The story of Cy the Cardinal goes back to the early 1950s when an Iowa State mascot was only a glint in the eye of Chev Adams, president of the former Collegiate Manufacturing Company of Ames, and Harry Burrell, Iowa State sports information director. The two struggled to think of a way to make a mascot costume that would remotely resemble a column of wind.
To solve the problem, two contests were held: the first, a student-run challenge to decide once and for all what form the new mascot would take; the other, a nationwide contest to find a fitting name for the character. The consensus among the students – led by Pep Council president Chuck Duncan – confirmed that you “couldn’t stuff a Cyclone,” so they settled on a cardinal bird based on the school colors, cardinal and gold, and on existing organizations, Cardinal Key and Cardinal Guild.
Collegiate Manufacturing designed the first cardinal costume – after receiving a green light from Alumni Association director W.E. “Red” Barron and Cyclone Club director Ray Donels – at a cost of $200.
Seventeen people submitted the name “Cy” in the nationwide contest. The first to submit the name was Mrs. Ed Ohlsen of Ames. “Cy the Cardinal” (his official name) debuted at the 1954 Homecoming game and has become the enduring symbol of Iowa State athletics.
Virgil Petty (’57 farm op, DVM ’64) was chosen out of pity by the athletic club to be the inaugural Cy after just being cut from the varsity basketball team. He tried out the costume – made mostly from chicken wire and aluminum – at Brown’s Sporting Goods several times before the big game. Petty needed the practice – the overwhelming 8 1/2-foot height and bulging chest of the bird costume made maneuvering cumbersome at best.
That first year, Petty says, students from rival schools kept intercepting the costume before games (it was so large it had to be packed and shipped by train to away games) and holding it for ransom.
Over the last half century, Cy has undergone several makeovers, redesigns, and life changes. He was reportedly “plucked to death” during the 1961 migration to Missouri, and it took almost a year to replace him.
In 1972, on the way to the Liberty Bowl, the vehicle carrying the Cy costume was in an accident near St. Louis. The costume was bent, mangled, covered with oil, and splattered with battery acid but eventually made its way to Memphis, where a costumer and cleaning establishment worked tirelessly to repair the mascot. Cy made it to the game just in time.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a miniature "Baby Cy" made appearances at many athletics events. Several years afer the smaller "Cy" was discontinued, "Clone" debuted at Hilton Coliseum in January of 1989. The more agile mascot complemented the traditional Cy for several years.
Cy’s most recent transformation occurred in 1995. Cy and Clone were merged. Today’s reincarnation has a menacing attitude not seen on the cartoon-like prototype that Petty wore 50 years ago. It comes with a bigger price tag, too. Iowa State currently has three different size costumes, each one costing several thousand dollars.
In the early days, usually only one student portrayed Cy during the school year, his or her name kept secret from students and fans. But with his ever-growing commitments and responsibilities, Cy now commands four to six students year round, with no effort made to hide their identities. Cy is in the public eye more than 200 days out of the year, a job too big for just one student. That is why each spring, as the semester winds to a close, flyers start popping up on campus announcing upcoming Cy tryouts. A panel of judges, made up of spirit squad members and other students, select the most animated candidates to form the next year’s mascot squad.
Making the team is a privilege that comes without glory. The mascot squad gets no pay, no scholarship money, and no official recognition. A member has to be willing to put in countless hours in the bulky suit, travel all over the country for games, and work during the summer as well as the school year.
Everyone loves Cy. If he’s not at an Iowa State game, he’s at a parade, a community event, a wedding, a private party. There is something about him that brings people together from all backgrounds, young and old, rich and poor. People are drawn to him and what he represents. That something? That something is called being a Cyclone.
Cy appears at Athletics events and social appearances. If you would like to request Cy to be a part of your event, please visit our main spirit squad page to find the form. Please then return the completed form by fax (515)-294-0104.
Or you can mail it to:
Jacobson Athletics Building ATTN: Kelli Baker
1800 S. 4th Street, Ames, Iowa 50011
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