Is Goldie really a Gopher?

TBy Thomas David Guidera The University’s mascot could be facing an identity crisis.

And the employees at the University’s Bell Museum of Natural History know why.

“He’s actually a chipmunk,” said Sarah Compton, a student worker at the University’s Bell Museum of Natural History.

“Have a look for yourself,” she said, pointing to a display mounted on the wall of the museum’s Touch and See Room.

The museum has created a mock criminal lineup comparing five stuffed rodents alongside a stuffed Goldy Gopher.

After looking at the five suspects, Compton said it is not unusual to conclude the rodent bearing the least resemblance to the mascot is the pocket gopher – the only gopher in the lineup. The general consensus of the Touch and See Room employees is that the chipmunk looks most like Goldy, although the 13-striped ground squirrel runs a close second, Compton said. Both the 13-striped ground squirrel and the chipmunk have stripes on their backs, bushy tails, and buckteeth like Goldy. A gopher, however, has a long, rounded body that looks like an oversized field mouse.

Although this comparison makes Goldy’s mistaken identity seem obvious, other rodents have been mislabeled as gophers since before Minnesota became a state.

The mischaracterization of the gopher began with a political cartoon by R.O. Sweeny, according to a 1997 Star Tribune article. The 1857 cartoon depicted humanized gophers – which were actually 13-striped ground squirrels, according to an article in the 1964-65 Moccasin. The Moccasin is the publication of the League of Minnesota Poets. At the time, no one noticed the gaffe.

When Minnesotan made the gopher an unofficial state animal, they also adopted the inaccurate image, according to the Moccasin article. At the same time, the University adopted the gopher, and the inaccurate depiction as its official mascot.

In 1940, the University commissioned George Grooms, an artist for a small Iowa manufacturing company, to create the institution’s gopher mascot, according to a 1995 Minnesota Daily article.

On his way to Minneapolis, Grooms realized he didn’t know what a gopher looked like, but sketched some furry rodents he noticed at each rest stop he made. Those furry rodents were chipmunks, and the misidentification continued.

Because the University never made Grooms’ image official, many depictions of Goldy existed during the next few decades. Most were taken from yearbooks and editorial cartoons, but the institution never settled on an official image.

In 1979, the executive director of the University of Minnesota Alumni Association, Vince Bilotta, decided to create an official mascot, according to his article in Minnesota, the association’s bimonthly magazine.

He discovered that Bill Stein, director of the Hamm’s Beer campaign featuring a cartoon bear mascot, was a former University student who worked in Minnesota. Unlike the previous artists, Stein did some research before creating a gopher mascot.

Stein said he tried to make the gopher look less like a chipmunk than the previous depiction. But in the end, Stein produced a caricature wearing a University sweater and a grin from whisker to whisker across its chipmunk face.

This new gopher looked warm, friendly and cute, but it created a problem for the athletics department.

“Lou Holtz wasn’t sure the gopher I did was aggressive enough,” Stein said. Holtz became the head football coach at the University in 1984.

A year later, the University hired Steve Wanvig, a 1972 University graduate who worked as an artist, to create a new mascot that appeared more aggressive than its predecessor.

The University used the new mascot for approximately one year. In 1986, three members of the men’s basketball team were accused of rape, leading the athletics department to revamp their image again Wanvig said.

“The original gopher was a kind of a beefy-looking, real aggressive mascot,” Wanvig said. “They thought that in light of this incident that may or may not have happened, perhaps we should soften the image of this mascot a little to make him look a little more friendly.”

In order to do this, Wanvig said he softened Goldy’s eyebrows and made him thinner.

This gopher, which is still the official depiction of the mascot, maintained its buckteeth and maroon and gold sweater.

“It realistically looks more like a chipmunk,” Wanvig said. “It’s not meant to be really anatomically correct or anything.”

Thomas David Guidera is a freelance writer.

The freelance editor welcomes comments at [email protected]