A look at life behind the beak: The story of the HokieBird
By Sherry Bithell - Virginia Tech Magazine: Fall 2002
When looking at the history of Virginia Tech's unique, much-beloved HokieBird, one has to wonder: Which came first, the turkey or the Gobbler? Where was the idea for Tech's world-famous mascot hatched? And why a turkey? Just who is this international bird of mystery?
To find the origins of the HokieBird, we must first take a gander though the mists of time, back to 1896. That's the year cadets from the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College (VAMC), as Tech was known then, began taking a Blacksburg youth named Floyd "Hard Times" Meade to school sporting events, where he entertained crowds with his antics. By 1907, Meade's popularity had so grown that the athletic teams adopted him as an official mascot. Also in 1896, the school's name was changed, with "and Polytechnic Institute" added to the VAMC moniker. The new name, which was often abbreviated for the sake of convenience to "Virginia Polytechnic Institute" or "VPI," invalidated the former school cheer, which ended with the line, "Virginia, Virginia, A.M.C." A contest to find a new cheer produced O.M. Stull's (Class of 1896) winning, "Hoki, Hoki, Hoki, Hy; Techs! Techs! V.P.I." Stull later admitted that the word "hoki" had no meaning--he'd merely used it as an attention-getter. It worked. After his cheer was adopted, "Hokies," along with "Techs" and "Polytechnics," was used as a nickname for the athletes.
Things changed again, however, in 1908, when the nickname "Gobblers" reportedly was first used to denote VPI athletes. The origins of the name are still hotly contested, although The Bugle's Echo relates a few popular theories. One holds that the cadets would yell "Coni-a-ah" at the football players, who would reply with a resounding turkey gobble. Another is that after VPI's 1907 Thanksgiving Day football victory over the University of North Carolina, a group of cadets returned to campus bragging that Tech "took the turkey." The most widespread tale, however, attributes the nickname to an observer's comment that the athletes "gobbled" their food. Regardless of the true story, VPI athletes were first referred to as Gobblers in print in 1909, and a scant three years later, the nickname had become part of the VPI lexicon.
The nickname most likely led to the school's first feathered mascot. In 1913, Meade began taking to games a huge turkey gobbler that he had trained to pull a two-wheeled cart and to flap its wings and gobble when prompted. Although President Eggleston nixed the cart pulling, calling it "cruelty to animals," Meade continued to train turkeys and take them to games through 1929. The students were loyal to their turkey mascot, and in 1914, when the VMI bulldog attacked it at a game, the entire corps reportedly catapulted from the bleachers in the gobbler's defense.
Meade, a Tech employee, eventually passed on the turkey torch to another staff member, William Byrd "Joe Chesty" Price, who faithfully raised the birds and took them to games until his retirement in 1953. At this point in mascot history, the turkey trail grows cold at least until 1962, when the ancestor of the modern-day mascot first peeked out of its shell.
An idea is hatched
In the early '60s, the corps of cadets provided most of the sideline spirit at football games. That led one civilian student, senior Mercer MacPherson (civil engineering '63), to come up with an idea.
photo: Don Askers '63
"Back in the early '60s, the corps pretty much ran Virginia Tech, and it seemed to me we didn't have much spirit in the civilian student body," MacPherson says. "I saw the Pitt Panther, the Nittany Lion, and thought, 'we should have a mascot.'"
So MacPherson contacted the Pittsburgh company that made those mascot suits and was quoted $200 for a new costume. After raising $180 from the civilian students--with the Student Body Senate pitching in the rest--MacPherson headed north to help create the costume.
"It was a thing of beauty," he recalls. "That's all I can say. The tail feathers were actually turkey feathers dyed to match our colors." Alas, the costume didn't arrive until a few days before the last game of the 1962 season. "We asked, 'Alright, who's going to wear this thing?'" MacPherson says. "And no one wanted to! So I put it on."
The new mascot--christened, like its live predecessors, the Gobbler--debuted during the Thanksgiving Day "Military Classic of the South" game, which pitted VPI against archrival VMI. At halftime, when the Highty-Tighties marched onto the field, MacPherson says, "I went out with them and mingled among them, which got great cheers from the crowd. But the Highty-Tighties didn't like it. After the game, half of 'em wanted to fight me."
Some members of the crowd also thought the new mascot had gone overboard with his antics. One letter to The Virginia Tech, the student newspaper, read:
"Especially noteworthy in his appearance and actions was the individual who portrayed our Gobbler mascot. He was extremely entertaining and welcome; that is, until the Highty-Tighties took the field for their half-time show. At this point, he became a very large pest. I hope that in future years our Gobbler does not again lay an egg as he did at half-time on Thanksgiving Day."
"VPI's 'Gobbler' to retire; agile replacement wanted"
After the Gobbler's memorable debut, MacPherson, who was graduating, sought a replacement to ensure its legacy. The Virginia Tech ran an article stating that "The student needed to fill this position should be agile, vivacious, and interested. All interested students are urged to try out, since the future for next year's Gobbler looks rosy."
And rosy it was. MacPherson says, "Maybe a dozen, 15 people came. We thought no one would show up!" But they did, and the Gobbler lived on.
