Mountaineers Are Always Free
Heritage, Dissent, and a West Virginia Icon
The West Virginia University Mountaineer is not just a mascot: it is a symbol of West Virginia history and identity embraced throughout the state. In this deeply informed but accessible study, folklorist Rosemary Hathaway explores the figure’s early history as a backwoods trickster, its deployment in emerging mass media, and finally its long and sometimes conflicted career—beginning officially in 1937—as the symbol of West Virginia University.
Alternately a rabble-rouser and a romantic embodiment of the state’s history, the Mountaineer has been subject to ongoing reinterpretation while consistently conveying the value of independence. Hathaway’s account draws on multiple sources, including archival research, personal history, and interviews with former students who have portrayed the mascot, to explore the complex forces and tensions animating the Mountaineer figure. Often serving as a focus for white, masculinist, and Appalachian identities in particular, the Mountaineer that emerges from this study is something distinct from the hillbilly. Frontiersman and rebel both, the Mountaineer figure traditionally and energetically resists attempts (even those by the university) to tame or contain it.
With her personal, familial connection to the subject and background as a folklorist, Rosemary Hathaway has written a well-crafted and thoroughly researched narrative with nuance, a strong historical foundation, and important analysis. Mountaineers Are Always Free has both relevance to the current political moment and the power to endure.”
Emily Hilliard, state folklorist and founding director of the West Virginia Folklife Program
Folklorist Rosemary Hathaway’s well-researched and engaging book explores the evolution of the WVU ‘mascot’ the Mountaineer from its preindustrial origins to the present. Imaginatively analyzing personal, local, and national sources, Hathaway reveals how the ongoing transformations of the Mountaineer have both built upon and challenged regional and national stereotypes in ways that reflect competing conceptions of freedom and identity.”
Anthony Harkins, author of Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon
I start this book about the West Virginia Mountaineer by confessing that I am a Buckeye. Not only was I born and raised in Ohio, but I am also an alumna of The Ohio State University. But as the daughter of parents who both graduated from West Virginia University and who grew up in West Virginia—my father, David Barr Hathaway, in Grantsville (Calhoun County), and my mother, Joyce Toothman Hathaway, in Athens (Mercer County)—I was no stranger to the Mountaineer, either specifically as the WVU mascot, or more broadly, as a moniker for West Virginians. Growing up in the 1930s and 1940s, my parents heard the folk saying that the three Rs in West Virginia were “readin’, writin’, and Route 33” (elsewhere identified as Route 23, or “the road to Columbus,” if that was the closer path out of the state). Like many others, they were part of the out-migration of West Virginians who left the state for better job opportunities in the 1950s. But like so many West Virginia expats, my parents never lost their love for their home state and wore their Mountaineer identity proudly: my father, in particular, took a deep and subversive pleasure in flying the West Virginia state flag alongside the US and Ohio flags on major holidays, including on June 20, West Virginia Day. And trust me, the West Virginia flag drew some curious looks and questions in that Columbus suburb, much to my father’s delight.
So it was ironic when I—the only one of their four children not to be born in Morgantown—was hired by WVU’s English department in 2007 and moved from my then-home of Colorado back to a gentler and greener set of mountains. Though my family had made frequent trips back to Grantsville and Athens to visit family while I was growing up, we never visited Morgantown. And yet, for the first few months I lived here, I had an unshakeable sense of déjà vu as I kept coming across places familiar to me through family stories: the site of Trinity Episcopal Church on the corner of Spruce and Willey Streets was where my dad’s rooming house, Trinity Hall, formerly stood; Stansbury Hall, where the English department was then located, was the former fieldhouse where he watched Hot Rod Hundley astonish the crowds with his basketball showmanship. Woman’s Hall, where my mother lived before the two were married, loomed over the campus, and my dad passed along to me an object I’d never seen before: the phone he “liberated” from the foyer of Woman’s Hall on an occasion when Mom kept him waiting there too long before a date. Every day on my walk to campus I stepped on or over the star for Don Knotts in front of the Metropolitan Theater. Knotts had been a student during the same time as my dad and sometimes worked as the intermission act between sets when my dad performed with dance bands in town. It was uncanny, like coming home to a place I’d never been. I was haunted, in all the best ways.
