The symbol of our best: The Nittany Lion bonds all Penn Staters

For the few students across Penn State's campuses who have donned the suit, being the Nittany Lion mascot means far more than leading cheers — it means leading a family.

The Nittany Lion pays a visit to the Lion Shrine on Penn State's University Park campus. Credit: Patrick Mansell / Penn StateCreative Commons

In 1904, a Penn State legend was born. At a baseball game against Princeton, Penn State freshman Harrison D. “Joe” Mason fabricated the “Nittany Mountain Lion” mascot — “fiercest beast of them all” — to intimidate the competition. The team went on to defeat Princeton that day and Mason's Nittany Lion quickly became popular with students and alumni.

Now, more than a century later, the Nittany Lion continues to be one of the most recognizable faces in higher education and is the epitome of school spirit.

Beyond the field

When the fall semester starts and the feel of college football fills the air, students, alumni and fans can see the Nittany Lion mascot march onto the field at Beaver Stadium in his custom-made suit and lead the crowd in the traditional Penn State chant. However, the role of the mascot extends beyond the stadium with the University Park mascot attending more than 300 events each year, many which are non-athletic.

John Tucker and Elisabeth DeAngelo-Tucker are the husband and wife team that have been the keepers of the lion mascot tradition. John, an art student, was responsible for for crafting the unique headpiece and Elisabeth constructs and repairs the costume. Together they have clothed a small army of young Penn State men who do more than performing one-handed pushups after a score. The Lion is Penn State and this couple helps this tradition remain strong. Credit: C Roy Parker

“He’s like a household pet — he’s a part of your family. He’s part of the Penn State family,” Mark Phillips, a 2010 graduate of Penn State Berks, said of the beloved mascot. “The Nittany Lion is someone you love and cherish and would do anything for. He is Penn State.”

This sentiment expressed by Phillips — a former student mascot at the Berks campus — is a universal attitude shared by Penn State’s more than 98,000 students and 586,000 alumni. While most university mascots are symbols of only athletic programs, the Nittany Lion mascot represents all of Penn State and can be seen on any of its 24 campuses welcoming prospective students and visitors, visiting sick children at the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, supporting community-based events and, at some campuses, celebrating alumni weddings.

While there is only one Nittany Lion, students at Penn State’s campuses also have the opportunity to represent the University as the famous mascot. For the person wearing the suit — each of which is made by Elisabeth DeAngelo-Tucker, the official Nittany Lion seamstress — being the Nittany Lion is a once-in-a-lifetime distinction and a rewarding experience.

“I’ve wanted to be the Nittany Lion since I was 6 years old,” said Eric Reiss, a University Park senior, who served as the lion mascot at Penn State Mont Alto since his freshman year of high school.

Every summer, the Penn State Mont Alto Alumni Society sponsors a golf outing, Reiss explained. “One year, they couldn’t find any volunteers [to be the mascot] and a friend of my mom’s knew I was a huge Penn State fan and asked my mom if I would do it.

“My mother responded, ‘You supply me a suit and I’ll supply you a lion.’ ”

Thus began Reiss' six-year tenure as the mascot for Penn State Mont Alto. During that time, he wore the suit for open houses, fundraisers and campus marketing campaigns. His favorite memory as the Nittany Lion was when he visited the patients of Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital the night before THON, the University's annual 46-hour dance marathon that raises funds and awareness for the fight against pediatric cancer.

Doctors and nurses coming and going, needles, diagnostic tests– time in a hospital can be daunting for most who stay there, especially if that patient is a child. In these cases it can be daunting as well as scary. Patients at the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center Children's Hospital can often find solace and friendship in the Penn State Nittany Lion mascot. Officials at the hospital sought to make the experience for the kids easier and more pleasurable. The mascot comes once a week to spread joy with "high fives" and games of bingo. Credit: C Roy Parker

“THON just hits everybody in the heart,” Reiss said. “I really wanted to do a good job — to make the kids smile and laugh. Knowing that I was there when they were at their worst and I made them laugh, that is something that I really cherish.”

A special moment between THON child Dominique Bigler and the Nittany Lion is a day that Logan Echard, a former Penn State Harrisburg mascot, will never forget.

“To see those kids who are about the same age as me and to bring joy to them, it’s just amazing,” said Echard, a security and risk analysis major at University Park.

During her battle with synovial sarcoma, Dominique attended Camp Make-A-Dream, where she met other teenagers and children battling cancer, and they quickly developed a close bond. When her 19th birthday approached, her wish was to reunite with her friends and have a Penn State-themed birthday party. Jamie’s Dream Team, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit organization, fulfilled her wish, and Echard was invited to attend as the mascot.

“It was amazing to be a part of that,” Echard said. “She was so happy and having the Lion there just made it really special.” Sadly, Dominique passed away in early August of this year.

We are … family

Fun. Strong. Entertaining. Proud. Traditional. Classy. Confident. Unifier. These are all words students have used to characterize and personify the Nittany Lion mascot.

“Nobody can turn away the Nittany Lion,” Wyatt Franks, a sophomore majoring in hotel, restaurant and institutional management at Penn State York, said. “He’s just so positive and people love seeing him, no matter where they are. He’s a celebrity.”

Franks, who started wearing the suit after joining Lion Ambassadors, describes the mascot as “the face of the University,” and says that being in the suit gives him a different understanding of Penn State pride.

“Being in the suit, you get a big sense of it all,” he said. “You really can’t understand what that means when you’re on the outside, but, once you’re a part of Penn State, you really understand what it encompasses and how much pride there really is.”

Curtis White, head coach for Penn State cheerleading at University Park, who works directly with the mascot, agrees and offers an additional perspective.

“The Lion is a living symbol of Penn State that will be around forever,” he said. “Because of that, it creates a lot of pride in our alums and our fans. They look at the mascot as stability because he is always going to be there, no matter what happens.”

Glen Kreiner, associate professor of management in the Smeal College of Business, said, “The Nittany Lion mascot is an icon of the University. When Penn Staters see him, it immediately triggers thoughts of Penn State, reminding us of how we partly define ourselves through the University.”

Researchers call this sense of unification "organizational identification," a theory that says individuals feel as if they are one with an organization and experience the organization’s successes and failures as their own. For Penn State, the Nittany Lion symbol is the core of that identification.

Penn Staters have a stronger identification with the University than students and alumni of most other schools, Kreiner explained. “You see this manifest in school spirit, alumni connections and the ‘We Are’ chant that students and alumni have shouted literally across the globe," he added.

That is because — according to Matthew Moyer, a former student mascot for Penn State Altoona — Penn State is everywhere.

“No matter where you go, you’re bound to meet a Penn Stater. When you say ‘Penn State lives here,’ you mean it,” he said. “Penn State isn’t just in Pennsylvania — we’re all over the world. And when you see the Nittany Lion, you feel that bond.”

Last Updated October 17, 2014