Wilbur and Wilma: Homecoming Love
Wilbur and Wilma, the beloved mascots of the University of Arizona, are one of the few married college mascots in the country. But before they got married or even looked like they do now, they went through years of changes.
The original Wilbur was a live bobcat named Rufus Wildcat after the UA President at the time, Rufus Bernard Von KleinSmid. KleinSmid (also spelled KleinSmidt) oversaw the building of the “A” on A Mountain on March 4, 1916. It was during his time as the 7th President of the UA that the students became known as “Wildcats”, so dubbed by an LA Times reporter who wrote “The Arizona men showed the fight of the wildcats...” during J.F. “Pop” McKale’s first year as Athletic Director in 1914.
Rufus was purchased for only $9.41 ($224.94 today) by the freshman football team and introduced at an assembly on October 18th, 1915. The bobcat, a gift to the student body, was originally named Tom Easter.
The bobcat died on April 17, 1916, as reported by the Daily Wildcat at the time, “while endeavoring to perform gymnastics stunts in the limbs of a tree to which he was tied, Rufus Arizona . . . fell and was hung.”
The use of live mascots continued off and on until the late 1950s, when two UA students, Richard Heller ’62 and John Paquette ’60, had an idea for a human mascot. Wilbur T. Wildcat (T as in “The”) was an immediate hit in his first appearance on November 7, 1959.
Wilbur went through a series of costume changes, starting out as a fur suit with a very cartoony head, went through a more humanistic phase without the fur suit, and even went through a phase dubbed “Rhinestone Cowboy” where Wilbur donned blue jeans, cowboy boots, a vest, and held a fake gun.
Fur was added back to the costume in 1982, and stayed there with every subsequent change.
However, Wilbur was not destined to be alone. As costume designers tried to make another costume for Wilbur, they created Wilma instead.
Her first appearance was on March 1, 1986 when she went on a blind date with Wilbur. Just eight months later in November, they were married at the UA vs ASU football game. In 2006, they renewed their wedding vows on their 20th wedding anniversary.
The design we see today comes from the 2012 update.
Four students total (two for each) don the costume of Wilbur and Wilma, serving usually for two years at a time. Besides just showing up at games, they do appearances around the community, exercise with the cheer team, and travel with the teams from game to game.
“[It’s] very much like having another job, and we ask them to treat it that way and give it priority just under school,” said Jaime Bernier, Head Cheerleading and Mascot Coach and one of the people who oversees mascot selection.
During the selection process, applicants send in an application, letters of recommendation, and their transcript. There are then in person interviews, and then finalists are given an in-suit tryout.
“In the in-suit tryout we got to a spring game and they get some in-suit observation time,” Bernier said.
Judges look for how well the applicants interact with the crowd, how they respond to the game, and how they interact with both adults and kids.
While they are not guaranteed to get paid, the students in the mascot suits get the same perks as the spirit athletes such as the ability to train in McKale with their own trainer, Nike gear, and travel expenses, among other things.
“It’s an experience that very few people get to do,” Bernier said.
During Homecoming this year, about eight former mascots are returning as alumni, and they are given the opportunity to share suit time with the current mascots on the field at the football game.
“If they want to get back in-suit, our current Wilbur and Wilma will come out of suit and let them get out onto the field,” Bernier said. “They get to come back and enjoy.”
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