The costume--Macpherson's thing of beauty--could be difficult in bad weather, recalls Thorton Goode (ceramic engineering '67), who was the Gobbler for three years. During one game, which was "cold, with sleet, rain, and snow, the [wool] costume soaked up the weather like a sponge," Goode says. The most difficult part of the suit, he adds, was its tail feathers. "I had a real problem with them--keeping them, that is. Folks would come up to me and pluck them for keepsakes. That's why I used colored crepe paper in place of the feathers every once in a while."
The bird transcended new boundaries in 1968, when an athletic junior named Pam Gunsten (health and physical education '70) wanted to participate in college sports. At that time, she says, female athletes were limited to two choices: basketball player or cheerleader. "Being nearly six feet tall," she says, "I knew my chances at cheerleader were slim." But she wanted to be involved somehow, and her eye fell on the beak of the Gobbler. "The man who interviewed me was honest. He said, 'You know, we're very concerned about the risks involved with being a mascot, the kidnapping and the roughhousing, and we're worried about putting a woman in this position.' I said, 'thank you very much,' and that was that."
Before a game several weeks later, Gunsten learned from a cheerleader that the student chosen to be the mascot had flunked out. The cheerleader asked whether Gunsten was still interested in playing the part, and as easily as that, the junior became Tech's first female mascot.
As far as the initial concerns about rough handling from opposing fans, Gunsten recalls only one tense moment. "In those days, the big rivalry was with VMI. During the annual [Thanksgiving Day game] in 1969, some of the cadets apparently planned to come get the Gobbler. But the team closed ranks around me and stayed with me until we got out on the field.
"Keep in mind, I couldn't see much with the [Gobbler] head on, so I didn't realize what had happened until I was on the field. I was asking myself, 'How did I get into the middle of a pack of football players?'"
A mascot makeover
The fall of 1971 saw the debut of a drastically different look for the Gobbler: the distinctive long-necked bird. Surprisingly, says Karen Dillon (urban affairs '75), who wore the suit for three years, it wasn't as awkward to wear as it appeared.
"It wasn't too heavy and you really didn't have to balance it because it was securely strapped around your chest," Dillon recalls. "The height was the problem. You had to remember to duck when going through doorways."
Because of that height, the costume wasn't made for the feats of today's HokieBird, she says. "I really didn't do much except dance around and act silly. After all, I was strapped inside a 7 1/2-foot turkey suit! Just remaining in the suit for the duration of a basketball or football game was a physical feat because it was so hot. The head was made of thick foam rubber covered in bathroom rug-type material. Indoor temperatures during basketball season made it almost unbearable. The cheerleaders would snake a piece of aquarium tubing through the opening on the head so I could drink sodas and water."
The total anonymity conferred by the suit was demonstrated during Dillon's televised appearance at the 1973 NIT basketball tournament. She says announcers Pat Summerall and Don Criqui kept referring to the Gobbler as a male. "My dad sent a telegram to Summerall saying, 'The person inside that turkey suit is my daughter, Karen Dillon.' Summerall gave me the telegram. Little did Dad know that I wasn't real keen on fans knowing that this 'Fighting Gobbler' was a girl!"
To this day, Dillon, who was born on Thanksgiving Day and thus felt preordained to be the Gobbler, prefers the long-necked suit because it looked more like a turkey. Virginia Tech football coach and athletic director Bill Dooley, who was hired in 1978, agreed that it did--and didn't like it. He heard the story about the nickname originating from athletes' eating habits and didn't think it conveyed a fitting image. Dooley began changing that image by removing the gobbling sound from the scoreboard and bringing back the turn-of-the-century nickname "the Hokies."
Yes, Virginia, there is a HokieBird
photo: Bob Veltri
Also caught up in the change was the Tech mascot. In 1982, the Gobbler--which was beginning to be called "the Hokie mascot," "the Hokie," and "the Hokie Bird"underwent a drastic makeover to diminish its turkey resemblance. The result was what several people refer to as the "diving bell costume" because of the shape and feel of its head.
Former mascot Barry Ellenberger (theatre arts '91) says that many alumni didn't like the new design. "I think the reaction was so negative because people were used to the long-necked costume, and the short-necked suit didn't really match the official logo." Bill Berry (marketing education '84), who wore the suit for two years, agrees: "Some were not real keen on the new look since it didn't really look like a turkey."
After just a few years, the look changed again. Peg Morse, director of Internet and computer services for athletics, says that after the 1986 Peach Bowl game, Athletic Director Dutch Baughman asked the department to redesign the HokieBird logo, and the mascot costume was altered shortly thereafter to match the new look. Morse played an integral part in designing the new suit.
"What we wanted with the new mascot was one that would have personality and could be characterized for different sports," she says. "We wanted him to move, to live. He needed to convey power and strength while still being a turkey."
The new HokieBird debuted in style on Sept. 12, 1987, during Tech's football season opener against Clemson. During halftime, a white limousine pulled into the end zone, escorted by the Hi-Techs and two of Morse's interns dressed as Secret Service agents. "A lot of people thought it was a special guest arriving," she says. "Some thought it was the governor." Instead, it was today's HokieBird, who stepped out of the limo and into glory.
