SUI Mascots – The Big Three.

Today, Herky the Hawk rules the roost in Iowa City – particularly when you visit either Kinnick Stadium or Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Yet, over the last 175 years of University of Iowa history – there have been a handful of other “official” mascots that have roamed the friendly confines of our campus. On this post, we’ll give you a brief overview of what we call, The Big Three, offering a bit of their interesting stories. But first, let’s start here…

The State University of Iowa (SUI) had no mascot, per se, prior to 1908, but those who attended and/or represented our school were known as Hawkeyes from the very beginning, using a nickname that dates back to long before the creation of SUI (1847). You can read the full story here, but suffice to say that two businessmen from Burlington, Iowa – one lawyer, and the other, a newspaperman – teamed up in 1839 – only one year after Iowa became a U.S. Territory – to encourage those early pioneers who were breaking new ground in America’s West to take on the brave new name of Hawkeye. The idea took off quickly, and by the time Iowa became the 29th state in the Union (1846), everybody around the country knew that those living in Iowa were all Hawkeyes. So, when the University was created one year later (1847), there was no doubt that everyone in Iowa City was definitely a Hawkeye.

The 1908 Iowa Hawkeyes football team with Burch the Bear in the front row.

Burch was an American black bear cub, imported from Wisconsin to serve as the mascot for the Iowa Hawkeyes football team in 1908. The team grew fond of Burch, taking him on the road with them, wrestling playfully with the bear and hoping he would bring them good luck as he prowled the sidelines of opponents’ fields across the Midwest. On the first road trip of the season (October 16-18), the Hawkeyes traveled to Columbia to play the Missouri Tigers, with Burch coming along for the ride. According to one report, our SUI mascot on the road didn’t fare too well… At Centralia, Mo, “Fat” Johnson substitute tackle, had arisen before the rest of the men was out of the platform acting as “Burch’s” escort when a curious individual poked the bear in the back. Quick as a flash “Burch” wheeled and harmlessly wrapped himself around the victim’s leg. A howl and the city marshal aypeared [sic] on the scene. “I’ll arrest you if you do not put a muzzle on that bear [r]ight away,” he yelled at Johnson, who was retreating a little nearer to the car. He was later quieted and no legal procedure was started against the mascot.

According to The Daily Iowan – October 20, 1908 – Burch made another public appearance in Grinnell, Iowa, where he bit a spectator, forcing his trainer to file down the bear’s teeth! Not a great debut month – to say the least.

Later in the season – which turned out to be a disastrous 2-5 season – Iowa was playing Drake when the Hawkeyes rolled Burch out in the second half. The Bulldog players quickly objected to a live black bear on the football field “and so poor Burch was pulled off the gridiron.” In the final game of the season against Kansas, Burch “viewed the game from the limb of a tree back of the bleachers.”

Iowa Field was located at the foot of the Iowa River – just west of Old Capitol. More than likely, the trees just outside the east bleachers became Burch’s seat for the November 21st Kansas game.

Apparently, Burch still attended home games throughout the 1909 season, but since he was a much larger bear now, he remained caged as he watched from the sidelines. But in early March, 1910 – the unthinkable happened! Burch escaped his cage, and now, with a full grown bear on the loose, the city folk were a bit worried. But not for long…

From the March 11, 1910 front page of The Daily IowanThe last chapter in the history of Burch, Iowa’s ill-fated mascot, has been written. Wednesday afternoon men who had been blasting ice some distance above Coralville noticed a dark and almost submerged object floating slowly down with the masses of dislodged ice. Its peculiar appearance caused them to mount upon the bridge and push it into the shallow water, where it could be reached from the shore. Here it was at once discovered that the object was a full-grown black bear, without doubt Burch.

R.I.P. – Burch The Bear.

After the “Burch the Bear” fiasco, SUI went back to being mascot-less – just using our name – the Hawkeyes.

In 1929, the new Iowa Stadium opened on the west side of the Iowa River, and since the Hawkeye Marching Band was still primarily a “military-style” unit, the ROTC brought in their mascot dog, named Rex, to serve as Iowa’s official mascot at football games and other campus events.

