Iowa Alumni Magazine | August 2004 | Features

Big Bird Faces 50

By Timothy Connors

Fifty years ago next June [in 1948, that is], Iowa's feathered mascot was hatched at the tip of a professor's pen.

The evolution of Herky from a simple cartoon to the lively character recognized and adored by thousands of Hawkeye fans worldwide is a story that includes a president, a determined junior college transfer student, dozens of fraternity men, rival mascots, and even Mighty Mouse.

It all started half a century ago when Frank Havlicek, 48BA, was business director for the UI athletic department. Struggling to find some type of symbol for fans to rally around when their teams squared off against Big Ten opponents, Havlicek asked his friend, Dick Spencer, 43BA, to create something to help Iowans visualize a Hawkeye.

A native Texan, Spencer was a paratrooper in the second world war and an artist with Look magazine before he returned to Iowa City to serve as a professor in the School of Journalism and to lead the university's information services office. According to his wife at the time, Jo Spencer Clark, he also taught the only university-level editorial cartooning class in the country.

But what does a Hawkeye look like? The nickname that had been around since early settlers adopted it was actually borrowed from the main character of James Fenimore Cooper's novel, Last of the Mohicans. Interesting story, but not appropriate for taking on a Wisconsin Badger or a Michigan Wolverine.

So, instead of turning to literature, Spencer looked to nature for inspiration. Spending an afternoon in the university's Museum of Natural History, he studied a hawk, produced a couple of lifelike sketches, and—as an afterthought—he drew a caricature of a grinning bird, waving one wing and wearing an Iowa sweater. A cross between Woody Woodpecker and a bald eagle, the cartoon caught Havlicek's eye and quickly gained the university's endorsement.

Still, Spencer's bird had no name. The athletic department decided to leave that to the fans, who were invited to submit their ideas in a statewide contest. John Franklin, of Belle Plaine, took the prize for the best moniker when he suggested the name Herky—short for Hercules, the strong man in Greek mythology.

Beyond Burch

Even before Herky, the life of a Hawkeye mascot had not been easy. Others had tried and failed. "Burch," a black bear cub imported from Idaho 90 years ago, may have been the most notable. He lived under the cement bleachers at Iowa Field and roamed the sidelines as the unofficial mascot in 1908 and 1909, before he was found drowned in the Iowa River in March 1910.

By the time Herky came around, however, few remembered Burch, and the bird immediately became a smash hit. After his unveiling, Spencer's hawk showed up everywhere from the pages of the Daily Iowan to the Iowa Memorial Union's events calendar. He appeared on the cover of the alumni magazine for the first time in October 1948.

"That's Herky on the cover, Herky the Hawk, copyrighted emblem of University sports," readers were informed. "This versatile character is dressed for the Homecoming game and will appear on this year's badge. He's partial to no particular sport or activity. You'll see a lot of him in the future, doing lots of things."

Herky at the beach

Spencer was soon turning out Herky drawings by the hundreds. When the Hawkeyes lost, he drew Herky wounded and bandaged. When the Hawkeyes won, he drew Herky standing triumphantly over the opposing mascot. And when it rained in Iowa City, he drew Herky with an umbrella. Spencer drew the lovable bird wrestling, performing on the gymnastics rings, pole vaulting, playing football, baseball, and basketball, and even hitting the books.

After he left the university in 1950 for Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he became editor and later publisher of Western Horseman, Spencer continued to draw the bird, reflecting the times in the sketches he created. During the Korean War, he drew Herky in uniform and made him the insignia of the 124th Fighter Squadron. In 1958, at the dawn of the space age, he drew Herky riding a rocket far above Earth for the university's homecoming button. And when the Hawkeyes went to the Rose Bowl in 1959, near the peak of Hollywood's glamour, Spencer drew Herky in chic sunglasses and a Malibu shirt.

Herky Comes to Life

Dick Spencer

It was during the 1959 football season that Herky first leaped from the printed page to join the cheerleaders on the sidelines. The mascot wore a homemade costume complete with a player's pants, a black and gold jersey, and a head made from a football helmet, papier-mache, and chicken wire.

At halftime of the big game against Notre Dame, the animated Herky presented Spencer, who had returned for the occasion, with an Iowa blanket.

But what Jo Spencer Clark will always remember about that November 21, 1959, afternoon in Kinnick Stadium is who was sitting in the box next to her and her husband--a young senator from Massachusetts named John Kennedy, who was in the early stages of a presidential campaign.

"We didn't talk much," she remembers, "but he didn't have any binoculars, so we let him borrow ours."

The Hawkeyes dropped the game, 20-19, and soon almost dropped their mascot, too, due to his dangerous shenanigans. Herky reportedly came close to starting a riot in Evanston, Illinois, when he pulled the tail off Northwestern's Wildcat mascot. He then came under fire at home after performing a hazardous stunt that involved climbing an electric pole during a football game. University officials told Herky to hang up the uniform.

Had it not been for a transfer student from California who was pledging Delta Tau Delta, Herky may never have gotten a second chance. Administrators relented to the pleadings of Herky-wannabe Larry Herb, 65BS, whose previous roles included Robbie the Ram in high school and Ole the Viking in junior college.

Herb talked the athletic department into handing over some shoulder pads. He then convinced some student artists to manufacture a 25-pound fiberglass head. And someone in the home economics department came through, too, agreeing to sew a felt jersey with wings. Herb's Herky debuted in 1962 and continued until he was kicked out of graduate school in 1965.