When I started teaching at WVU in the fall semester of 2007, I began to understand and to be curious about the significance of the Mountaineer. I thought I knew college mascots from my experiences at Ohio State; as a graduate teaching assistant, I’d even taught a student who was the Brutus Buckeye mascot. But none of that prepared me for the depth and the complexity of the connection that West Virginians feel to the Mountaineer. During that first semester, it became clear to me that the Mountaineer was far more than just a mascot: West Virginians identified with the Mountaineer in ways that went well beyond sports fandom. Indeed, as a number of people who served as the WVU Mountaineer stressed when I interviewed them, they don’t consider the Mountaineer to be a mascot at all: a mascot is some anonymous person in a costume and a cartoonish, oversized foam head. The Mountaineer, they told me, is a symbol of, and a representative for, the entire state. Many of them brought this distinction up without prompting, and they talked about their service as that representative with tremendous pride.
Of course, West Virginia University teams aren’t the only college athletics programs to call themselves Mountaineers: that moniker is shared by athletes, students, and alumni at Appalachian State University (North Carolina), Berea College (Kentucky), Mount St. Mary’s University (Maryland), Schreiner University (Texas), Western Colorado University, Eastern Oregon University, Eastern Oklahoma State College, and Southern Vermont College. Of all of those teams, Appalachian State’s mascot, Yosef, is most akin to WVU’s Mountaineer in terms of its symbolism. According to Appalachian State’s website, the name “‘Yosef’ is mountain talk for ‘yourself,’ with the idea being that if you are an Appalachian alumnus, fan or friend and have a heart filled with black and gold, you are Yosef.” The histories of the WVU Mountaineer and Yosef are remarkably similar: Yosef came into being in the late 1940s, conceived of as a hillbilly caricature for Appalachian State’s 1948 yearbook. And the following year, 1949, saw John Geffrich, “a 48-year-old World War II veteran,” become the unofficial Appalachian State Mountaineer mascot. Like WVU Mountaineers of the time, the Appalachian State Mountaineer was depicted by “male undergraduates [as] a bearded man with coveralls, a pipe and a straw hat,” and carrying a musket.1 As we shall see in chapter 2, this portrayal is very similar to the iconography of the WVU Mountaineer of the time and reflects a surprisingly urbane sense of Appalachian identity.
But the Appalachian State’s Mountaineer and the WVU Mountaineer part ways in the 1980s, when Appalachian State “modernized Yosef’s look through a cartoon-type head and body.”2 WVU maintained its tradition of having a single, identifiable student portray the Mountaineer, which proved to be a crucial decision (or lack of decision). Having a real person serve as the Mountaineer is a physical reminder that the figure symbolizes the independence and individuality of West Virginians, both historically and in the present. However, in the late 1980s, WVU would discover that this tradition was also problematic when Natalie Tennant competed to become, and then was named, the first woman to serve as the Mountaineer. Chapter 4 demonstrates that while the WVU Mountaineer might be all about freedom, some students and fans felt that only men were qualified to fill the role. In fact, it was a similar resistance to Rebecca Durst’s selection as the second female Mountaineer in 2009 that became the spark that ignited this book project. When some students—including a large number of female students—complained that a woman couldn’t be the Mountaineer, I began to see the complexity of Mountaineer identity, and how it is in a constant balancing act between tradition and change.
In many ways, then, this book is the result of a fascination with what it means to be a Mountaineer, something that has consumed me since my arrival in Morgantown in 2007. What I’ve discovered is that even though the image of the Mountaineer has changed over time, ideas about who and what the Mountaineer represents have been remarkably consistent and persistent since the term first emerged as a synonym for residents of western Virginia in the early nineteenth century. The Mountaineer is a mirror for a deep range of intangible values and ideals: It represents pride in one’s history and heritage. It personifies the rebellious, independent spirit reflected in the state motto, Montani semper liberi (Mountaineers are always free). It has stood, at various points in time, as both the personification of and an antidote to the stereotype of the poor “white trash” hillbilly. It has been a lightning rod that attracts and absorbs larger cultural concerns about race, class, and gender. It has been a tool students use to release their inhibitions, and a tool the university’s administration has used to rein in student misbehavior. Individuals use the Mountaineer figure to enact what they believe it means to be a student at West Virginia University, a citizen of the state, and a resident of the Appalachian region. Those enactments vary radically, sometimes coming into direct conflict with each other, and have adapted to reflect changing historical and cultural contexts. And yet despite its flexibility, the Mountaineer identity retains a remarkably stable core that has allowed it to continue to reflect a crucial part of West Virginians’ identity for over two hundred years. What is it about the Mountaineer identity that is unique and perennially appealing?
