A kitty is born
The year 1937 saw the birth of a few monumental things: Bill Cosby, Guiding Light and even that questionable meat, SPAM. Perhaps not as monumental, but still important, was the creation of Northwestern’s own sensation – mascot Willie the Wildcat, who turned 70 this month.
Northwestern’s football team, originally nicknamed “The Fighting Methodists” and about as popular as the school’s tug-of-war team, didn’t officially became the “Wildcats” until 1933. Nine years earlier, Chicago Tribune sportswriter Wallace Abbey reported that NU’s players fought like “wildcats” in a game against the University of Chicago. By 1937, Northwestern’s athletics department and an advertising firm teamed up to create “Willie,” the feline mascot that has represented the school ever since.
Willie wasn’t the school’s original mascot, however. First, handlers escorted a bear cub known as “Furpaw” from the Lincoln Park Zoo to Northwestern games. After the team’s losing season, the bear was ousted in favor of a dead, stuffed cat mascot. The creature was named “Quacky,” in reference to the school’s Latin motto, “Quaecumque sunt vera.”
The dead “Quacky” progressed to “Willie,” who came to life during the 1947Homecoming parade, when four members of the Alpha Delta fraternity created a Willie mascot for their float. The frat brothers fashioned a head for the two-person costume; their mothers sewed the body. Shortly after, Willie began appearing at football games and athletic events.
He has evolved every few years with a redesigned costume. This year brings a fiercer Willie, dressed in a new jersey, with a larger head, pointier ears and a fuller body.
“[It’s] a much bulkier Willie,” said Medill senior Ryan Morton, technical director for WNUR Sports, “who must have been lifting some weights.”
Beth Cunningham, a marketing assistant for the university, handles “just about everything” concerning the mascot program, including the performers, scheduling and special appearances. She described Willie’s new look as a little bit tougher, but still approachable and appealing to children.
“He is the right combination of friendly and fierce,” she said.
A commodified cat
Willie’s image isn’t just important for pumping up the crowd at football games; it’s a big part of Northwestern’s PR campaign. Plus, the cat makes money.
“College athletics in general is the biggest marketing platform for the university,” said Cunningham. Willie the Wildcat is “a great asset for us.”
When he’s not bounding around at sporting events, Willie is available for rent. For $100 an hour, Willie attends weddings, birthdays, Christmas card photo shoots, retirement parties and more. For school-related events, his time is valued at $50 an hour.
“It puts an exclamation point on any event,” Cunningham said.
Recently, Willie made an appearance at the Northwestern Alumni Association’s Travel Showcase. Abby Jansen, assistant director of the alumni travel program, said the older crowd “just loves to see him.” Willie has attended numerous NAA travel events at which he always remains a favorite, Jansen said.
“He adds an energy to the room,” she said. “[Alumni] want to interact with him.”
While renting out Willie may increase his visibility in the community, it also funds upkeep of the Willie suit.
“The wear and tear [on the suit] is pretty tough,” Cunningham said, noting that it usually needs to be replaced every two years. The suit, which costs about $4,500, is made by the Utah-based costume company Alinco.
He is Northwestern
Even though his look has changed, Willie has remained Willie for 70 years — and that’s important, Cunningham said. His steadiness as a mascot helps overcome the built-in “four-year memory” of college, where students, presidents and faculty members move out in cycles.
Weinberg freshman Eddie Siegel said he thinks Willie’s character parallels the student body’s.
“Much like Northwestern students, he is very friendly, but can really turn up the heat when he needs to,” he said. “Northwestern University is just as fierce as Willie.”
Like most mascots at sporting events, Willie stands on the sidelines, dances around, waves and comes up into the crowd. But some games he seems to have more energy than others — and that’s largely because of the person underneath the suit.
“Our goal is to make him as awesome of a mascot as we can,” Cunningham said. Some of that, though, “depends on the ability of the performer to shine.”
Right now, two student volunteers wear the suit. Their identities are kept confidential, and they had to audition for the role.
“You want to maintain the character,” Cunningham said. “If you know who’s in the suit, it’s not Willie the Wildcat.”