But, in June 1948, the athletic department made a plea for a mascot to represent the black and gold spirit of the Hawkeyes. Dick Spencer III, a UI journalism teacher and manager of the University Information Service, responded by hatching a cartoon hawk that looked like a cross between Woody Woodpecker and an American eagle. In a statewide contest the following month, John Franklin of Belle Plaine suggested the bird be named after Hercules, the mythical Greek hero renowned for his strength.
Dick Spencer III—a boyish looking guy who grew up in a renovated Texas chicken house and who claimed he “got a hair-cut, shoes with laces in ‘em, and what literacy I was able to acquire in Iowa”—became well known as the father of Herky.
While a student at Iowa, the incorrigible bronco rider had done what he could to work his way through school, including stealing cemetery flowers to make a few bucks selling corsages for social occasions on campus. He painted backdrops for touring bands, performed in nearby rodeos, was a reporter and staff artist for The Daily Iowan, and an editor of Frivol, the campus humor magazine.
For fun, Spencer wrestled in intramurals, starred as a high diver in the Dolphin shows, and displayed his school spirit as a cheerleader—where he always seemed to end up at the top of the pyramid.
After graduation, Spencer took to the air as a member of the 517th Parachute Combat Team in Europe. He designed his company’s insignia—a parachuting buzzard—and kept the men in foxholes chuckling with his cartoons in Stars and Stripes. In 1944, he sent three dispatches from France to The Daily Iowan through regular mail channels, surprising veteran newsmen who were having trouble getting their copy to the states.
When the war was over, Spencer returned to Iowa to teach in the School of Journalism. He started the first course in editorial cartooning in the country, writing his own textbook to go with it. In addition to selling his cartoons to western magazines, Spencer worked with Iowa Alumni Review editor Loren Hickerson, adding his own style of humor to the alumni magazine.
Spencer left Iowa for good in 1950, lured west to Colorado, where he eventually became editor and then publisher of Western Horseman magazine. He kept his ties to Iowa, though, and continued to produce Herky in all sorts of get-ups over the years. When he drew Herky as a Highlander for the 1954 Homecoming badge, he wrote Professor Wendle Kerr, chairman of the badge committee, saying, “I was curious to see how the old boy would look in skirts….”
It’s no secret that Spencer disapproved of some of the transformations Herky has had to endure over the years. Even before the most recent manifestation of the B.H.O.C. (Big Hawk on Campus), Spencer lamented that Herky had lost his wings and that his worn leather helmet had been replaced by a sissy plastic model.
Dick Spencer died of cancer on July 15, 1989, but he still has a son on campus—in the guise of a very happy hawk named Herky. Read about the celebration as Herky turned 50.