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June 2, 2016
Fifth and sixth graders at Northwest Missouri State University’s Horace Mann Laboratory School got hands-on lessons in researching, interviewing, writing and publishing this spring as they sought to tell “The True Story of Bobby Bearcat.”
The students, under the guidance of Horace Mann fifth and sixth grade instructor Sarah Winans, published their work in a colorful 20-page hardcover book that mixes photos with highlights of their research and interviews.
“Project-based learning is really essential to what we do at Horace Mann, and we were trying to decide on a history project,” Winans said. “We thought it would be a cool way to see how Bobby has changed but also to look at Northwest history in decades. We started with the original Bearcat and tried to get someone from each decade, so we could trace history and how Bobby changed.”
Seven individuals – Vinnie Vaccaro, Steve Griswold, Shawn Wake, Brandon Stanley, Jake Phillips, Tanner Wendel and Chris Gunn – who wore the Bobby costume and played the beloved Northwest mascot are featured in the book.
As the story goes, the Bearcat moniker was bestowed on Northwest in 1916 by the coach of the Drury University basketball team. Vaccaro was the first to put on a costume and perform as Bobby Bearcat in 1969. Images of the mascot as well as the costume have evolved considerably through the years.
“I had no blueprint,” Vaccaro is quoted in the book. “On a scale of 1 to 10 for being a talented Bobby, I was a 1. On a good day a 2. Now, heart-wise I was an 11. Shawn, Jake and others were 10s and 11s.”
The former mascots share memories in the book of a kiss from the famed San Diego Chicken, a miraculous half-court shot at a Northwest basketball game, and their creativity with props and stunts – which didn’t always go as planned. They also discuss how they felt when they put on the costume, the campus culture while they were students and, of course, the pride they still hold for Northwest.
“They were sort of humble in answering the questions, but we were able to, as we listened to the interviews, realize that they did give some important life lessons that they maybe didn't realize they were sharing with us,” Winans said.
With the help of staff at the B.D. Owens Library and Northwest Archives, the students conducted research by scanning volumes of Tower yearbooks as well as “Transitions: A Hundred Years of Northwest Missouri State University” by Janice Brandon Falcone. They also read pages of archived materials and created a table-sized timeline of Northwest history. Assistant Professor of History Dr. Elyssa Ford offered advice by sharing some of her own experience compiling oral histories.
The research even included a visit to “Bobby’s closet” in the hub of Northwest athletics at the Lamkin Activity Center, where students took turns trying on pieces of the Bobby costume.
When all of the interviews were finished, the students worked to pick out key points and wrote the essays collectively.
They are pleased with the result.
“I didn’t know that it was going to be this kind of book, a hardcover,” sixth grader Emily Pearce said. “I was very excited because I’ve never done anything like this before and this is a book. I wrote in a book!”
Sixth grader Zeke Morrow added, “It was pretty fun to walk down Northwest history, and we got generations of Northwest history through this oral history project. It’s fun that a lot later in history we can come back to wherever they put these books, and we can just read it and say this was our work, and it will be fun.”
Mark Hornickel, Communication Manager
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Northwest Missouri State University
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