Baylor University is celebrating 100 years of having a bear as its official mascot. Over the past century, more than 50 real bears and untold numbers of costume-clad human imitators have served as Baylor mascots, but the most beloved mascot of them all was arguably a loveable casualty of the Great Depression named Joe College.
Students voted overwhelmingly in December 1914 to make the bear Baylor’s official mascot, beating out other nominees, including the second-place choice, the buffalo. Baylor’s first live mascot, a bear named Ted, was acquired in January 1918 as a gift from a departing Army engineer unit at Waco’s Camp MacArthur.
Joe College, the bear that could be called Baylor’s first superstar mascot, was a trained performer. He had begun his life pleasing crowds in an animal show, and eventually Joe wound up as one of the animals on display in Waco’s Cotton Palace Park zoo.
In 1932, the financial effects of the Depression forced the zoo to close and sell off all its animals. One of the bears was purchased by Baylor student Bill Boyd and soon was living in Boyd’s backyard. The bear, whom Boyd soon named Joe College, was formally introduced to the student body at Baylor’s first home football game in 1932.
Joe College took a shine to Baylor immediately, and soon became a favorite with students. Boyd would take him on regular walks around campus, and the bear was so well-behaved that students were able to walk up and pet him. In an article in the Sept. 12, 1994, Baylor Bear Insider Report, Baylor history writer Tommy Turner noted that the friendly mascot had personality to spare.
“(Joe College) was sleek and handsome, playful and entertaining,” Turner wrote. “He loved people and attention. He could wrestle and box, safely. Tame and well-trained, he was a natural ham. … Nothing fazed him. He loved parades, bands, kids and attention. He was, someone said, just like a huge dog. He often went swimming in the river with students.”
Turner noted another quality soon adopted by the amiable mascot – an intense love for Baylor’s school song.
“(Joe’s) trainers said whenever he heard ‘That Good Old Baylor Line’ struck up, he always went into a dance,” Turner wrote.
Joe College was also a big Baylor football fan. You might be surprised to learn that the bear sometimes took part in football practices, and could playfully run with and even tackle his human opponents without hurting them.
But the loyal bruin was not above using a little muscle to help his fellow Bears when needed. During one football game against the University of Texas when Joe was resting on the sideline, the bear stretched out his paw across the playing field and tripped a Longhorn runner. The referee was soon consulted but wasn’t able to think of any penalty in the books to charge Baylor with.
Boyd soon taught Joe College a trick that would be learned by many succeeding Baylor mascots — drinking soda pop out of a bottle. Boyd would pop off the cap and give Joe a full bottle of Dr Pepper to drink, but at first the trick fell flat because the thirsty bear would proceed to empty the bottle in seconds.
Joe’s trainer did a little bit of experimenting, and eventually learned to leave the soda bottle capped with a hole punched in the metal top. The difficulty of sucking the Dr Pepper through the tiny hole extended Joe’s drinking time to a much more crowd-pleasing 10 minutes per bottle. (Baylor’s live bear mascots are no longer given soft drinks for health reasons).
When Baylor fans traveled to sporting events out of town, Joe College often went along, transported in an automobile or a train’s baggage car.
“We could just put him on the train like a big dog,” Boyd remembered.
Most of Joe’s road trips went off without incident, but every now and then there were minor snafus.
During a parade in downtown Fort Worth prior to a game against TCU, Joe spotted a drugstore with a soda fountain visible through the window. Back on campus in Waco, Joe was routinely treated to ice cream cones at Baylor Drug, so he no doubt expected that the same treat was waiting for him inside the Fort Worth store.
Joe made a beeline for the drugstore, crashing through its front plate-glass window as he dragged two student attendants with him. Luckily, the drugstore owner was apparently the forgiving type and didn’t make a huge fuss after hearing about Joe’s ice cream habit. He even gave the hungry bear an ice cream cone on the house.
In 1934, Joe joined hundreds of Baylor supporters in marching up Congress Avenue in Austin prior to the football game against Texas. The group entered the State Capitol building, where the bear and the Baylor band were invited inside the Texas Senate chamber to perform for legislators.
When Bill Boyd first started taking Joe College to campus in 1932, the college student got no financial assistance from cash-strapped Baylor to help him care for his 200-pound companion. To feed Joe, therefore, Boyd sought donations of food from local grocery stores and restaurants as well as from Baylor dining halls. He was successful, and Joe’s weight eventually shot up to about 450 pounds, even though the food the bear seemed to enjoy most was lettuce.
When it became impossible to keep the ever-expanding bear in Boyd’s backyard, members of the Baylor Chamber of Commerce student organization offered to build Joe his own cage on campus, one of a number of acts which began the tradition that continues to this day of the chamber feeding and caring for Baylor’s mascots.
Joe’s new wire cage was not foolproof, however. Boyd said that every now and then the bear would escape and wander over to the women’s dormitories.
“The women undressing on the first floors would see him looking in the window,” Boyd said.
In September 1934, Boyd announced that he was in negotiations to sell Joe to the Ringling Bros. circus. He said that he would be glad to forget the sale and give Joe to Baylor, if it would agree to feed the bear and provide a student to help watch him.
Baylor students were quick to voice their displeasure at the thought of Joe leaving campus. They circulated petitions of protest, and President Pat Neff soon announced that Baylor would make Joe College its official mascot and take on the financial responsibility for his care.
By 1940, age was beginning to slow Joe College down and he was retired from active mascot duty. A younger bear dubbed “Little Joe” arrived on campus that year and took over all public mascot duties.
On March 20, 1943, 17-year-old Joe College was found dead in his cage. The Baylor Chamber of Commerce had Joe’s head and shoulders mounted, and for many years the beloved bear looked out at Baylor fans from above the scoreboard in Marrs McLean Gymnasium on campus.
“He was quite a bear,” Boyd said many years after his old friend Joe College’s death. “We never once had to put a muzzle on him. He had such a gentle nature.”
Sources: “Here Come the Bears! The Story of the Baylor University Mascots” by Eugene W. Baker (1996); Baylor Bear Insider Report, Sept. 12, 1994; and Baylor Lariat stories: Sept. 26, 1934; Jan. 21, 1937; Oct. 27, 1938; March 23, 1943; Oct. 8, 1971; and Nov. 20, 1975.