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Original Oski Recalls Mascot's Glory Days

By Kathleen Maclay, Public Affairs
Posted November 10, 1999


"Rocky" Rockwell and Oski on the 45th anniversary of the Class of 1948.

Oski, Berkeley's first human-bear mascot, emerged from a long hibernation for an interview recently submitted to the Regional Oral History Office at Bancroft Library.

William C. "Rocky" Rockwell detailed the evolution of Oski in the feverish days of World War II and recalled his cub days inside the costume of Cal's most rambunctious Golden Bear.

Since Oski was "born" in the patriotic pre-war days, there has been an aura of secrecy around the mascot. From season to season, only a select few know the identity of the student in the Oski outfit.

Now that his career as Oski is far in his past, Rockwell said he has no qualms about publicly describing it.

"It's a heck of a thing for a design engineer's only claim to fame to have been the campus clown," said Rockwell, a resident of Anacortes, Wash. "But it was a thrill to have started a tradition that still survives and has affected in a positive way so many young lives that have enjoyed being part of the Oski mystique."

"I (still) associate myself as that (Oski)," Rockwell said, "but I'm not commonly referred to as Oski."

Nadesan Permaul, Berkeley's director of transportation and Oski fan since his own undergraduate days at Cal, said the mascot is "the consumate Cal undergrad" who loves the Bears and Cal unconditionally.

"They are not an individual in that suit, they are Oski," said Permaul, also a lecturer in rhetoric and political science.

At the request of the Oski Committee, Permaul shared with The Daily Californian a committee letter responding to recent efforts to give Oski a tummy tuck, snappier clothes and better posture.

Permaul said any makeover would need to be carefully and respectfully considered. He said it should be in keeping with the legacy of the creator of Oski, whom he described as "probably the shyest man I ever met." Oski remains the only mascot in America whose identity is not known to crowds and student bodies, and the anonymity serves him well, Permaul said.

The letter said: "Josephine and Joe Bruin change costumes every week it seems, the Trojan is a Marine wannabe, and the Tree is more sap than sapling. But week in and week out, decade after decade, undergraduate students at Cal have volunteered to represent the University of California without making themselves more important than the campus and the teams they represent."

Looking back at the beginning of it all, Rockwell in the oral history traced Oski's humble beginnings to the fall of 1938 at Long Beach Junior College. That's when the 5-foot-5-inch Rockwell was invited to fill the "Ole Olson the Viking" mascot suit for a school parade. The outfit not only fit him well, but he found himself so effectively transformed into a miniature Viking that he was invited to wear it for sports events on a regular basis.

He used much the same approach in Berkeley.

"I went to all the football games and the basketball games and did all kinds of crazy things like walking and balancing on the crossbar of the goal posts and pretending to grab the football when the ref' wasn't looking," Rockwell told interviewer Dan Cheatham, a former Cal drum major with the Class of '58.

It's no wonder he took the concept with him when he graduated from Long Beach. Before arriving at Berkeley, Rockwell traveled. On his journey around the country he joined his father at a conference in Idaho. There he met a young woman from Stanford. He said he couldn't resist a little banter, "and I told her when Cal played Stanford at the Big Game, look for a little bear, a guy dressed up like a bear..."

Shortly after settling into Atherton Hall, a Berkeley co-op, Rockwell searched out the head of the rally committee. Rockwell told him of his plans for a silly-looking, cartoonish mascot to go to games, to "come out there and raise heck."

The campus had phased out using live bears as mascots -- a short-lived practice begun when Helen Sawyer of Berkeley donated a black bear in 1930. The creature later was taken away after becoming a bit rowdy at a game. Ditto for the small brown bear given to Berkeley in 1935 by a fraternity.

After tussling with the real thing, the campus was happy to have Rockwell as Oski, a bear with much better self-control.

In 1941, the Cal Band gave Rockwell two pairs of old pants that he sewed together as one. He took size 13 1/2 football shoes and painted them gold. He added stomach padding to a baggy sweater and bought enough clay to make a mold for his new bear head and its two big front teeth, shaped around an old football helmet. He topped it all off with white cotton gloves.

Rockwell consulted then-Daily Cal art editor Warrington Colescott. Together they came up with three ursine facial expressions to fit different situations: a silly grin, an indifferent look and an angry glare. It was Colescott who dissuaded Rockwell from naming his character "Algy." He suggested "Oski" because "Oski Wow Wow" was part of a school yell and "Oski" was in a song.

So, Oski it was. That same autumn, Rockwell switched for the first time from street clothes to a bear suit while under the bleachers of Memorial Stadium, emerging with a motivational yell leader to cheer Berkeley's team to a 31-0 victory over St. Mary's College.

In that game, Oski led cheers, waved to children, flirted with girls, played along the sidelines and skidded about 20 feet across the field.

Oski became quite the social bear. He performed at luncheons and sorority dances. But as he became the big bear on campus, the rally committee got nervous.

"As Oski's popularity grew, we were concerned that someone might try to kidnap him," wrote Tom Putnam, ex-rally committee chairman, in a letter included in the transcript of Oski's oral history. "So I got some of the committee to escort and transport him to various functions ... This crew helped preserve his identity."

Rockwell remained in school for the spring semester, but more and more often gave up the Oski suit to others who were the right size and temperament for the task.

Cal's original Oski was called to active duty in July 1942, as part of the Navy's "Flying Golden Bear Squadron." He designed the squad's emblem -- Oski charging over the clouds, carrying a lightning bolt like a marching baton.

As for Cal Bears games, "I was somewhat involved...throughout the fall semester of '46," said Rockwell, "but the rah-rah spirit just wasn't with me after the excitement of the war."

Or, as he said in a more recent interview, "Flying airplanes in combat is a lot more interesting than playing around on a football field."

While each era may add its own interpretive twist to Oski, Rockwell offers behavioral advice on how to maintain Oski's timeless appeal to those following in his pawprints:

• Enter and leave the scene with a bang. Don't stay for encores "because if Oski sticks around too long," said Rockwell, "he gets really boring."

• "Another thing that I would like to see," he said, "is keeping stunts clean. When clean jokes are laughed at, they are really good and truly funny."

• Practice stunts ahead of time.

• Don't let crowds see you drink, and avoid intoxication in costume.



November 10 - 16, 1999 (Volume 28, Number 14)
Copyright 1999, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the
Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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