Once upon a time, Benny Beaver (the erstwhile mascot at Oregon State University) had a female companion named Bernice.
The relationship between the two never was clear — were they friends? Brother and sister? Boyfriend and girlfriend? Part of a happy family, with a brood of little mascots stashed away back at the dam? — and the remaining evidence doesn't offer much of a clue. (There is a photo, from 1990, showing the two participating in the so-called "Kiss of 1990," an event in the Quad in which a campus organization tried to set a record for the most couples sharing a smooch at the same time, but that photo doesn't settle anything, and it is, in the assessment of an OSU archivist, "weird."
Another photo shows Benny and Bernice dressed in what appears to be wedding attire, with legendary OSU basketball coach Ralph Miller standing between them as if to officiate at the ceremony.
This, too, is weird.
Then Bernice disappeared — the last record of her dates back to 1997, when she and Benny were pictured together at "Benny and Bernice's Birthday Bash." The best guess is that Bernice went by the wayside during an attempt sometime in that era to update Benny's look.
Now, one of the last people to wear the Bernice costume on campus — possibly the last one — thinks it's long past time to bring her back.
Jill Beasley, OSU class of 1999, now works as a recruiter for a Portland company. From 1995 until the end of 1996, she was both Benny and Bernice.
In those days (and this probably is true to some extent today), the mascot costumes were "incredibly cumbersome," with what amounted to "plastic helmets" on top. "I probably lost five pounds of water weight every time I wore it," she said.
As a resident assistant in Finley Hall at the time, she wasn't able to perform as Benny or Bernice at road games, but she appeared in costume at plenty of events on campus. And she loved the work, even though there were occasional drawbacks: "I was often roughed up by people who assumed that there was a man inside the costume," she said.
Recently, though, Beasley was going through some photographs of her campus days with her 9-year-old daughter. The daughter, of course, knew about Benny. But Beasley was surprised to learn that her daughter had no idea about Bernice.
And not just her own children: People who graduated from OSU after 2001 didn't know about Bernice, either.
So Beasley has launched a crusade to bring back Bernice.
"Benny has a presence on campus," Beasley said. "But bringing back Bernice as a strong character in her own right is important."
But she cautioned that, if Bernice returned, she would need to seen as much more than Benny's girlfriend: "She needs her own identity."
Her experience in both the Benny and Bernice costumes suggested to her that children and families find female characters more approachable, she said. "I alternated wearing Benny and Bernice, but was struck by how many more kids approached me in the Bernice costume," she said.
And, she said, she's seen studies suggesting that female mascots can drive revenue for universities in terms of merchandising and ticket sales.
With that said, she noted that the sample is small: Only 12 of the nation's 351 Division I universities have clearly designated female mascots, and most of those have two mascots, one male and one female.
At last week's OSU football game, Beasley was able to buttonhole a variety of OSU officials on the topic of bringing back Bernice. She said she sensed a positive reaction.
Well, maybe not: "There are no plans to bring Bernice Beaver back at this time," OSU spokesman Steve Clark wrote in an email. "While we constantly discuss many fan engagement and unique marketing opportunities, we are committed to Benny Beaver as Oregon State University's and OSU Athletics' sole athletic mascot at this time."
Clark said he appreciates Beasley's "interest in this idea and her strong school spirit. Yet no formal consideration is occurring now. And if it ever did occur, it would involve many discussions over time within the greater OSU community."
In fact, Clark said the continuing celebration of OSU's 150th anniversary will include a celebration of "Retro Benny" — you know, the friendly looking Benny wearing a beanie — during Homecoming in October.
And that's fine; I've always wondered about the trend in which university mascots just seem to be getting angrier and angrier and so I welcome the temporary return of "Retro Benny."
But if that Benny seems to be looking a little lonely during Homecoming, Jill Beasley knows why. (mm)