Hillbillies, Frontiersmen, and Tricksters
In order to understand the present-day Mountaineer, we need to understand where the figure comes from. As will be discussed in more detail in chapter 1, the Mountaineer has its roots in two long-standing American icons: the hillbilly and the frontiersman. Both of these figures have an extensive cultural history that long predates the founding of the state of West Virginia—and in some cases predates the founding of the United States. I argue that the personas of the frontiersman and the hillbilly, which developed separately, merge in the figure of the Mountaineer. While these two figures share some qualities—fierce independence, plainspokenness—they also differ in significant ways. The frontiersman represents the natural gentleman of the backwoods, who—while not worldly or formally educated—is nevertheless intelligent, articulate, and forthright. With the frontiersman, what you see is what you get; he is the proverbial salt-of-the-earth guy, with a hefty dose of rugged individualism and bravery. The hillbilly, on the other hand, is a barely civilized rabble-rouser, one who acts first and thinks later. His pleasures are of the flesh: carousing, drinking, fighting. If he is even aware of the status quo, the hillbilly fails to understand why it matters and may actively defy it. What he is keenly aware of, however, is that outsiders often see him as a fool, and in fact he sometimes plays the fool deliberately in order to trick outsiders and put them in their place.
It may seem impossible that these two distinct figures could coexist in the single figure of the Mountaineer, but they do. In combining the seemingly opposed figures of the frontiersman and the hillbilly, the Mountaineer becomes a wholly different kind of icon than either the hillbilly or the frontiersman alone: he becomes a trickster. Lewis Hyde defines the trickster as a “boundary-crosser” who exists at the boundaries between “right and wrong, sacred and profane, clean and dirty, male and female, young and old, living and dead.”3 The trickster is amoral in the sense of being oblivious to convention: he does and says what he pleases, and if deceit and trickery are needed to accomplish his goals, he willingly engages in deceit and trickery without shame. It’s this aspect of shamelessness that makes tricksters so appealing; but as Hyde (and others) have argued, the trickster isn’t a sociopath or a chaos agent. Rather, through its “relationship to other powers, to people and institutions and traditions,” the trickster functions “to uncover and disrupt the very things that cultures are based on.”4 In short, every cultural group needs a trickster figure to stand guard at the boundaries of the group’s values, both to police and to challenge the limits of group behavior.
Trickster figures exist in virtually every culture,5 and tales about them are part of nearly every cultural group’s narrative folklore: familiar examples are Brer Rabbit, Coyote, Anasazi, and—in Appalachian tradition—Jack of the Jack tales. In these stories, tricksters outwit others—especially those seeking to harm them—by deceit, cleverness, and wit. We will see how the Mountaineer plays this same role in nineteenth-century stories about backwoodsmen outsmarting dandies. But the trickster can also be a culture hero, a figure who embodies the ideals of a particular group—and certainly the Mountaineer is a culture hero. The Mountaineer represents everything central to West Virginia’s mythology: he is the pioneer who first ventured into the region and settled it; he is the principled, if poor, citizen whose resistance to slavery led to the formation of the state of West Virginia; he is the stoic, self-sufficient, and naturally hospitable gentleman who judges people and situations by his own standards and acts accordingly, even if his actions are unconventional. In all of those qualities, we can also see how the Mountaineer’s virtues straddle the boundary between civility and order: he is not afraid to leave civilization behind and confront the ambiguities and dangers of the natural world, and he is willing to fight for what he believes in, even if it means rejecting the status quo. There’s a fine balance between the Mountaineer’s laudable qualities—independence and forthrightness—and his potentially disruptive ones—his willingness to reject and resist social norms.
The idea of a single figure who is both culture hero and trickster may seem an unlikely and paradoxical combination. And in fact, folklorists and anthropologists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries carried on a long debate about this tendency for a single character to embody both roles, when one would expect these roles to be carried out by separate and opposing characters in a tale.6 The trickster is generally a comic figure, like the fool or clown, while the culture hero is more often a tragic one. Nevertheless, as anthropologist Franz Boas noted, there is “a uniform tendency to attribute coarse buffoonery or moral delinquencies of the worst sort to an ideal culture-hero.”7 And such is the case with the Mountaineer: he can be both stalwart frontiersman and coarse hillbilly, depending on the context. Notably, both roles are built into the duties of the WVU Mountaineer, who is required both to be a well-behaved, articulate public-relations agent for the university and an effective rabble-rouser, one who can excite fans with his or her game-day antics.
