In a world of Wildcats, Bearcats, Gators and Eagles, how did UofL end up with a Cardinal Bird for a mascot? Like trying to trace the history of other species, the origins of the Bird are a bit murky.
A cardinal’s association with UofL goes back to 1913 when Liberal Arts Dean John Patterson’s wife suggested the athletics board adopt the brilliantly colored avian as the athletics symbol along with its red and black colors.
But for the next four decades, the Bird lived only in two-dimensional form. According to The University of Louisville history book by Dwayne Cox and William Morison, the school symbol made its first “live” appearance in 1953 after two female cheerleaders escorted fellow cheerleader T. Lee Adams to the Home Economics Department and emerged with a cloth Cardinal head that was ready for action.
Five years later, the Bird made the jump from cloth to papier-mâché when marching band member/engineering student Richard “Dick” Dyson, first donned a handmade costume for Louisville’s Thanksgiving Parade. While his head was papier-mâché, the student theater group contributed a long black coat with tails which Dyson finished off with a white dress shirt sporting a large “L” on front, white dress pants and, of course, spats and a black cane.
Dyson’s elegant Bird attire was an immediate hit and he soon joined the UofL Cheerleaders as a regular feature at sporting events. When Dyson flew the coop ongraduation, he handed off his Bird duties to fellow Speed student Robert “Sam” Badgett. Badgett experienced what may well be the mascot world’s first wardrobe malfunction when his head was ripped off by some University of Dayton fraternity members during an away basketball game.
Not to be deterred, he built a new head and proceeded to add some tricks of his own to Cardinal Bird lore – including laying a papier-mâchéd football “egg” in the middle of the field and dusting bald fans’ heads with a feather duster.
Today, the Bird has evolved into one of the most recognized collegiate mascots in the nation. Along the way it’s grown some teeth, buffed up, learned to fly (with the help of a parachute) and even gotten its own booking agent. But one thing hasn’t changed – when the Bird hits the field, Cards fans go wild.
In March 1949, The Thinker was placed upon its perch in front of what was then called the Administration Building and now is known as Grawemeyer Hall. While he has a prominent spot on the UofL campus, a little-known fact–on and off campus–is that our Thinker is actually a significant work of art. In fact, he is the number one Thinker — the very first full-sized bronze Thinker cast under French sculptor Auguste Rodin’s supervision on Christmas Day 1903.
Rodin has been commissioned by the French government in 1880 to create a gate for a planned museum in Paris. His prototype, a massive plaster form called The Gates of Hell, depicted the torments of the damned. Atop it sat a man contemplating the condemned souls below. This was they very first realization of The Thinker.
The museum was never built, but Rodin continued to refine the gate for the next 20 years. Eventually he cast a large plaster of The Thinker that became the basis for the first full-sized bronze casts including the initial 1903 version that now sits at UofL. A slightly later version at the Musee Rodin in Paris is often considered the definitive Thinker sculpture, but many people err in thinking it was the first one.
Before The Thinker landed in Louisville, he was displayed at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Railroad baron Henry Walters bought the statue in 1905 and it sat in his Baltimore home until he died in 1931. The statue then went into Baltimore’s Walters Art Gallery for several years before being sold in 1948. The purchaser was the estate of Louisville lawyer and art lover Arthur Hopkins, who had bequeathed funds to the city to buy the statue. The executors of Hopkins’ estate decided to give The Thinker to UofL, and the statue was placed at its present location.
Though initially intended to represent a man contemplating a scene of horror, The Thinker has taken on other meanings through the years, most notably as a symbol of the value of knowledge and learning. And he has become a proud emblem of UofL, even if he does bear the brunt of a joke or two.