kaiser said. “The Special is able to get up to 75 miles per hour comfortably.”
This school year, Kaiser said he operated the Special for an admissions event that surprised high-schoolers who were accepted to Purdue by going to their house and giving them rides around their neighborhood.
He also has operated the Special during football games at West Virginia, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
“By getting involved with the Purdue Reamer Club, I have gone places that I never would have thought about going to,” Kaiser said.
His favorite moment was driving the Special in the same spot that he and his parents first saw it on campus before his freshman year.
“In that moment, I was able to reflect on what all I had done and all of the hard work that I put into being able to drive the Special,” Kaiser said. “The beginning of my freshman year was pretty rough as I tried to transition from being away from home and my family. I am very glad that I have found my place at Purdue with the Purdue Reamer Club.”
Purdue also has the Boilermaker X-tra Special, which is on an electric golf cart chassis and was fabricated in a Department of Aviation Technology lab on the Purdue campus. It is used for indoor events and also leads the football team out for every home game. There have only been two editions of the X-tra Special.
As an active member of the Purdue Reamer Club, Kaiser has held a variety of leadership roles. This semester, he is serving as president of the club.
For his senior year, he plans on continuing to be involved with the club and the Special.
“It is an awesome feeling driving around campus and seeing students’ faces when we blow the Special’s whistle and train horns,” Kaiser said. “Representing the university and being an ambassador for Purdue is a very large responsibility. It means a lot to me knowing that I am one of just a handful of people to be able to operate the Boilermaker Special, and it is an honor to represent such a great institution.”
Kaiser said being involved has made a difference in his college experience.
“I have made friends that I do not believe that I could make anywhere else,” he said. “I currently room with two pilots of the Special that are great that I believe will be lifelong friends.”
He encourages others to get involved if they choose to go to college.
“Going to class and sitting in a dorm or apartment all day isn’t what you want to think about when you think back to your college years,” he said.
“Don’t get me wrong, I spend most of my time working on schoolwork and attending class,” he said. “But do not feel like you have to go home every weekend and stay stuck in a high school state of mind. Get out of your comfort zone, meet new people and get involved. College is a way to further your education as well as become a mature adult. Do not forget your roots, but don’t be afraid to branch out.”
Name: Clate V. Kaiser
Residence: West Lafayette
Education: Brownstown Central High School (2013); currently a junior at Purdue University studying agribusiness
Organization: Purdue Reamer Club
Family: Parents, Curtis and Darla Kaiser; sister, Kelsey Hurt
For information about the Purdue Reamer Club and the Boilermaker Special, visit purduereamerclub.org.