September 06, 2013 9:00AM
The students who formed the new pep club at the State Manual Training Normal School in 1920 couldn’t have known that embracing the characterization of the school’s supporters as “gorillas” would become the foundation for the one of the most unusual, recognizable and beloved college mascots in the U.S.
This week, Pittsburg State University celebrates the 90th birthday of Gus the Gorilla. Randy Roberts, PSU archivist and interim dean of library services, said the observance highlights one of the university’s most interesting traditions and an image that unites alumni across generations.
“No other university has a gorilla as a mascot, so there is a great deal of pride in that uniqueness,” Roberts said.
The story of how PSU came to be known as the Gorillas and the birth of Gus, Roberts said, goes back to 1920 and the 24 young men who formed the new pep club.
“The first public appearance of this new pep club occurred on Thursday, October 7th, 1920, during an all-school assembly,” Roberts said. “The campus newspaper reported this new club was organized to ‘accelerate college spirit and enthusiasm until it shall permeate the state.’ They called themselves the Gorillas and their motto was ‘we want pep and we want it at all times.’”
The reason the group chose to call themselves gorillas is shrouded in the mists of time, Roberts said, but usage of the term was well understood at the time.
“According to Mathew’s ‘Dictionary of Americanisms,’ to call someone a gorilla in 1920 meant they possessed characteristics of strength, intimidation, and untamed rowdiness,” Roberts said. “That’s exactly the characteristics the first Pittsburg gorillas hoped to portray.”
Written accounts from the time vary, but it appears that in 1923, the pep club recruited art student Helen Waskey to make the first drawing of Gus Gorilla -- hence the birthday of the mascot. By 1924, the gorillas had grown to about 200 members and in January 1925, the student body voted to adopt the gorilla as the mascot for its athletics teams.
Roberts said the university’s adoption of the gorilla for the mascot was fortunate.
“The school’s name changed from State Manual Training Normal to Kansas State Teachers College in 1923,” Roberts said, “but in 1925, the city newspapers still referred to our teams as the Pittsburg Normalites or the Manuals. That’s not a mascot I think would be popular today.”
Today, Gus the Gorilla is wildly popular among alumni and fans. When he appears at athletic events or in the public, he attracts mobs of children and his image appears on everything from t-shirts and coffee mugs to license plates and key chains.
“The students in 1920 wanted to increase pep and enthusiasm for the school,” Roberts said. “The enduring popularity of Gus the Gorilla is proof that they were successful.”
The 1923 Pep Club eagerly adopted their characterization as Gorillas.