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Origins of Oski

Cal's unique mascot got its start courtesy of an engineer

Origins of Oski

CAL SPIRIT: Oski in front of Hearst Memorial Mining Building.
Photo credit: Rachel Shafer Photo

Oski. He cavorts along the sidelines of Memorial Stadium. He hugs little kids on Cal Day. He drinks through a straw in his eyehole.

This fall, Berkeley’s lovable bear mascot turns 66. Which means that for more than six decades, a parade of undergraduates have sweated it out under a stuffy bear head, wool sweater and size-15 tennis shoes. Moreover, they’re under a super-duper, heavy-duty, triple-strength oath to keep their identity a secret from everyone forever and ever. It’s enough to make you wonder, as your attention drifts between plays at a Cal football game: How did the goofy grin, high-stepping gait and clasped hands became a Cal institution?

The story begins with an engineer.

As a student at Long Beach Junior College in 1938, William Rockwell (B.S.’48 ME) was invited to fill the “Ole Olson the Viking” mascot suit for a school parade. Rockwell was shy and quiet, but disguised as a Viking, he became an outgoing rabble-rouser of school spirit. When he transferred to Berkeley, he volunteered his skills.

Before Rockwell’s arrival, the California Golden Bears used live ursine mascots with predictably unpredictable results, so officials welcomed Rockwell’s human interpretation. In the autumn of 1941, the Cal student donned a homemade bear head fashioned around a football helmet. He dressed in baggy pants, a large letter sweater, oversized shoes and white gloves. In front of thousands of Cal fans at Memorial Stadium, he led cheers, waved to children and flirted with girls. In later games, he walked on the crossbar between goalposts and tried to grab the football from referees. The bear never revealed his true identity to others until much later.

Oski (named after lines from an old Berkeley cheer) became so popular that Rockwell’s studies suffered. After flunking a midterm in ME 102, he enlisted in the Navy, served as a decorated fighter pilot in World War II and, after the war, returned to finish school. With his impending graduation, the engineer anticipated the need for a system to manage and guard Oski’s identity year after year. Like so many academic institutions, Oski required a committee.

The Oski Committee thrives today. Its members are undergraduates who induct fellow committee members and decide who will be Oski. Since the group is also pledged to secrecy and anonymity forever and ever, its workings are mysterious.

William Rockwell, the original Oski, went on to become a design engineer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and died in 2000. Like all great engineering projects, his Oski lives on.

In an e-mail, the mascot writes: “Oski is a motivated Cal student who has a lot of school spirit. He’s energetic and outgoing. If Oski were to give advice to a new engineering student, he would say, ‘Take advantage of all that Cal has to offer because Cal is not simply an academic institution.’”