Rex the ROTC dog – photograph by Fred W. Kent

Rex was obviously a bit more manageable than Burch the Bear, and fans quickly grew to love the pooch as he paced the sidelines during games. In 1932, Ossie Solem came to Iowa City as football coach to take over a hapless Hawkeye football program that had recently been suspended from the Big Ten conference. The university was also suffering greatly from the effects of the Great Depression and could not even afford to pay Solem his full first-year salary. Ossie seemed to make light of the situation as he and Rex were “interviewed” for an article in the May 3, 1932 edition of The Daily Iowan

Rex even appeared on the 1932 Iowa Homecoming button, but alas, the Iowa River claimed yet another mascot, with Rex II falling through the ice and drowning in 1935.

R.I.P. – Rex The ROTC Dog.

SUI is mascot-less once more – but with Nile Kinnick winning the Heisman Trophy (1939) and a World War to win, finding a new mascot in Iowa City will just have to wait.

Richard (Dick) Spencer III created an array of Herky drawings during his time in Iowa City, outfitting his newly beloved character for several sports, including football, baseball, and basketball. Though he moved to Colorado in 1950 to become editor, and later publisher, of Western Horseman magazine, his ties to Iowa remained strong, and his artistry remained popular, appearing in game programs, promotional brochures, the alumni magazine, and even commemorative buttons at Homecoming well into the 1960’s.

Within a few months of his 1948 appearance on paper, Herky came to life at Iowa football games. Below (left) is the “alpha” version of Herky in the fall of 1948.

By 1950, a few stylistic changes – via the magic of papier-mâché – made Herky a bit more personable.

(L-0104) (M-0129) In 1952 – Herky was featured on the Homecoming Badge and was appearing on pennants and other Hawkeye souvenirs.

By the mid-to-late 1950’s, Herky was starting to make a big impression – traveling with the Hawkeyes to the 1957 and 1959 Rose Bowls.

In the 1960’s & 1970’s, the Hawkeye football team was very forgettable, but Herky’s popularity just kept increasing.

(L-0021) A unique 1960’s Promotional Postcard from Iowa Book and Supply displaying all the major University of Iowa products. Before the day of the University of Iowa Hawk Shop and other retailers selling Hawkeye merchandise, Iowa Book & Supply was the place to buy your official Iowa sweatshirts, pennants, and souvenirs. And by today’s standards…look at these amazing prices!

Of course, with the coming of Hayden Fry to Iowa City (1979), the Tiger Hawk first appeared, and has now become the “official” logo of all University of Iowa Athletics.

(M-0138) In 1989 – The Iowa Hawk Shop issued a set of cards featuring Iowa Hawkeye icons – including Herky, the Hawkeye Marching Band, and Kinnick Stadium.

In recent years, Herky has continued to evolve – taking on an even more rounded face and beak. All in all, I think Dick Spencer would enjoy the way his Herky the Hawk has progressed over the last 70+ years.

From Burch the Bear, to Rex the ROTC Dog, to Herky the Hawk, it’s always been great to be a Hawkeye from Iowa!

DYK-March 9, 2022

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Herky The Hawk,

Burch the Bear, Rex the Dog, Herky the Hawk pics: Iowa Icons: Three Historic University of Iowa Mascots, Josh O’Leary, Iowa Magazine, August 27, 2021

History of The University of Iowa Mascots, Suzanne Aunan Gallery

Tales From Iowa City: Burch The Bear, Mike Jones, March 5, 2018

University of Iowa football’s first live mascot: Burch the Bear, Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 18, 2018

Iowa’s Mascot As Center of Attraction, The Daily Iowan, October 20, 1908, p 1

Burch Gets Freedom, Mystery Is Deepened, The Daily Iowan, March 3, 1910, p 1, 4

Burch’s Career Ends, Found in Iowa River, The Daily Iowan, March 11, 1910, p 1, 4

ROTC canine mascot, Rex, wearing uniform, The University of Iowa, 1929, Fred Kent photo, Iowa City Past

Rex Looks ‘Em Over With Ossie, The Daily Iowan, May 3, 1932

Ossie Solem, Wikipedia

Herky cartoon sketch, Dick Spencer, Iowa Digital Library

Old Gold: Wishing Herky a happy birthday, David McCartney, Iowa Now, September 7, 2016

Herky the Hawk, Wikipedia

Herky the Hawk, Iowa City Press Citizen, Iowa City Chronology, February 17, 1987, p 29

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