Bear Attack - Bumstead Origins

Wednesday, February 10, 2021
Living Black Bear Cub
Parade to Current Campus with Bumstead Statue
Student sitting on painted Bumstead statue
Bumstead statue painted and tarred feathered
Picture of statue of Bumstead with no head
Dean Hannelly with the two replacement bear statues
Metal Bumstead statue on display in PC Administration Building
Picture of current Bumstead

In its decades-long history, Phoenix College has produced governors, mayors, Miss Americas, CEOs, community leaders and one of the most infamous school mascots around.

Bumstead Bear got no respect. But the bear's history is filled with hilarious and har­rowing details worth telling as the college turns the page on its 100th anniversary.

The story includes a frisky live bear cub that wowed fans at football games until it grew up and risked attacking them. Next came a beloved bear statue that, over the years, was tarred and feathered, abandoned in a desert canyon, stolen, rescued and ultimately beheaded. Subsequent replacement bears mysteriously vanished, igniting "bring back the bear" campaigns.

The college even resorted to cement and concrete to keep one mascot in place, Phoenix College's late dean, Robert Hannelly, recalled in a 1988 tribute published by the college. "The night marauders tested our challenge. The Arizona Republic carried Bumstead's status every morning. Many non-college people became interested. The people who go bump in the night came with power trucks and chains. At first Bumstead didn't budge. Then he lost his head. His body was crushed."

The era of midnight marauding is long over at Phoenix College, and those kooky tales may seem unthinkable on today's mod­ern campus. Phoenix College is now the flagship of the Maricopa Community Colleges and attracts more than 30,000 students each year between its central Phoenix campus and Downtown locations. It offers 200 degree and certificate programs ranging from col­lege mainstays like engineering and nursing to newer fields like digital media and forensic technology.

Of course, the college was established in much simpler times. In 1920, PC was actually called Phoenix Junior College and was located at the Phoenix Union High School campus in Downtown Phoenix.

No one knows exactly how the college's bear mascot came to be. Various stories in the student newspaper, Bear Tracks, recount that the live bear cub arrived on campus in 1920 or the early 1920s, but no one knows where it came from. One story says circus owners parted with the cub for $25; another gives credit to a generous hunter.

What's also not known is why the school made the seemingly unfathomable decision to adopt a live bear as a college mascot.

"Who in their right mind, in this day and age, would do that?" asks June Fike, a PC alumna and its official alumni historian. "If I said to you, 'I have just procured this little live black bear and I want to bring it on campus,' the whole system would go into gyrations because of insurance issues."

But in those simpler times the bear cub attended football games and local parades, wearing heavy chain leashes and a leather collar, and would stand on his haunches and bellow. Of course, the cub grew up and became rambunctious. After he tore up the inside of an automobile during a parade, he was sent to a zoo in Apache Junction.

As luck would have it, the Igloo Ice Cream Parlor sat next to campus and featured a decorative plaster bear. In the mid-192os, students borrowed the bear when they needed a mascot for a game or other school event - or for the "mere devilment of it," according to a mascot history compiled by Fike.

Then in 1931, PC got a statue of its own. This concrete bear was used by Standard Oil Company, a Downtown service station, to ad­vertise Zeroline Oil. A PC student obtained the bear - it's unclear how - and in 1935 another student named it "Bumstead."

In 1939, the college moved to its current location near Thomas Road and 1sth Avenue. Officials brought Bumstead to his new home rather ceremoniously in a parade complete with a band.

At both campuses, Bumstead made an improbable college mascot journey.

"Polar in shape, and wandering. What he stood for or rather sat for was loved by thou­sands of students at Phoenix College in Arizo­na over a period of years," Hannelly recalled.

He left out "loved and targeted" during the 1930s and 1940s. At best, Bumstead was painted over during fraternity rituals (six times in one night) or freshman rites-of-passage (overseen by paddle-wielding sophomores). At worst, the bear was tarred and feathered, and stolen by troublemakers. He was whisked away to Arizona State University, then called Arizona State College, and Tucson. One of PC's athletic teams stumbled across the bear in Sabino Canyon and called for help to bring Bumstead home, according to Fike.

After World War II, veterans attending school at Phoenix College stood at the ready to defend Bumstead's honor. Bob Howell, a veteran and PC's student body president (1946-47), recalled an intense rivalry between PC and Arizona State College. One day, Bumstead was painted the dreaded maroon and gold, so a college buddy of his - a former Army ranger who had been awarded a Silver Star in the war - led a successful mission to repaint the "N' on A Mountain.

"This was quite a coup for us. But the next day, our bear was gone," Howell said.

His buddy rounded up a group of guys - dubbed "the troops" by a teacher because they wore combat boots to class - and staged a rescue operation on the Tempe campus. Howell stayed behind, but he said school officials "smelled a riot" and made a mad dash to head off problems. The student group apparently stopped along the way for weapons of some sort, maybe metal pipes found at a junkyard, and showed up to find Bumstead all alone. They carted him off without any bloodshed.

The worst affront came on a Saturday night in 1947. Vandals carrying a sledgehammer and dynamite decapitated Bumstead and destroyed the nearby flagpole. A school administration official, on campus for a school play, stepped out at intermission just in time to hear "an enormous explosion."

The school placed a new head on Bumstead, but that was an invitation for trouble. "Bumstead was attacked again and broken into many more pieces," a faculty member later recalled. The attack prompted a dramatic poem published in Bear Tracks, the campus newspaper, entitled "The Rape of the Bear."

A faculty committee, created specifically to study the bear situation, came up with a plan for a smaller bear in 1948. The school secured a plaster bear and a metal bear. As the years passed, PC's mascot history became less colorful. The two replacement bears disappeared, igniting rumors and "Save the Bear" campaigns. The bears resurfaced years later, but the metal bear vanished again. In 1995, the metal bear was located in the college archives and now sits in the college's administration building.

Howell didn’t know why exactly the original Bumstead, PC's most headline-grabbing bear, was so beloved. But students' loyalty was undeniable.

"Our people could do anything they wanted to it and that was fine," he says. "But an outsider came in and you had a war on your hands."

[Written by Susie Steckner, Phoenix Magazine, January 2011]