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Archive for January, 2015

Throwback post to the winter 1996 Vermont Quarterly. The issue included a feature on evidence that mountain lions were returning to Vermont and the following related piece about the catamount’s reign in Burlington as UVM’s mascot. 

Catamounts in Natural Fibers and Polyester

February 6, 1926, the Vermont Cynic asked undergraduates whether they wanted a mascot and offered up a ballot—lynx, wildcat, other, or shelve the idea. Response was limited.

Try, try again. At a vote, exclusively for male students, held later in the year the question came up once more. This time the ballot suggested “tomcat, camel, cow, or catamount.” By a vote of 138-126 the catamount prevailed. (We’re not sure of the runner-up, but it’s fun to consider the camel.)

Thus began the catamount’s run as UVM mascot, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year. Generations of UVM students have known the various incarnations of Charlie and Kitty Catamount as they’ve cavorted the bleachers of Patrick or Gutterson. A UVM student climbed into Charlie Catamount’s fake fur for the first time in the fifties; when Kitty joined him in the seventies, the couple was married at a UVM hockey game.

Only those on campus in the late sixties will remember one of the more interesting chapters in catamount history, the era of Charles I, aka “Rink,” UVM’s lone live catamount mascot. rink

Rink was the brainchild of Nancy and Robert “Tiny” Leggett, a South Burlington couple who were avid UVM hockey fans in the 1960s. After floating the idea with a few players and coaches, the Leggetts went to great lengths to obtain a puma cub born in captivity at a Peoria, Illinois, zoo. Cat in hand, they faced more obstacles in the process of getting Rink approved by state and university officials.

In fall of 1968, the UVM Student Association and Athletic Council both gave Rink the official distinction as UVM’s mascot. The students formed a Catamount Committee that established a fund to help the Leggetts keep up with Rink’s quickly growing appetite and upkeep. Rink buttons and photographers were sold; Alpha Chi sisters ironed shirts for fifteen cents each to raise money for Rink.

Rink and the Leggetts quickly became family, and local celebrities in the process. The young puma summered with the Leggetts on their houseboat moored off of Burton Island State Park, developed a taste for corn on the cob, and got accustomed to travel in a specially fitted VW bus. In a piece titled “Labor Pains While Giving Birth to a College Mascot,” Tiny Leggett wrote: “As long as we called him a puma or a catamount, everything was fine. But refer to him as a mountain lion or cougar, and many of his ‘fans’ would head for the hills.” Rink became comfortable around crowds through visits to the college snack bar and a local pizza pub, where “he enjoyed his roast beef subs.” He took in football practices, enjoying the chance to wrestle with the tackling dummies, and became an attraction at UVM contests home and away. Leggett wrote that Rink, who was caged at UVM athletic events, would offer a growl of his own when the fans yelled.

Popular as he was, Rink’s tenure as UVM mascot was brief. Growing from ten to 150 pounds in the nineteen months that the Leggetts cared for him, the cat had become too much of a burden. The Burlington Free Press of January 3, 1969, reported that the couple planned to donate Rink to Canada’s Granby Zoo, leaving the mascot duties to those funny looking, two-legged catamounts.

– Thomas Weaver

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ATTIC TO BASEMENT

hat
Count me among the many in the throes of New Year’s resolve to clean up, clear out, simplify the old home and the thousands of things in it. That took me up to our terrifying attic a few days ago where a plastic bin labeled “Tom’s winter stuff” had an assortment of forlorn single gloves and forgotten hats. A teal (early 1990s were all about teal in outdoor clothing, remember?) and navy blue stocking hat had a label inside—“Hand Knit by Judi St. Hilaire”— that revealed a good part of why it was an attic survivor and would live through the current round of culling.

When I got the hat way back when, alumna St. Hilaire ’81 was in the thick of an impressive career as one of America’s top distance runners. In the thick of my own career as one of Chittenden County’s B-team distance runners, writing about St. Hilaire was a choice assignment. Then Vermont Quarterly editor Leona Griffin indulged me with the gas expenses to drive down to Massachusetts and interview St. Hilaire for a story that appeared in the spring 1991 issue of the magazine.

After rediscovering the hat (which I bought from St. Hilaire, who had a sideline knitting them, after the interview), I was impelled to go down to the back issues file in the basement here at University Communications on Williams Street and also unearth the story I wrote. To be honest, it can be a little painful to read something you wrote 24 years ago. I winced a bit at some star-struck cub reporter syndrome that was clearly going on. But enough with the disclaimers, here’s a look into VQ past that might appeal to the runners out there. The piece below is excerpted from the full profile.

RUNNING A FINE LINE

It is the first day of spring 1991 in Dedham, Massachusetts, but this part of town (at the junction of routes 1 and 128) doesn’t have much to do with spring. It is home to parking lots, Nissan dealerships, sixteen-screen movie theaters, and some more parking lots. Spring will have a hard time nudging up through the pavement.

J.C. Hillary’s, “A Country Tavern for Ladies and Gents,” is a convenient place to interview Judi St. Hilaire—it’s just down the road from her masseuse, where she has a regular Wednesday afternoon visit. She arrives on the minute for a two o’clock appointment. Dressed in pink, white, and black Nike jacket and pants, St. Hilaire, so vibrantly fit, seems the surest sign of spring for miles. judi

The lunch hour rush is beginning to clear as St. Hilaire sips a diet Coke and discusses her running career. The is a friendly intensity about her; she listens carefully, laughs and smiles easily. St. Hilaire frequently asks, “Do you know what I mean?” and pauses for an answer. Not so much conversational filler—she wants to know.

St. Hilaire admits that she didn’t have much idea where her running was taking her when she graduated from UVM in 1981. She came to UVM from Lyndon Institute in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, one of the first women ever to receive athletic aid at the university.

After a relatively slow start her first year (she laughs about putting on weight, the dreaded “freshman ten,” almost instantaneously), St. Hilaire began to develop into one of the nation’s top collegiate distance runners, rewriting UVM’s record book in the process. She still owns the school record for every distance from 800 meters through ten kilometers.

Athletes of St. Hilaire’s caliber, but of a different gender and in a different sport, would have known exactly where they were headed after graduation—to the bank. Though prize money is available to runners these days, in 1981 they and other track and field athletes were still laboring for little more than the glories of sport, the ideals of amateurism, and trophy case mementos.

Today, St. Hilaire is able to make her living from running. She puts it this way. “I make more than I would as a dental hygienist,” her course of study at UVM. She doesn’t need to be more specific to convey that the financial rewards of professional running pale in comparison to other sports. First place in a major road race may take home earnings comparable to seventeenth place in the South Beloit Country Club’s Annual LPGA Classic.

It is difficult to believe, given baseball’s Diamond Jims who dicker over millions, but St. Hilaire is apologetic about the central role that money plays in her motivation to continue training. “If I wasn’t able to make a living from it, I probably would become a recreational runner. I wouldn’t be training as hard as I do.” She laughs. “It may sound greedy. But I’m 31 years old, if I were 25 it might be different. You can’t survive without money.”

Postscript
At the time the article was written, St. Hilaire had her eye on the 1992 Olympics. Previous Olympic dreams had been foiled by a U.S. boycott, kidney stones, and back injuries. She made her mark in a big way at the ’92 Games, finishing eighth in the 10K, contested in the heat and humidity of Barcelona.

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