As a new look for IWU’s mascot debuted, past Tommy Titans recalled the joyful and
occasionally wild times spent playing the role.
Story by KIM HILL
One of the most endearing symbols of IWU is Tommy Titan. The beloved mascot can be
found at football games, orientation, Parents Weekend and even weddings — posing for
photos, high-fiving admirers and, in general, spreading that distinctive Tommy Titan
green over everything.
For the students inside the costume, portraying Tommy can be among the most indelible
memories of their IWU experiences. Josie Linman ’15 describes wearing the suit as
the most extreme version of people-watching she can imagine.
“When you’re inside the suit, you can see every expression people make and hear what
they say, but of course they can’t see my face to know what I’m feeling or thinking,”
Linman said of her time as Tommy. “People assume because we aren’t supposed to talk,
we can’t hear either. Most of the time when I was Tommy, I was dying laughing at what
other people were doing.”
During her years portraying Tommy, Linman said the Homecoming gig was among her favorites.
“These middle-aged alumni men would punch me on the arm, thinking I was a guy, and
yell, ‘Hey, are you a Teke in there? Maybe a FIJI?’ They had no idea I was a tiny
Linman’s Tommy suit was the same one that served the University for more than a decade.
That get-up — seven and a half feet tall from Tommy’s Sasquatch-sized feet to the
top of the helmet — often made it hard for the wearer to fit through doorways. The
head itself measured almost three feet in height and was so top-heavy, it usually
fell off when the wearer bent over to talk to a child. A fan hooked up inside the
suit stopped working a few years ago, making it so hot for the human inside it was
nearly unbearable. Clearly, Tommy needed an upgrade.
The new Tommy debuted in September 2015. The suit was designed to be much easier for
the wearer to maneuver. An iconic moment occurred at Homecoming when two University
leaders — retiring President Dick Wilson and incoming President Eric Jensen — were
flanked by two Tommys, with Linman wearing the new Tommy suit and Shirley Alonzo ’10
inside the old one. The Illinois Wesleyan Alumni Relations office recorded the moment
with a tweet dubbed, “Seeing double!”
Former Tommy Dave Moravec ’84 watched the twin Tommys from nearby, choosing not to
adorn himself in the attire he’d worn as mascot. In Moravec’s day, Tommy wore a gladiator
outfit. Involved in a cheering group in high school, Moravec raised his hand to volunteer
when, as an IWU freshman, he heard there was an opening for Tommy.
“There wasn’t a tryout or anything,” Moravec recalled in an oral history recorded
in the University Archives. Then, as now, Tommy’s primary responsibility at football
games was to light the torch at the start of the game. “They gave me the gear and
not a lot of instructions.” So Moravec decided to improvise.
At his first football game as Tommy, Moravec lit the torch and then joined the cheerleaders
on the sidelines, rather than leaving the field as Tommy had done for decades. “I
led cheers,” he recalled. “Give me a ‘T.’ Give me an ‘I,’ give me a ‘T’ and so on.
I ran up and down the sidelines high-fiving and cheering. I had a sword I whipped
in the air. The crowd went wild because Tommy Titan had never done anything like that
before. They had no idea what I was doing or why.”
The next Monday, Moravec went to fall baseball practice under Coach Jack Horenberger
’36, who also served as athletic director. Horenberger had learned it was Moravec
who’d gone rogue at the previous Saturday’s football game and took him aside to discuss
the budding mascot’s behavior.
“I told Coach, ‘Wasn’t it a great time?’ talking about what I’d done on Saturday,”
Moravec recalled 35 years later. Horenberger would have none of it. “That’s not what
Tommy Titan does,” the coach explained. Yet, buoyed by the crowd’s exuberance and
his own defiance as an 18-year-old, Moravec led cheers at the next home game as well.
