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Pepper's Folly

by Phil Penepent, President of the Class of 2007

July 14, 2007

     In the beginning there was a three quarter sleeve shirt. It was given to me by Rich Armstrong one day in my English 11 Honors 1st Period and the rest is history, literally. The shirt was made circa 1978 and depicts a skunk and says “ITHACA ‘LIL RED”. It represents the spirit of Ithaca High School, a spirit that has waned in the last few years. But the wheels are back in motion, and school spirit is on the rebound.
     History is a key component in school spirit. It is in history where pride is formed. I find it perplexing why our unique school’s history has somewhat been forgotten.
   What is it that one searches for in history that leads to pride? One takes into account sports, the building, the faculty, the students, the symbols and the traditions. Over all, symbols take the forefront in these components. What better symbol for student and alumni heart’s to turn to than a mascot?
     This was exactly the attitude of the I.H.S. class of 1947. These students decided that their school needed a mascot. They pooled $15 dollars into the “skunk fund” and purchased a live de-scented skunk from the Charone Wild Animal Ranch in Burlington Wisconsin. “Pepper,” as he would be known, was walked up and down basketball courts and football fields home and away by I.H.S. student Betsy Black. Don Bemont did the honors of watching and caring for their furry friend from the fall of 1947 to the spring of 1948. The mascot, wanting to roam far off lands of his own, tore his way through Bemont’s screen door in the spring of ‘48 and thus the escape of the first school mascot.
      In 1953 the I.H.S. Pep Club, better known as the “Little Red Peppers”, brought back the skunk tradition in the form of students dressed as the “Mama, Papa, and Baby Skunk” at basketball games. Mrs. Frances Withiam, class representative of the class of 1956, remembers Coach Johnny Jafers at a sports assembly explaining, “We want tradition back- we want Pepper back, not because we stink but because we skunk our opponents.” The 1955 Annual has “Pepper” taking the reader through the book. It is also in the 1955 Annual where “Pepper” receives his name. He was named not after his black and white color, nor after the produce. “Pepper” was named in honor of the Pep Club, “The Little Red Peppers”.
     “Pepper” enjoyed much enthusiasm until the move from the “DeWitt High School” to the current high school in the early 1960’s when the mascot changed to the Little Red Bear for the first time. In 1967 students became discontented with their “fake” symbol and urged the Principal of the time, Dr. Graves, to hold a school wide election to change the mascot. A few, of what 1967 Class President Mrs. Fazio refers to as, smart alecs went around the school encouraging students to vote for the skunk. After the votes were tallied Dr. Graves came on the P.A. and said, “You think you’re all funny? Well guess what? You are now the Ithaca Little Red Skunks!”
     “Pepper” was back again and enjoyed his fame thanks to these students. All throughout the late 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s “Pepper” was Ithaca High School. Students dressed in a new mascot suit that had a head built around a bird cage. Mr. Culligan, former I.H.S. Basketball Coach, explained in the 1979 Annual, “If we win, we skunk ‘em. If we loose we stink!”
     When John Caren became principal of Ithaca in 1978 he made one of his goals to change our “stinky symbol”. By 1985 he had succeeded, as the bear mascot takes one through the Annual much the way “Pepper” did in 1955.
     This year, with the success of the varsity hockey team, we the Pep Club of present-The Red Zone decided it was indeed time to bring back “Pepper” for a third and final time. It began in January when my little sister and I made a ten foot sign for the hockey games at home that said, “Skunk ‘um Red!!!” The sign was met with enthusiasm and a Hockey Mom bought us two little skunk puppets for the Red Zone. By March 11th 2007 at the New York State Championships in Utica, “Pepper” (from a 1955 Annual) was on our official Red Zone shirts holding a sign that says, “Skunk ‘em RED!”
We also decided to keep the bear mascot, or “Mascoto” as we dubbed him this year, in addition to “Pepper” so not to tread on anymore history or tradition.
     The final step in bringing back our old tradition is in the purchase of a skunk mascot suit from the Fun & Folly Company in San Diego. It was purchased for the total cost of $880 thanks to donations from the I.H.S. class of 1955, the I.H.S. class of 1956, Sandy True, Mary Grainger, The Ithaca Sunrise Rotary Club, and The Herson Funeral Home. It is hoped that the dual mascots will foster school spirit in the school, community, and alumni now and in the future.

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