Herb had played Herky anonymously, even to many of his closest friends. But when he was forced to leave school because he dropped a class against his advisor's wishes, he handed over the uniform to Dean Sieperda, 67BSPh, a fellow Delt, and asked him to continue the role. It wasn't until 15 years later that Herb learned that portraying Herky had become a Delta Tau Delta tradition.

"That wasn't my intent, by the way," Herb said. "I just knew that Dean was a responsible guy and that he wouldn't give it up."

Whether or not it was Herb's intention, members of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity made their house Herky's nesting site, claiming the portrayal of the Hawkeye mascot as strictly their domain—a tradition that continues to this day.

In December 1958, Herky helped 1,000 students and alumni board a special train for a 42-hour journey to southern California and the Rose Bowl.

Herky is probably more than half attitude, but the wardrobe is part of the image, too, and the hawk fans love today has come a long way from papier-mache and chicken wire. Completed only a year ago, three new Herky heads—one resembling a football helmet and two others wearing a full head of hair and looking more like Spencer’s grinning cartoon—are made of kevlar. Manufactured by the same Twin Cities firm that makes Sesame Street costumes, the heads cost a total of $5,880. Herky's football head weighs about seven pounds, while the other version tips the scale at 2.5 pounds.

Although high-tech materials have lightened the load the men in the costume carry, the routine requires so much energy that it takes four Delts to put on a Herky performance at every football game. Two Delts are needed for every basketball contest, according to UI senior and head Herky Rob Peterson, who was head Herky last year.

In all, Peterson estimates Herky logged about 400 appearances during the 1996-97 academic year, more than one a day. The big bird roots for the Hawkeyes on the football field, on the basketball court, on the wrestling mat, and even at the pool, where he sports goggles and flippers.

Herky has also been known to deliver some cheer to hospitalized children and to appear at local charity events. According to Matt Hannell, the UI junior who earned the head Herky position this year by logging the most community service hours in the fraternity, the hawk who visits sick children shows a calmer and more loving persona than his game-day counterpart. “Especially when he’s around little children, Herky has to have a good perception of space so no one gets bumped or hurt,” Hannell said. “We go to a camp up in Wisconsin with the cheerleaders and the dance team to learn how to walk and mime, how to get the crowd more into the game, and how to gain that perception of space.”

Since taking Herky under its wing, the Delta Tau Delta fraternity has amassed a collection of Herky heads spanning the past three decades. Over the years, the mascot's scowl has deepened, his helmet has become sleeker, and he's developed finger-like appendages at the ends of his wings. But the Herky who takes the field today is still a recognizable descendant of the 1959 original.

New Herkys

By the time Dick Spencer died in 1989, numerous other cartoonists had depicted Herky for various Iowa athletic projects. George Wine, 56BA, who served as the university's sports information director for 25 years, said the transformation of Herky from an impish cartoon character in Spencer's early drawings to a more aggressive and fearsome bird has been notable.

"He's definitely gotten angrier as the years have gone on," Wine said. "I guess the coaches thought he was too cute."

In 1973, the athletic department hired cartoonist Jim Hutchinson to draw a more muscular and meaner version of Herky playing various university-sanctioned sports. Hutchinson's wrestling Herky looks poised to tear his opponent's legs off.

Then, in the early 1980s, athletic department officials decided to use Herky as a marketing tool. They adopted a universal version of the mascot for all sports. Artist Charles Reed, the Iowa City native who drew the barrel-chested Herky with a raised fist, said his rendering is the result of two major influences: Hawkeye wrestling phenomenon Barry Davis and the cartoon figure Mighty Mouse.

Reed's Herky drew mixed reviews from fans, students, and alumni. While some praised the triumphant pose, others complained that Herky looked like a bowler who'd just rolled a gutter ball. Still others thought the new mascot was flipping the bird at opponents. Nevertheless, the universal Herky began showing up on mugs, rugs, and other Hawkeye wares.

Home Competition

As if Wisconsin's Bucky Badger, Purdue's Boilermaker, and Iowa State's Cy the Cyclone weren't enough, Herky has also found competition at home. When Hayden Fry arrived on campus in 1979, he introduced an alternative symbol to represent the football program. Preferring a fiercer looking, less cartoon-oriented image, he created the "tiger hawk." Knowing when to pick his fights, Herky made peace with the new Hawkeye symbol and soon donned a tiger hawk on his own helmet.

Another competitor emerged in the early 1980s when artist Tom Shaff, 75BA, drew a leggy, feminine version of Herky. He called his character Hawkeye Rose and presented it to the women's athletic department as a possible symbol for their programs. Shaff's idea was to create a less aggressive, non-confrontational symbol for women's athletics at Iowa

But when Shaff's first sketches showed Hawkeye Rose in fishnet stockings and high heels, people raised their eyebrows. The entrepreneurial artist sold quite a few Hawkeye Rose T-shirts and ball caps around campus, but the new, sexier symbol never caught on with university officials.

Sometimes co-opting the competition and sometimes stamping it out, Herky has survived as the Hawkeye mascot for 50 years. And, while the hawk has never put a point on the scoreboard, Iowa's feathered mascot has played a prominent role in Big Ten athletics.

"I don't know what a mascot means to a team," Wine said, "but the fans love Herky. For as long as I can remember, he's been a part of the color and pageantry of the Hawkeyes—part of the show."