The following Monday’s baseball practice brought a repeat meeting with Horenberger;
this time, the legendary coach suggested a new Tommy would be found if the antics
continued. At the next home game, a properly chastened Moravec ran out on the field,
lit the torch and retreated to the field house. No swashbuckling, no cheerleading,
no silliness. It was a practice he maintained at every home football game for the
next four years.
Still, portraying Tommy was not always serious business for Moravec. How could it
be, when the torch to light the flame consisted of several tampons wrapped together
and bundled into a tin cup on top of a stick, with the material doused in oil? “Apparently
they had used cloth rags at some point, but there was a concern about those burning,”
Moravec explained. “The material in the tampons held the flame for the time it took
to light the torch.
“I even had to go out to buy the tampons, which was kind of weird.”
Other Tommys share similar stories of torch-lighting challenges through the years.
In a 1997 IWU Magazine story, Randy Stuckey ’75 recounted his first experience in the Tommy costume when
he didn’t have a torch, so he soaked a towel overnight in kerosene and put it on the
end of a broomstick he’d cut in half. “When I ran onto the field the next day, the
kerosene was dripping everywhere. It was practically an inferno and I lost all the
hair on my arm. I thought I was going to catch the helmet on fire, too.”
In the same story, William Cooper ’97 confessed he forgot to appear at a Homecoming
game and was replaced by a staffer from Physical Plant. Replacement Tommy that day
might have been 30-year employee Robert Frank, who has portrayed Tommy on at least
two occasions for the same reason, or it might have been longtime Assistant Supervisor
of Labor Services George Fish, who’s also been Tommy in a pinch.
Physical Plant workers also saved the day for Shirley Alonzo, who never forgot to
show up, never caught anything on fire and never had to buy her own supplies — yet
she, too, nearly had a mishap at a critical moment in her first appearance as Tommy.
Every Titan knows the tradition: the Titan Band begins playing the Wesleyan fight
song as soon as Tommy lights the torch. That day, Alonzo says the band waited… and
waited … and waited. “I’m on my tiptoes and I can’t reach it,” recalls Alonzo, who
is just shy of five feet tall. “I also can’t see because of the big Tommy head. The
stadium is in complete silence just waiting for the fight song to start. It probably
took three or four of the longest minutes of my life, and some Physical Plant guys
ended up lifting me up to reach the torch. After that, they built a little step for
me to stand on so I could reach up and light it.”
Alonzo says her height, or lack thereof, did have one advantage. She thinks she is
one of the very few Tommys in the old costume who could actually fit through doorways
Perhaps as a foreshadow of her current career as an elementary schoolteacher, Alonzo
most enjoyed Tommy’s gigs meeting children at local schools, parades and other community
events. “It was just a lot of fun,” she recalls of her two and a half years as Tommy.
“I always wanted to be at everything. It’s so fun to see people excited about giving
Tommy a high five or a hug, and coming up to you to get their pictures taken.”
Such enthusiasm is a required trait for those deemed worthy to don the Tommy suit.
Students are selected for the role based on their ability to motivate others. There
aren’t a lot of rules for portraying Tommy, but those rules are firm: No talking.
Don’t reveal your identity. Those portraying Tommy should keep their identities a
closely guarded secret (although revealing themselves after graduation is fine). Once,
Linman, the captain of the women’s tennis team, and her teammates had lunch with a
recruit. Almost like Superman, she left to change into the suit, feeling it was important
for the recruit to receive a full Titan welcome. The recruit never guessed her team
captain and Tommy were one and the same.
Perhaps part of that mystery is what makes humans do some bizarre things when encountering
a mascot. Linman recalls people making a game out of getting Tommy to talk, like trying
to get a reaction from a member of the Queen’s Guard at Buckingham Palace. “People
don’t realize that, when I’m in the suit, I’m taking in everything they’re saying
and doing, and eventually the weird stuff they’re doing becomes a story I’m going
to tell my best friend,” she laughed. “At the same time, I think it shows that people,
no matter what their ages, are pretty goofy. Remembering the weird stuff that happened
when I was Tommy still makes my soul smile.”