Life Before Blitz: Barney the Bearcat
The creature’s tight sinews flexed and bulged under the black sable of its thick fur. Its eyes shone palest silver, beady orbs bright in relief to the tenebrous body which cast a looming shadow over its surroundings. A cavernous maw gaped yawningly as though waiting to devour…something. The thing held an umbrella, embossed upon it the inscription “Willamette University.” The creature - not quite beast, certainly not human- looked on (or perhaps past) the woman with an inscrutable expression; the woman returned its blank stare with a discreet unease that she might have hoped to conceal. The year was 1959, and Barney Bearcat and sophomore Gail Larson were advertising Parents’ Weekend.
In the present, Willamette University is represented by the energetic Blitz. Before our present binturong though lies a labyrinthine history of past mascots. The earliest recorded mascot in the annals of the school is Maggie, a (presumably fictional) black bear described in a 1915 article of the Collegian rallying the football team, a “ferocious looking beast, put[ting] new pep into the jaded warriors.” After Maggie was Boscoe:a real bear cub from the Portland Zoo who attended a single football game in October, 1947. This was the product of a significant effort by student leaders. Much to the chagrin of the college and its student body, Boscoe was kidnapped by local fraternity brothers. After destroying much of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity’s furniture, an anonymous call was sent revealing the location of the kidnapped cub. The unknown students were hailed as heroes on campus, though a contemporaneous Collegian article offers that some “suspicious souls say it was those same gentlemen who had purloined the mascot.” This dissuaded the college from retaining Boscoe in the long term, though he did make at least one more appearance on the sidelines in November of that year.
Willamette needed a mascot of human flesh and bone - someone they could control, unlike the feral Boscoe. A previous dean, Carl Doney, had referred to the college’s athletes as the Bearcats. “A cornered cat will fight savagely and the bear is a symbol of strength; put the two together and you have a ferocious animal, a 'Bearcat’,” said Doney. In 1948, a new mascot arose from the embers of Boscoe and Maggie, known only by the title “Bearcat.” In 1952, student Nancy Stewart, the Dr. Frankenstein to this unnatural being, dubbed him Barney. Thus a new mascot was forged, Barney the Bearcat, who would lurk the halls of this college for decades.
Barney underwent several changes throughout his long tenure at the school. In 1958, he became a she, “Barnice the Bearcat” for a brief period. In the 1970s, Barney was changed to be less intimidating, having rounded ears and a more clearly defined face. Gone were his formal shoes, replaced by paws. Yet Barney was not done mutating; throughout his life, Barney saw changes to resemble a red panda, a binturong and a nutria, as well as a bear. By 1986, the student body had grown listless, disaffected with Barney’s reign. Defenders of Barney needed to act fast to preserve his grip on the school. Enter Spirit Club leader Anna Wise, who remade Barney into what she called a “cuddlier” and more accessible form.
This, too, brought acrimony on the mascot. In 1988, ASWU vice presidential candidate Camden King opined that the University was due for some changes. For King, this started with “a mascot costume you can respect.” King’s bid for the vice presidency failed, but the campaign against Barney continued. To some anti-Barney zealots, he appeared too weak and soft in his old age. According to veteran staff member Ross Stout, the contradictions between Barney’s attempts to appear friendly and his role as defender of the college had not gone unnoticed. His new figure—“a pear shape” per Stout—was criticized for appearing un-athletic, and his energy levels appeared far too low. As relayed by Stout, Barney had become an “Eeyore figure,” moseying along the sideline during games.
By 1996, the precipitous tensions had drawn to a heated climax. Collegian opinion writer Gabrielle Byrd dared call out the thing by name. In her opinion section, Byrd’s Eye View, she penned an article titled “Beef Up the Bearcat,” lamenting the state of Barney as “raggedy” and questioning his ability to defend Willamette from the multiplicity of external threats beleaguering it. A junior, who understandably chose to remain anonymous, concurred: “He doesn’t have to scare anyone, but maybe instill a little fear.” As it so happened, would prove himself eminently capable of doing just that.
Barney responded in an op-ed of his own, furious at these assaults on his character. “I was a little offended by your column last week,” Barney offered in an ominous tone. He continued, stating that, “If anyone, I mean anyone, tries to put me or this school down, I’ll bum-rush them, put them in a bear-lock and give them a taste of my paw, so fast they won’t know what hit ‘em.” Fiery protestations aside, Barney’s time had come.
The general student populace had turned against Barney. As told by Ross Stout, “nobody could argue with the desire to reinvent him as being more fit, less overweight, more of an athletic representation [of the university].” In 1997, the mascot suit disappeared. The official college story is that Barney found a new passion as an Elvis impersonator, and moved to Graceland. According to Willamette lore, vigilantes stole the costume, likely hoping to finish Barney once and for all.
Regardless of why, the fact remains that Barney is gone and Blitz stands in his place. Blitz assumed the role of university mascot 2 years after Barney’s departure, in 1999. Still, in some ways the specter of Barney hangs over our institution to this day. Barney is the forefather of Blitz, a fact acknowledged in a 2017 exchange between the two in the Willamette Magazine. Barney reminded readers that he will always be around, whether they like it or not. Mute as the night and sly as his namesake bearcat, Barney is cloaked in the shadows of the college. “I never really left the university,” Barney stated solemnly, “I’m just keeping a low profile.”