Folklorist Barbara Babcock-Abrahams resolves the problem of combining the culture hero and the trickster in a single figure by recalling that the trickster “embodies the fundamental contradiction of our existence: the contradiction between the individual and society, between freedom and constraint.”8 Hyde, too, observes that the trickster lives at the boundary between civilized, sanctioned behavior and misbehavior, sometimes obscuring, challenging, and moving that boundary by engaging in activities that test the boundary’s limits. The trickster’s testing function is essential, and not just because that’s what tricksters do: this boundary testing is also essential to the very groups and institutions whose conventions the trickster challenges. These groups and institutions understand that “their liveliness depends on having those boundaries regularly disrupted.”9 The trickster’s challenges make visible the unstated, invisible values of a group or institution. This visibility, in turn, gives the group or institution a chance to revisit its core values and to restate and modify those values, if need be. Just as small tears and injuries to a muscle allow it to become stronger, so the trickster’s challenges to a group’s values allow those values to be transformed and strengthened.
The need of cultural groups and institutions to have their boundaries disrupted occasionally is crucial to understanding the role of the Mountaineer in general and of the WVU Mountaineer more specifically. As noted above, the official WVU Mountaineer already embodies the paradoxical double role of being both the upstanding representative for the institution and a rabble-rousing cheerleader for students, fans, and alumni. Where does the balance between those two aspects of the WVU Mountaineer’s identity and function lie? And how far can the individual portraying the WVU Mountaineer push that boundary in either direction before upsetting the balance between the two?
The boundaries that regularly get tested at WVU are the very ones Babcock-Abrahams articulates: the ones that lie “between the individual and society, between freedom and constraint.” As we shall see, the Mountaineer comes by these contradictions honestly, through its twin roots in the earlier figures of the squatter and the hillbilly on one side, and the backwoodsman and frontiersman on the other side. While both the hillbilly and the frontiersman are symbols of freedom, the hillbilly represents a more disruptive, unrestrained kind of freedom than the frontiersman. As both Babcock-Abrahams and Hyde suggest, these hillbilly and frontiersman aspects of the Mountaineer don’t cancel each other out; rather, they complement each other. They give the Mountaineer a wider range of characteristics than either figure alone would, and they also give individuals more latitude for performing Mountaineer identity. Depending on the context, people who identify as Mountaineers can choose either to reinforce or to push the boundary between the two: when discussing West Virginia with people outside the state, they might enact the frontiersman side of the identity, stressing the grit, hardiness, and humility of West Virginians. After a big WVU football win (or loss), however, they might get drunk and set a couch on fire. Whether the university likes it or not, these are both performances consistent with the dual nature of Mountaineer identity.
Here and throughout the text, when I use the term performance, I’m not referring solely to the formal performance of WVU’s official Mountaineer mascot but also to the informal performances that people who identify themselves as Mountaineers engage in, such as the two described above: the serious conversation with outsiders and the couch burning. How do Mountaineers understand what it means to be a Mountaineer, and how do they demonstrate to themselves and to outsiders what it means? In other words, how do they perform Mountaineer identity? And how has that performance changed over time?
That, in a nutshell, is the work of this book.
What fascinated me as I did my research was discovering that over time there has been a regular, almost predictable oscillation between the frontiersman and hillbilly ends of the Mountaineer spectrum. For much of the Mountaineer’s existence—first, as a moniker for the people of western Virginia generally, then as a name for the citizens of the new state of West Virginia, and then as a specific term for WVU students, fans, and alumni—the frontiersman and hillbilly have coexisted peacefully. But with great regularity, the two identities come into conflict over those cultural boundaries described above. And specifically, West Virginia University has tried, at various times, to kill the boundary-pushing trickster—the hillbilly—and to elevate the more constrained and civilized frontiersman.
