NEWS RELEASE, 11/10/99
Cal's original Oski recalls mascot's glory days in new Bancroft Library oral history
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BERKELEY-- Oski the bear, the University of California, Berkeley's first human mascot, emerged recently from a long hibernation for an interview submitted to the Regional Oral History Office at the campus's Bancroft Library.
William C. "Rocky" Rockwell detailed the evolution of Oski and recalled his cub days inside the costume of UC Berkeley's most rambunctious Golden Bear.
Since Oski was "born" 58 years ago in the patriotic pre-World War II days at Cal, there has been an aura of secrecy around the mascot. From season to season, only a select few know the identity of the person in the Oski outfit.
Now that his career as Oski is so far in his past, Rockwell 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," Rockwell, a resident of Anacortes, Wash., told his interviewer. "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 recently, "but I'm not commonly referred to as Oski."
Nadesan Permaul, UC Berkeley's director of transportation and an Oski fan since his own undergraduate days at Cal, said the mascot is "the consummate Cal undergrad," unaffected by ego, who loves the Bears and Cal unconditionally.
"It's not an individual in that suit," said Permaul, "it's Oski." Responding to recent student suggestions that Oski get a tummy tuck, snappier clothes and better posture, Permaul said any makeover must be carefully considered and respect the legacy of Oski's creator. Permaul described Rockwell as "probably the shyest man I ever met," and added that anonymity suits Oski well.
In the oral history, Rockwell traced Oski's humble beginnings to fall 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 was 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 Long Beach as he later did 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.
"By the end of the semester," said Rockwell, "Ole was about the most popular figure on campus."
It's no wonder he took the concept with him when he graduated from Long Beach. Before arriving at Cal to study engineering, 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 UC 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 UC Berkeley in 1935 by a fraternity, even though it was muzzled and manicured when on the field. The bear, nevertheless, was reported to have become slap-happy with its trainer.
After tussling with the real thing, the campus was happy to have Rockwell as Oski, a bear with better self-control.
In 1941, the Cal Band gave Rockwell two pairs of old pants that he sewed together. He took size 13 1/2 football shoes and painted them gold. He added stomach padding to a baggy sweater and bought clay to make a mold for a bear head, shaped around an old football helmet, and its two big front teeth. He topped it all off with white cotton gloves.
Rockwell consulted then-Daily Cal art editor Warrington Colescott. Together, they designed Oski's mask, and 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, too.
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 UC 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 as part of a prank. At halftime, he pranced across the beams of the goal posts. The Daily Cal reported Oski tossed tomatoes at freshmen and jitterbugged with attractive young women.
The man parading as Oski the Bear recalled losing eight pounds in that first game appearance. He also said the cheers were as sweet as honey. "To hear this continuous yell echoing through the hills," said Rockwell, "was quite a thrill."
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's real problem was preserving his grades.
After his first fall semester, he was booted out of school. An engineering dean allowed him to return in the spring if he curtailed his Oski antics. When Rockwell subsequently flunked a spring midterm, he was so upset that he hopped the F Train from Shattuck Avenue to the Ferry Building inSan Francisco. The next thing knew, he had a new uniform - with U.S. Navy insignias.
Rockwell remained in school for the spring semester, but increasingly 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.
Rockwell later opted for a transfer into the U.S. Marines and came home from wartime duty in the South Pacific with a Distinguished Flying Cross.
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."
Since Oski's early days, each new era seems to add its own interpretive twist to Oski's persona. Today, student senators are debating the mascot's pudgy physique and aging threads. One senator compared the proposed cosmetic surgery to putting a digital clock face on the landmark Campanile. Yet another said the Oski outfit has become decrepit and laughable.
Whatever the future holds, Rockwell offered this advice on how future Oskis can maintain the mascot's timeless appeal:
· 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.
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