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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

“Happy 50th Birthday, Wilbur!”

He began as an idea bounced around by two UA students over a few beers half a century ago.

Now he’s a university icon, a YouTube flip cup winner and has 3,000 Facebook friends. He’s on billboards, T-shirts and in video games.

Coinciding with Homecoming, Wilbur Wildcat’s 50th birthday is this Saturday.

“”Wilbur has really become part of the institution, and I’m really proud of him,”” said 71-year-old John Paquette, who created Wilbur with his then-roommate Richard Heller, now deceased, in 1959. “”We were just happy we pulled it off. When you’re that age, you’re immortal and nobody’s thinking 50 years into the future.””

• •

Disneyland opened in Anaheim, Calif., in 1955, creating a mascot baby boom on the West Coast. The University of Oregon’s mascot is Donald Duck, and it is believed that artist Bert Anthony originally drew Arizona State University’s Sparky the Sun Devil in the image of Walt Disney, after being fired by Disney.

Being from the Bay Area, Paquette and Heller modeled their first Wilbur on the University of California’s mascot, Oski the Bear, who was “”born”” in 1941.

Juniors at the time, Paquette and Heller had a costume created at a shop on Sixth Street with about $100 provided by the UA administration. The first Wilbur costume resembled a skinny version of Oski with an American Flag patch on his left shoulder.

On Nov. 7, 1959, Wilbur was born, becoming the first mascot in the Western Athletic Conference.

During a UA football game against Texas Tech University, a large box was opened on the field at halftime. Out popped Ed Stukenhoff, wearing the new costume. Wilbur’s first appearence almost ended in disaster.

The Wildcats hadn’t beaten Texas Tech in 20 years and Arizona was being beaten badly. Wilbur went to the opposing sideline with a 4-foot bottle of fake alcohol from a liquor advertisement and pretended to offer it to the players.

“”He asked the Texas Tech players if they needed a little boost — a little pick-me-up,”” Paquette said with a laugh.

Arizona won the game.

“”The president at that time was Richard Harvill, and he brought us on the carpet, and we were told that if there were any more stunts like that, Wilbur was out of here,”” Paquette said. “”So Wilbur got a little more subdued after that.””

• • •

But not too subdued. Over the years, Wilbur’s appearance changed but his fun yet edgy attitude toward opposing teams didn’t.

In 1984, Wilbur — worn by 30-year-old senior Justin Dardis, who has since passed away — was detained and released by security at Tucson Community Center during an Icecats game for instigating a riot.

Kirk Sibley, who dressed as Wilbur from 1996-99, decked out the mascot in cowboy attire, lasso and all. During a men’s basketball game against Cal, Sibley had a friend dress up in a homemade Oski costume. During a timeout, as the band played the “”William Tell Overture,””  the fake Oski made his way onto the court and Wilbur pulled Oski’s pants down, revealing boxers with hearts on them.

“”I got in trouble for that, but the crowd loved it,”” Sibley said.

Sibley also created fake Sparky the Sun Devil costumes to humiliate the ASU mascot, but it was Walter Foxcroft III, Wilbur from 2003-05, who struck the most important blow against Sparky.

During a football game in 2003, Sparky threw his pitchfork at Wilbur, and it landed close to his feet.

“”So I picked it up and threw it real hard away from him, and then we got into a fight,”” Foxcroft said. “”I got on his back and got him in a headlock. Since Sparky used his pitchfork as a weapon, he isn’t allowed to carry one anymore.””

• • •

Wilbur also has a tender side.

On March 1, 1986, Wilbur and Wilma the Wildcat met on a blind date. A little more than seven months later, they were married in holy “”catrimony”” before the UA-ASU football game. They renewed their vows in 2006.

“”I think the introduction of Wilma was a big thing because a lot of mascots are alone,”” said James Rozzoni, who was Wilbur from 2005-07. “”It’s great playing off of another mascot. It’s double the fun.

“”You become great friends because you both love Arizona, you love sports, you love being goofy and having furry fun,”” added Rozzoni, who is now a lieutenant in the United States Air Force. “”That’s awesome right there. The tradition is great.””

As popular as she became, Wilma’s creation was an accident.

Her costume was originally donated by the Spirit Committee to replace an old Wilbur costume. But the costume, which resembled a leopard or a cheetah, had a more feminine look, and Kurt Gerster, who was Wilbur from 1985-86, refused to wear it.

Thus another Wilbur costume was ordered, and Wilma was born. During Wilma’s first date with Wilbur, she lost her head — literally.

At halftime during a UA-Washington basketball game, Wilma made her entrance. During a dance, Wilbur dipped her with such enthusiasm that her head fell off and rolled away, revealing that the first-ever Wilma wasn’t a female at all, but a student named Franc Brodar.

• • •

Before Wilbur, the UA used live bobcats for mascots.

The first original bobcat was purchased for $9.91 by the Arizona freshman football team in 1915. He was named “”Rufus Arizona,”” after UA President Rufus B. Von KleinSmid. Live mascots were used on and off until 1958.

The bobcats are said to have been kept in a den below Arizona Stadium where one apparently died.

“”You can see his bones in the dirt. It’s kind of gross, but it just adds to the tradition,”” said Foxcroft, who is currently going to school in Las Vegas to become a physical therapist. “”It’s dirty. It’s the armpit of Arizona Stadium, actually. But that’s what a Wildcat’s den is. It’s dirty and unkempt. But we’re OK with it.””

The den is now used as a changing station for the current Wilbur. When former Wilburs return, they traditionally visit the den and sign the wall, a ritual started by Bill Waynick, who was Wilbur from 1988-92.

“”The den wall is such a huge collage,”” Rozzoni said. “”You really lose yourself in it. It’s like hieroglyphics. You look at it and you’re like, ‘Oh, there’s that Wilbur from back then.’ If they ever tear down that stadium, they’re going to pull that out and put it in the Eddie Lynch Hall of Champions in a glass case.””

• • •

Wilbur is a part of many campus traditions, which will continue to evolve for as long as the UA exists. And it all started with an idea from a couple of students over a few beers.

Since moving back to northern California, Paquette doesn’t see many UA athletic events. But when the Wildcats are on TV, or they make their way to the Bay Area to play Stanford or Cal, Paquette is watching with his wife, Joy, by his side, 50 years back in time.

“”I always look for Wilbur, and I’ll tell Joy, ‘There’s Wilbur! There’s Wilbur!'”” Paquette said. “”There’s my son, my firstborn.””

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