Chapter 1 explores the roots of the Mountaineer by looking at its earlier incarnations from colonial times until the turn of the twentieth century. To truly understand the debate about the Mountaineer’s identity—in particular, the conflict between the untamed, wild man side and the stalwart frontiersman side—we have to understand how far back the roots of both halves of that identity extend: they go back not only to pre-Revolutionary days but to England itself. As the United States expanded westward, the figures of the squatter and the backwoodsman entered American popular imagination and became powerful political tools that could be used both to the advantage and the disadvantage of people living in the Appalachians. After the Civil War, emancipation, Reconstruction, and the flood of European immigrants to the United States, rural whites were held up—at varying turns—as objects of scorn, charity, and romantic racism by outsiders.
Chapter 2 looks at how the idea of the Mountaineer was impacted in the early twentieth century by the invention of the popular culture hillbilly, a figure that—by the 1930s and 1940s—was ubiquitous in films, music, comics, and other media. The hillbilly gained popularity at exactly the moment that WVU decided to make the Mountaineer its official mascot, forever cementing the link between the two figures, despite later attempts by university administrators to sever that link. This connection will be traced through research and fieldwork with men who attended WVU immediately after World War II, a time when the university’s student body grew enormously, not just in terms of numbers but in terms of cultural diversity, as former servicemen from ethnic, working-class backgrounds became first-generation college students on the GI Bill. This was also the era when the portrayal of the Mountaineer as a hillbilly reached its peak, when Mountaineer Day (later Mountaineer Week) came into existence, and also—in the 1950s—when the hillbilly image was formally banished by the university administration.
Chapter 3 focuses on the Mountaineer during the 1960s into the early 1970s, a time of social and political upheaval that affected West Virginia and WVU as surely as it affected other places and college campuses. And yet, this was also the decade when Lyndon Johnson declared the War on Poverty, which focused heavily on Appalachia and which all too often was justified by selling the same old combination of romance and repulsion that has shaped how people perceive Appalachia not just for decades but for centuries. In an era when young men were being drafted to carry rifles for their country in an unpopular war, and students at home were pushing back against institutional authority, the Mountaineer again became a locus for playing with ideas about rebellion, dissent, patriotism, and Appalachian identity.
In chapter 4 I turn to the experiences of the only two women ever to serve as WVU Mountaineers, Natalie Tennant and Rebecca Durst. Despite serving nearly twenty years apart, both women faced intense criticism and sexism during their time as Mountaineers. While early chapters focus on the ways that Mountaineer identity has always been linked to ideas about race and social class, chapter 4 examines the ways in which Tennant and Durst exposed the link between the Mountaineer and masculinity.
The final chapter looks at more recent controversies surrounding Mountaineer identity, following on the controversy created by Rebecca Durst’s service as the second female Mountaineer. From MTV’s short-lived series Buckwild to J. D. Vance’s surprise best-seller Hillbilly Elegy to the West Virginia teachers’ strike of 2018, Appalachian culture has been very much in the national spotlight in recent years. And the WVU Mountaineer itself has undergone an enormous shift with the rollout of the university’s Go First publicity campaign, which seems designed to decouple Mountaineer values from a specific Mountaineer body. And yet conflicts endure about what it means to be a Mountaineer, as students continue to embrace the Mountaineer’s wild side and administrators continue to quash it. More than two hundred years after the term was first used to describe western Virginians, what is it about the Mountaineer that keeps it so relevant and controversial? And in an increasingly globalized world—and in particular, on an increasingly diverse campus—what is the future of the Mountaineer?
The Battle of the Mountaineers, Official and Unofficial
Not all readers will agree with the aspects of Mountaineer identity that I focus on in the following chapters, and I suspect some will be disappointed that this is not a book that chronicles the service of every person who has served as the WVU Mountaineer. That is certainly a book that deserves to be written. This book, though, is a cultural history of the figure of the Mountaineer in a broad sense, not just a history of the official WVU Mountaineer. To be sure, the two figures and their histories are related: the official WVU Mountaineer is, of course, based on the larger idea that the Mountaineer stands for all West Virginians, representing their history, heritage, and values. But these two incarnations of the Mountaineer do not always intersect neatly. In fact, the book focuses frequently on moments when the university’s official idea of who and what the Mountaineer should be came into conflict with broader ideas about the Mountaineer’s identity.
