Perched powerfully in Wildcat Plaza, it surveys the neighborhood south of the Chico State campus, its tail caught in a cautious swish and its eyes locked in, staring down the length of Chestnut Street.
Indeed, something wild is finally here.
Eight years after Chico State students initiated the idea for a symbol of pride and unity on campus, the wildcat statue is officially part of the University. Hundreds of students, faculty and staff, along with alumni and members of the Chico community, turned out for the statue unveiling ceremony that formally introduced Lynx rufus californicus to Chico State and the community.
The 7-foot-long, 1,500-pound brass statue was designed and created by artist Matthew Gray Palmer and represents the University’s mascot, paying homage to the animal that once graced the North State in much larger numbers.
It’s also the realization of a multi-year, multi-faceted fundraising effort led by the University’s Alumni Association and AS, with additional contributions from Wildcat Athletics.
When Sue Anderson, assistant vice president of Alumni and Parent Relations at Chico State, saw the statue she saw strength, pride and confidence, all of which represents the Chico spirit to her.
“The pride I see in the statue goes to community service, it goes to the Chico experience, it goes to our academics,” said Anderson. “It represents all of the things we’re prideful about.”
After the Chico State Pep Band belted out some spirited tunes, Student Life and Leadership program coordinator Mary Wallmark warmed the crowd and welcomed Dennis Ramirez, chairman for the Mechoopda Indian Tribe of Chico Rancheria, for a traditional blessing.
Former Chico State Alumni Association President Aaron Skaggs (Political Science, ’10), Chico State Director of Athletics Anita Barker, and current AS President Alisha Sharma followed with brief statements. City of Chico Mayor (and College of Business lecturer) Sean Morgan and University President Gayle Hutchinson spoke and jointly proclaimed April 19, 2018 as Wildcat Spirit Day, designating the third Thursday in April as such in perpetuity.
As the moment to reveal the statue arrived, dozens of onlookers raised their smartphones to capture the moment. Then, President Hutchinson, Mayor Morgan, Barker, Sharma and Skaggs teamed up to lift the cardinal red taffeta off the sculpture.
Facilities Management Services, led by Ricardo Carrillo, prepared the stonework, masonry, and landscaping around the statue, which will also be lit at night from in-ground illumination.
In 1924, Chico State (then called Chico State Teachers College) officially adopted the Wildcat as its mascot, and has been represented by a series of mascots, ranging from illustrated representations to the less-than-cuddly SOCS (Spirit of Chico State) to the current lovable and family-friendly Willie.
Palmer was selected from an international pool of 49 artists to design and construct the Wildcat sculpture. The result is a 7-foot-long, 1,500-pound bronze beacon of school spirit.
Making his home in the scenic San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington, Palmer has always been drawn to nature, and the marine environment in particular. His statues appear around the country in national parks, zoos and aquariums. But he’s also no stranger to producing art pieces for university settings. His designs range from similar wildcat statues at the University of Kentucky and the University of New Hampshire to a surreal, mischievous skeleton at Emory University.
The plan for a Wildcat statue first emerged in 2008, and fundraising and planning began when the Chico State Alumni Association and Wildcat Athletics committed funding. Finally a reality, Sharma (the fifth AS President involved in the process) said the statuesque Wildcat symbolizes the University’s inclusive and diverse culture and helps reassure all students that they are welcome.
“If they’re a Chico State student, they belong here,” Sharma said.
The Wildcat’s position and direction are intentional. Peering out across West 2nd Street, the statue’s gaze is a bridge connecting the University with the community.
“We lined it up so it would be looking out toward Chestnut Street, because our town and gown relationship is incredibly important,” Wallmark said.
While “school spirit” is commonly related to a school’s athletic programs, Barker said it touches far more than that.
“[School spirit] represents the feelings that all current students, alumni, faculty, staff and retirees have about their time at their institution,” she said. “The mascot is the symbol of those feelings, a source of pride, symbol of the spirit and personality of a campus and a rallying cry when needed.”
And now Chico State’s tangible symbol embodying school spirit will begin to build its legacy.
“When you step foot on campus,” Anderson said, “she’s watching you, she’s protecting you.”