Ra Ra Brunonia: A history of bears

After a brief hiatus (and it has actually been brief this go-round!), Ra Ra Brunonia is BACK with a titillating installment on bears aplenty, bears galore. As Nick Bibby’s bronze, indomitable bear sculpture travels to Providence by boat in a massive reinforced steel container, it only seemed appropriate to dive into Brown’s century-long, storied relationship with its beloved mascot, the bear. For contemporary students, the robust Kodiak bear in Meehan Auditorium reigns as the most Ursus arctos presence on campus. According to Encyclopedia Brunoniana, alumni Ronald M. Kimball ’18 and John J. Monk ’24 solicited funds to donate that Kodiak bear to the University in October 1948, and they were even thoughtful enough to cover the cost of the bear’s mothproofing.

Brown University, Providence, RI by Elliott Erwitt

In 1955, the legendary documentarian Elliot Erwitt photographed the Kodiak bear, entitled the image “Brown University, Providence, RI,” and included it in his book Museum Watching. The Kodiak bear’s portrait is in good company within this oeuvre: Erwitt shot some of the most iconic images of the 20th century, ranging from grieving first ladies, to scenic trysts, to celebrities, to whimsical compositions of dogs. But, as photogenic and statuesque as Meehan’s Kodiak bear is, there were days long ago when Brown’s mascot could be found beyond the confines of a glass case…

Encyclopedia Brunoniana says that the first known attempt to establish a mascot for the University occurred in 1902, when the Brown Daily Herald published this notice on October 24: “Isaac L. Goff, the real estate man, has presented to the student body a brown and white burro, to be used as a mascot at the Harvard game, Saturday. The animal is valued at $100 and will arrive from Colorado Springs this morning.” At the game, the burro became frightened by the noise and the laughter which it provoked, and it seems as though “the real estate man” and his burro were not invited back to rouse school spirit ever again.

In the fall of 1905 the celebration committee decided to obtain a brown bear mascot for the Brown-Dartmouth football game. “Dinks,” a bear who hailed from the Roger Williams Park, and his zookeeper appeared at the game, but Dinks crumbled under the pressure: he retired to the corner of his cage and would not budge. His mate, “Helen,” stepped up to the plate when Dinks suffered from his stage fright: she received a standing ovation as she entered the stadium. The Brown fans’ remained spirited as Helen “squinted at [the Dartmouth football team] out of the corner of her left eye, growled ominously and raised a ready paw to strike the first near-redskin to come within the radius of her reach.” In spite of Helen, Brown lost.

The following fall, a student attended a football game sporting a bear costume. While celebrating Brown’s victory, the student “dropped exhausted.” If breathalyzers had been invented before 1906, one can only imagine the BAC this kid would have blown. In a Helen-inspired feat, another student “sprang to fill the skin” and resumed the bearlike celebration.

In 1921, the University made a final attempt to be home to both man and beast: a live bear was installed in a cage in the biology building, where the community adored him during his all too brief life. Big surprise: the bear suffered his untimely death when he was playing outside his cage and sampled some chemicals.  In their senior year, the Class of 1922 acquired the brother of the recently deceased bear as a Spring Day mascot. He proved to not be as weak and silly as his brother, but the students respectfully named him Bruno II. Bruno II attended football games at home and away until Thanksgiving 1928, and then retired to Roger Williams Park, at a remarkable weight well over 500 pounds. But Bruno II does not live on in the public memory because of his obesity: he had been a thespian! Bruno II appeared in the play “Three Live Ghosts” in the spring of 1922, in a part which originally called for a young lamb. Imagine sitting in the audience of that performance… thank God for PETA.

The legacy of Bruno did not end with Bruno II. In April 1936, Governor Louis J. Brann of Maine gifted Bruno III to President Barbour at a Brown Club of Boston dinner. Third time’s the charm, as they say. It turned out that Bruno III was a bit of a wallflower: she feared crowds and climbed a tree at a football game in 1937, only to be rescued by the police. In the following years, a succession of bear cubs enjoyed brief stints as mascots, with the understanding that at the end of the season the bear babies would be turned over to a zoo. When these cubs traveled to away games, neighboring city jails housed the creatures. In 1966, reports claimed that at least four years had passed since a live bear had graced a football game.

And now, with Bibby’s upcoming installation of ‘Indomitable’ on November 2nd, Brown’s history of autumnal bear acquisitions repeats itself. Ra Ra Brunonia.

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