After all, the term Mountaineer existed for over a century before the university adopted it, and thus has a much longer, more complex, and broader-ranging history than just that of the WVU Mountaineer. (This is why I will, insofar as possible, use the term WVU Mountaineer to indicate that I’m referring specifically to the university’s mascot, and Mountaineer to indicate that I’m referring to the larger, older idea of the Mountaineer.) Some might even argue that the university has exercised too much control in shaping and defining the idea of the Mountaineer: after all, the name belongs to all West Virginians, not just those affiliated with the university. Little did WVU know when it adopted the nickname in the early twentieth century that it was also agreeing to accept the baggage that the Mountaineer brought with it from its hundred-plus years of circulation. In some ways, the history of the WVU Mountaineer chronicles the university’s slow realization of just how complicated and contentious its choice of mascot was, not to mention its ongoing attempts to regulate and control the concept of the Mountaineer.
As a folklorist, I’m fascinated by this interaction between traditional folk ideas about the Mountaineer and the university’s “official” ones. Spoiler alert: in this sort of battle, the folk version almost always wins. And I do approach this project as a folklorist, not as a trained historian. As such, while I want to get the historical facts right and provide as deep and detailed a sense of cultural context as possible, ultimately it’s stories that matter to me: the stories of the students and alumni who so generously talked to me about their experiences at WVU but also the larger narratives that those stories helped me understand.
My prior experience in folklore fieldwork may have prepared me for the work of doing oral history and archival research, but it did not prepare me for the challenges (and deep pleasures) of doing historiography. Even just dipping my toe into those waters has given me tremendous respect for historians. How do you know when to stop? There is always another archival source to check out, another book to read. To that end, I am incredibly grateful to those historians whose work helped me to situate my research in the larger context of West Virginia and Appalachian history: John Alexander Williams’s West Virginia: A History provided vital facts and details, and I am especially appreciative of Williams’s insistence on actively resisting the usual way of telling the state’s history. Apart from personal interviews and archival research, a number of books were particularly useful in helping shape my thinking about this project. Nancy Isenberg’s paradigm-shifting White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America and Steven Stoll’s Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia were hugely influential, particularly in terms of understanding the ways that Mountaineer identity was shaped by much larger and much older economic and social systems. Anthony Harkins’s Hillbilly: A Cultural History—a study of the popular culture incarnations and meanings of the hillbilly that is both sweeping and incredibly precise—helped me frame the long history of the hillbilly icon, which is so closely linked to that of the Mountaineer. These are but a few of the book-length sources that undergird my work, and I mention them specifically for readers who are interested in exploring the broader history of West Virginia and Appalachia in more depth and detail.
Mascot or Not?
As a college sports mascot, the Mountaineer is one of the very few that is portrayed by a single, identifiable individual. Most mascots are of the type I refer to as “foam heads”; the identity of the individual portraying the mascot is obscured by an outsized costume, especially by elaborate headgear that goes beyond a basic mask. These typical mascot costumes exaggerate the mascot’s size, making an already unhuman figure seem even less human by virtue of its enormous physical proportions. But mascots’ individuality is disguised in other ways, too. In the course of my research, I had the great pleasure of interviewing master puppeteer and puppet maker Ingrid Crepeau, who designed and built the mascot costumes for the Washington Nationals Presidents, among many other college and professional sports teams. It was Crepeau who told me about the “mascot code,” a set of informal rules among sports mascots that create and protect a mascot’s magical otherness. One of the most important of these rules is that the identity of the performers who occupy the mascot costumes be kept secret. Teams rarely reveal the names of the person (or people) who inhabit the mascot costume. Another piece of the code is that if the mascot is, in fact, portrayed by multiple people, two people cannot portray the mascot simultaneously, even if their appearances are at different venues. Most crucially, however, mascots are not allowed to talk. They learn to communicate with fans through gestures and movements, but they cannot speak.10
Clearly, WVU Mountaineers break all the usual rules of mascotry: there is only one WVU Mountaineer (and an alternate) at any given time; the identity of the person is not only known but essential both to their selection and to their service; and the mascot absolutely talks. In fact, over the years, the WVU Mountaineer’s service has become as much, if not more, about being a public-relations spokesperson for the university as it is about cheering at sports events. Whereas early Mountaineers were only expected to show up and cheer at sporting events, recent Mountaineers have put in an average of 250 non-sports-related public appearances a year, showing up for alumni events and fund-raisers, giving speeches at schools, and visiting children in hospitals. When I explained all of this to Crepeau, she, too, opined that she wouldn’t call the WVU Mountaineer a mascot—which a number of former Mountaineers had already told me. Crepeau just helped me understand why. So, to paraphrase the movie Stand By Me, if not a mascot, then what the hell is the Mountaineer?
