Character Development

T he New Haven area’s college mascots are more than foam and fabric. They’re also flesh and blood—in one case, a canine’s—and there’s meaning behind them, with tales to go with their tails.

These are their stories.

Boomer the Bobcat (Quinnipiac University)
In 2001, the Quinnipiac Braves were advised by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to adopt a mascot less offensive to Native Americans, and that advice came at a good moment: according to the school’s athletics and recreation director Jack McDonald, Quinnipiac was beginning the transition from small regional college to internationally recognized university. The following year, Boomer debuted at October’s annual Midnight Madness rally heralding the school’s basketball season, and brought down the house. “The students had a tremendous influence on this choice,” McDonald says. For one thing, “They wanted to have something with a paw print that they could paint on their face and fingernails.” The bobcat—both indigenous to Connecticut and a relatively rare college icon (only three other U.S. colleges use it)—hit the mark.

Boomer now attends nearly 200 campus and community events a year, so those who don the costume—usually students with work-study grants, who’ve passed the requisite tryout—have to be ready for primetime. Each has his or her own special talents, be they gymnastics or dancing. This year’s five working Boomers all know how to ice-skate, “which is great for our hockey games,” says the mascot’s handler (and Quinnipiac’s ticketing manager) Matt Calcagni.

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Charlie the Charger (University of New Haven)
Initially, UNH’s Charger mascot was an odd mashup featuring a knight, a lance and a piece of a horse, all wrapped up in what looked like velour pajamas. At least, that was the image in 1979, when Deborah Chin, UNH’s associate vice president, director of athletics and recreation joined the staff. Thirty years later, as the university prepared to bring its varsity football program out of retirement—it had been shelved at the end of the 2003 season—the Charger got his definitive makeover. Chin says, “We had a big debate about what a charger actually is: a horse or a knight?” The solution was to reinvent Charlie as a horse dressed in knight’s regalia. His perpetual smile, among other features, won him the silver medal at last spring’s Mascot Olympics, hosted by Hamden’s Regional Chamber of Commerce. (Boomer came in first.)

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Frankie the Falcon (Albertus Magnus College)
Even though he’s the youngest of New Haven’s official college mascots, Frankie claims the oldest historic connection. His college’s namesake, the Catholic saint Albertus Magnus, or “Albert the Great” (c. 1200-1280), is considered one of the most important theologians of the Middle Ages. He wrote extensively on metaphysics and morality; shaped students including St. Thomas of Aquinas; and took an interest in a huge variety of special topics, from logic to botany to astrology.

Another of those topics? Falconry. Frankie, born in 2010, celebrates his “Hatch Day” every April 6.

Otus the Owl (Southern Connecticut State University)
In the 1940s, when SCSU was known as the New Haven State Teachers College, its basketball and football teams had fearsome nicknames indeed: “The Teachers” and “The Educators.” By the early 1950s, an official mascot had been adopted: a wide-eyed owl. And though it’s not entirely clear how that happened, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched that teachers and educators would be likened to wise-looking owls. Villia Struyk, editor of Southern Alumni Magazine, has a similar theory: “It’s a tribute to our faculty.” The change became official in March 1951 with an announcement in the school’s Alumni News Bulletin, which noted that the owl was “complete with TC sweater and the traditional volume tucked under one wing.”

Perhaps unwisely, this campus icon went without a proper name until 2010, when a contest soliciting both campus and community input was launched, inspiring more than 100 suggestions. The winner, of course, was Otus, which, along with sounding a lot like the common-enough name Otis, is a genus containing over 60 species of owl.

Handsome Dan (Yale University)
Legend has it that Dan became the first live college mascot in the U.S. in 1889, when Yale athlete Andrew Graves purchased an English bulldog for $5 from a local blacksmith. However, in the current issue of Yale Alumni Magazine, Judith Schiff, the university library’s chief archivist, writes that that milestone may belong to a champion bulldog named Harper who, according to the Yale Daily News of Nov. 22, 1890, “was taken to Springfield as mascot to the Yale team.” Handsome Dan was first mentioned in June 1892, when the publication Forest and Stream called him “this year’s Yale mascot, in place of Harper.”

Nonetheless, any mascot would be proud to match Dan’s century-plus run as top dog. Though some memorable canines have filled his symbolic paws, none can claim the celebrity enjoyed by Handsome Dan XVII, known to his friends—and owner-handler Chris Getman, Yale Class of ’64—as Sherman, or “Sherm.” Now in his 8th season of service, Sherm’s posed for photos with George H.W. Bush and Sir Paul McCartney, kissed countless Yale students (and potential future students) and earned big bucks for charity. A portrait of him sitting in front of Mory’s—a copy of the original painting by George W. Bush—raised $30,000 at a recent New York City benefit.

Getman, who’s owned Yale’s Handsome Dans for the past 31 years, says Sherman remains unspoiled by success. “He still gets especially excited on game days, as soon as we start taking out the tailgate picnic dishes. He spends the game up in the stands and down on the field with the crowds, mixing it up. He’s a real dog of the people.”

No better compliment could be paid any mascot. Let’s raise a cheer, not just for their teams, but for cat, birds, horse and dog.

Written by Patricia Grandjean. Image #2, featuring Handsome Dan, photographed by Dan Mims.

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A former senior editor at Connecticut Magazine, Pat Grandjean is a cultural omnivore who loves everything from Beck and “Doc Martin” to Shakespeare and Quentin Tarantino. She currently spends much of her free time volunteering at the New Haven Animal Shelter and cleaning apartment closets.

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