Fall 2014

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Willie the Wildcat and Northwestern cheerleaders graced the cover of Newsweek in November 1953.

Then: The Evolution of Willie

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Jeff Weinstock '92, Andrew Barrett-Weiss '92 and Peter Reynolds '92 fondly reminisce about Weinstock’s previous secret identity: Willie the Wildcat.

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Before Willie the Wildcat there was Furpaw. The bear cub from Lincoln Park Zoo attended the 1923 home football games at Northwestern Field. After a losing season, however, Furpaw was deemed bad luck and banished from campus.

The Northwestern nickname developed in 1924 when Chicago Tribune reporter Wallace Abbey ’23 described the football team as “wildcats” after a tough loss to the University of Chicago. The name stuck.

In 1933 the athletic department released the first image of Willie, and in 1947 Alpha Delta Phi fraternity brothers Frank Willard ’51, John Balch ’50, Rog Johnson ’50 and Bill Henning ’50 brought Willie to life at the Homecoming parade in a hand-sewn costume.

(There was also a Wilhelmina Wildcat in the early 1960s, and Winnie the Wildcat existed for a few years in the late 197os and early ’80s.)

Willie’s image evolved over the years. He was once a fierce wildcat with sharp fangs bursting through a nasty snarl. And the Willie suit has evolved too. Before the full body suit, Willie was simply “chicken wire with faded purple velvet on top of a football helmet. There was no body suit except an antique basketball warm-up,” says Robert Forrest ’71, who played Willie after his roommate, the head cheerleader, Larry Findeiss ’71, convinced him to do it.

It was quite an experience, says Forrest, now a partner at a Detroit law firm. He was part of the cheerleading pyramid and during basketball games he took half-court shots from a mini-trampoline, all in the Willie costume. He was also physically assaulted by Ohio State fans.

Former Willie Jeffrey Weinstock ’92 says he also found himself in his fair share of tussles. He recalls being playfully tackled by Michigan State cheerleaders, and once the Scarlet Knight from Rutgers University started a fight with him.

Despite the bumps and bruises, Weinstock, now a vice president with ABC in Los Angeles, enjoyed his time behind the whiskers. “There’s amazing freedom when you’re Willie and no one knows it’s you,” says Weinstock, who left the marching band after three years to become Willie. But according to tradition, Weinstock had to keep his alter ego a secret. “People criticized me for quitting the band, saying I had no school spirit,” Weinstock says. “If they only had known.”

Watch Weinstock and friends Andrew Barrett-Weiss '92 and Peter Reynolds '92 reminisce about Weinstock’s previous secret identity.