While a Mountaineer’s face is visible, he or she does wear a costume—although at least one former Mountaineer said he didn’t think of it as a costume since that evokes ideas about disguise and playacting and phoniness in general. Throughout this book, then, I’ll refer to the WVU Mountaineer’s typical outfit as the Mountaineer’s kit, borrowing the British slang term for kit in the sense of “a set of things, such as tools or clothes, used for a particular purpose or activity.”11 Notably, kit is also used by Civil War reenactors to describe their clothing and accessories—an especially apt connection, given West Virginia’s birth as a product of the Civil War. Kit also acknowledges that the Mountaineer doesn’t just put on the buckskins and head out the door. The coonskin cap, the moccasins, the musket, and all its accoutrements are a necessary part of the kit as well. One might say that in recent years, a beard has also become part of the unofficial kit. The beard is contentious in many ways: as we’ll see in chapter 4, both of the women who served as the Mountaineer were subjected to endless criticism and ridicule for not having or being able to grow one (indeed, many cited that as the primary reason why women should not be allowed to serve as Mountaineer). Because of these incidents, the university has consistently emphasized that the beard is not a required part of the Mountaineer’s kit (though a WVU web page does say that “male Mountaineers customarily grow a beard during their tenure”12). However, very few Mountaineers wore beards at all for the first thirty years of the official mascot’s existence; it was not until male facial hair became more widely accepted that the beard became part of the customary kit of the WVU Mountaineer.
Taken as a whole, the Mountaineer’s kit is remarkably similar to the garb described by West Virginia clergyman and writer Joseph Doddridge, whose backwoodsman appears in a “hunting shirt, a shotpouch, with his powderhorn on his right side, with his feet and legs, dressed, of course, in leggins and mockasons.”13 That description, though written in 1823, is a pretty accurate summary of the general appearance of today’s WVU Mountaineer. Several former Mountaineers told me that putting on the kit was a transformative experience: that it changed them from an individual into the icon of the Mountaineer. This is remarkable to me, since, as noted above, what separates the WVU Mountaineer from other mascots is that the person in the kit is a recognizable individual. And yet, they also are not individuals: in donning the kit, they transcend individual identity and assume a communal identity that links them not only to previous WVU Mountaineers but to state history and to a whole set of intangible values and beliefs. It seems like a paradox: how can the WVU Mountaineer be both a recognizable individual and the symbolic embodiment of state identity? Looked at more closely, though, there’s no paradox at all: given that Mountaineer identity is all about individualism, it makes perfect sense to have a mascot who is both a unique individual and—by virtue of that very individualism—the embodiment of larger ideals about autonomy and freedom.
As we’ll see in chapter 2, however, it hasn’t always been the case that only one person can portray the WVU Mountaineer. In fact, the designation of an official Mountaineer seems to have been a response to the fact that before the 1930s many university men informally played Mountaineer at sporting events, showing up for games in “overalls, a flannel shirt, coonskin cap, a sheep or bear skin type vest” and carrying a rifle.14 That outfit—with its overalls and flannel shirt—is clearly more evocative of the hillbilly figure than the frontiersman.
Even after the university formalized the selection of a single Mountaineer in 1937, however, other men continued to play Mountaineer at games and in other contexts, donning outfits all along the range of the hillbilly-to-frontiersman spectrum, depending on what any individual man had available. The look of either frontiersman or hillbilly is easy to replicate, and in those early years of the Mountaineer’s existence, when there was no authorized logo gear available, students dressing up in their own interpretation of the Mountaineer’s garb was a way to display their fandom. I think many of the students who played Mountaineer in the early days of the mascot’s existence did so because it created, for them, the same sense of transformation that several former WVU Mountaineers described to me: putting on the outfit connected them to a deeper, more collective sense of identity, one that incorporated not only fellow students and fans, but all West Virginians, past and present. It’s a remarkable bit of magic, in some ways, and is part of what has always captivated and intrigued me about the Mountaineer.
1. The Origins of the Mountaineer
2. From Slouch Hat to Coonskin Cap: The Hillbilly Mountaineer versus the Frontiersman
3. The Rifle and the Beard: The WVU Mountaineer in the 1960s
4. Policing the Student Body: “Mountain Dears” and (Sexy) Girls with Guns
5. Inclusion, Exclusion, and the Twenty-First-Century Mountaineer
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