"Everybody loves the HokieBird," Morse says. "The HokieBird stands for a lot to a lot of people. From working with kids on reading programs to seatbelt promotion programs to sponsoring recycling programs, everything the HokieBird does represents good things. Really, for someone who doesn't speak, the HokieBird is a good spokesperson."
Still, despite the acclaim and improvements to the suit, it's tough to see from behind the HokieBird's beak. "Imagine holding two empty paper towel rolls to your eyes and darken everything about four shades," Ellenberger says. "It's like having one giant blind spot except for the small tunnel-vision-like field of view in front of you. You really have to be careful when a lot of kids are around because if you're not, they fall like bowling pins when you step forward."
The anatomy of today's bird is fairly complex, he adds. "The suit consists of a pair of orange feet that you insert your own tennis shoes into, a pair of orange leggings, a padded vest with two hula hoop-type rings--to make the big, powerful chest--a main suit from the knees to the neck, two hands that attach with Velcro, and a head." The head contains a bicycle-style helmet complete with a chinstrap to prevent what Ellenberger calls the "hopefully never occurring 'head-flying-off' scenario."
Four students have shared mascot duties for each of the past several years so that one person does not wear the costume for long stretches of time. "People underestimate the time and effort it takes to be the HokieBird," Morse says. "They practice kicking field goals with those feet on. They work out in the weight room--a lot of people could not get into that suit and do what they do. Every time they get in the suit, they lose seven to eight pounds of water weight."
Ellenberger agrees. "The suit is basically a big, fur sauna with very little ventilation. Running around in a non-ventilated carpet for five hours in 90-degree heat is not for the meek."
And that doesn't even begin to cover the range of difficulties. From transporting the costume to finding parking on campus for events, the mascots voluntarily spend most of their free time being the bird while still maintaining status as full-time students. But Morse says the students love being the HokieBird.
"When they're in the suit, they become
the HokieBird." Having taken a few turns in the costume herself, she adds that once behind the mask, "you are just the movement of this creature."
The most important part of that movement? The HokieBird walk.
"It's best described as the swaggering of a really tall guy who bounces when he walks," says Morse.
So there's the history of the Virginia Tech mascot... the beginning of the story, that is, not the end. Swagger on, HokieBird.
Editor's note: Presumably, this tongue-in-beak history of the Virginia Tech mascot is still incomplete; please write us with any missing links.
"Do"s and "Don't"s of being the HokieBird
Jump out of any planes. "People ask why the HokieBird doesn't jump out of an airplane," Morse says. "We gave the costume to a professional skydiver. He tried it on and said it would be far too dangerous to jump out of a plane in it--that anyone who tried it wouldn't know enough to know any better."
Learn to love your dry cleaner. Because of the amount of sweating they did, former mascots came to know the value of getting the suit dry cleaned after each use. "It's a smell that tends to hang around for a while, but it was much better than the smell of sweat," says Bill Berry (marketing education '84). "To this day, I cannot go into a dry cleaner without having flashbacks to my days of mascoting."
Ever speak. It breaks character, says Barry Ellenberger (theater arts '91).
Walk carefully. "You have to pick up the entire foot and put it down," Morse says. "It's like wearing diving fins, but worse."
Kick field goals at halftime while the governor of Virginia is making a speech to the crowd, as Berry did in 1982. "I again apologize to [Governor Robb]," he says.
Drink a lot of water, says Berry, who learned his lesson early. "My first game in the suit was against the University of Richmond. The temperature on the field was 100 degrees plus, and four quarters later I had lost about 15 pounds."
Ever lose your head in public. This goes both for behavior and for being seen with your own head atop the costume. Ellenberger tells the story of a fellow mascot who was changing into his suit in a bathroom stall and placed the head on top of the toilet lid, then walked out to get the rest of the costume. A child who walked in with his father and saw the head started screaming that the mascot had been flushed down the toilet.
Remember that when you're in costume, you are the HokieBird. "You don't answer to your name, you don't talk, you act in a prescribed manner," Morse says. "Being in the costume really is like being someone else. It's a strange feeling."
Talking turkey ...
A lot of misinformation seems to be flying around about the turkey, not the least of which is that a Hokie is a castrated gobbler, slander probably circulated by rivals who feel inadequate to our own beloved mascot. So set misinformed family and friends straight by arming yourself with the following fowl facts:
- Not all turkeys gobble. Only the males (toms or gobblers) gobble; females (hens) make a clicking noise.
- Turkeys can fly. Well, wild turkeys can, covering short distances at up to 55 miles per hour. The wild turkey also can run at speeds of up to 25 miles per hour.
- They're called what? The strange, red appendages hanging off a turkey's beak and throat do have names. The one on the beak is called a snood and the one on the throat is a wattle.
- Turkey sense. Although a turkey does not have ears as we know them, they have excellent hearing. They also have keen eyesight and can see in color.
- Ben said it best. "I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country; he is a bird of bad moral character. ... The turkey is a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America." --Benjamin Franklin