Willamette University

Bear(cat) For a Day

Washburn (left) and an accomplice, in muddy Yell King garb. What 8-foot rule?

Washburn (left) and an accomplice, in muddy Yell King garb. What 8-foot rule?

A ’37 Plymouth

He looks so cute in the pictures.

But this rather large, not-so-tame bear was the main character in one of Willamette’s oddest, and potentially most dangerous, campus events. One day in 1948, Scotty Washburn ’50 picked up this furry friend at the Portland Zoo — now the Oregon Zoo — and “borrowed” him for the day.

After all, it was homecoming, and Willamette needed a mascot.

‘Bearly Believable’

Back in the 1940s, Oregon had a surplus of black bears. Thinking that they’d make good pets, many people brought bears home; others took them in because they thought they needed rescuing. When things didn’t work out as the would-be owners planned, the Oregon Zoo inherited them.

“Many bears were sent over,” says Jan Mothershed, the zoo’s current animal registrar. “These bears were raised from cubs and handled by a lot of people, which is different than how we do it now. Now we work to have animals be raised by their biological parents.”

One of these wayward bears was a male named Boscoe. He had thick, dark fur, ears at attention, and a face that could be endearing one moment and startling the next. He weighed about 100 pounds.

And he could just fit inside the roomy trunk of Washburn’s ’37 Plymouth.

The former Willamette Yell King remembers how it all started. “Carl Kraus ’50, never at a loss for way-out ideas, had suggested that we get a live bear to truly capture the spirit of our Bearcat mascot and have him on the field for homecoming,” Washburn says. “The football game on Sweetland Field, now the Quad, was a big deal that year.”

It took a series of persistent phone calls to the zoo, but officials relented. “After a while, they overcame the seeming impossibility of it,” Washburn recalls. They passed on some caretaking instructions and asked that Washburn be sure to return Boscoe by dusk.

“Boscoe came with a heavy collar and two chains about 8 feet long,” Washburn says. “The zoo said that two people should tend him and always keep the chains taut, so he couldn’t rush either handler.”

Washburn and friends ran Boscoe onto the field this way at halftime, and “the crowd went wild.” