I remember the first time I saw Chief Illiniwek.
I was watching the 1952 Rose Bowl game on a small black-and-white television set. At halftime, the University of Illinois marching band came on the field and, all of a sudden, an Indiana leaps out from between the rows of trumpeters and trombonists and dances the length of the football field.
I was 11 years old at the time and I never forgot it. How did he get there? Was that a moving experience or what? Imagine, performing in front of a national television audience and 100,000 people in the Rose Bowl.
The first thing I did when I enrolled at the University of Illinois in the fall of 1958 was to purchase a student activity ticket and reserve a seat in the very top row of the upper balcony on the east side of Memorial Stadium.
I wanted to see for myself how this Indian, now revealed to me at Chief Illiniwek, managed to sneak through the marching band and run onto the field and perform his dance.
Now I know. Unfortunately, thousands of Illinois students will never know. All they will see is a boring halftime show, something called "Three in One," the same thing the students see on every college campus except perhaps Ohio State, where script Ohio still is a tradition that chokes alumni with emotion.
Chief Illiniwek was an original. There never has been nor ever will be another one like him. He dates to 1926. There were 37 Chiefs until the university symbol was discontinued on Feb 21, 2007, the last performance occurring at a Michigan/Illinois basketball game at Assembly Hall.
That's right, symbol. Not mascot. Chief Illiniwek wasn't a mascot. The other schools in the Big Ten have mascots...Bernie Boilermaker, Bucky Badger, Herkie Hawkeye, Sparky Spartan, Willie Wildcat. You see them on the sideline during football games. The Chief never was there. He showed up for the halftime, dances, then left. He only appeared at home games--and an occasional Rose Bowl. He didn't appear at basketball games until the 1980s. In other words, he wasn't exploited.
"The Chief is different. There was a mystique about him," said Tom Livingston, a Lyons Township graduate of 1985 and an Illinois graduate of 1990 who performed as the Chief from 1988 to 1990.
"There were formal rules about the conduct of the Chief. He had to be a leader on campus. He didn't just run along the sideline and do high fives, just an eight-minute dramatic performance at the center of the football field. People got a rush in their chests when he went through the 300-member marching band and burst onto the green field. It was a special moment for the person watching."
Livingston and the other 25 living Chiefs who are members of the Council of Chiefs thought the symbol had survived a wave of protesters that had banished Indian mascots at Dartmouth and Stanford and other schools from 1968 to 1972. "Illinois was untouched because of the way we conducted ourselves," he said.
Then, during the Illinois Senatorial race of 1989-90, the late U.S. Senator Paul Simon signed a petition on Native American rights in which a clause had been inserted calling for the university to get rid of the Chief.
"Sen. Simon didn't know it was there," Livingston said. "But he put the issue on the map and it never went away."
Finally, Emil Jones, the leader of the Illinois General Assembly, told Larry Eppley, chairman of the Illinois Board of Trustees, that he should get rid of the Chief or he wouldn't be retained.
"The ultimate irony is there still are Native American symbols out there--Washington Redskins, Atlanta Braves, Florida State Seminoles. We had hoped the university would week the endorsement of the tribal community to create a positive. But they ran away from the controversy," Livingston said.
The last straw apparently was when the NCAA informed the university; that it would never be permitted to host an NCAA event as long as the Chief was seen to represent Illinois. The Council of Chiefs sued but the courts sided with the Board of Trustees, which decided not to fight the General Assembly.
"Many people thought that once the Chief wasn't there, time would slow down the enthusiasm on campus for the Chief," Livingston said. "But an intensifying factor has arose for the Chief among students and the community. They are very focused on bringing back the Chief in the near future."
But even Livingston admits it never will be the same. Don't look for the Chief to reappear at halftime in Memorial Stadium, even though he was once listed in a national magazine poll as the most dramatic college halftime symbol, even bigger than script Ohio.
"The Chief won't be on the football field or at basketball games," Livingston said. "That would be the ultimate but it won't happen based on the near-term political environment. In the meantime, students are talking about renting a facility on campus to hold pep rallies before games at which the Chief will appear."
The Honor the Chief Society has been formed (www.honorthechief.org) to fight the good fight. It is intended "to provide a unified voice for the thousands of students, faculty, alumni and friends of the University of Illinois that support and value the Chief Illiniwek tradition."
"It is worth fighting for," Livingston said. "We have fought the fight because of the way (the discontinuation of the Chief) it was done. It is an art form, meant to be shared and to inspire."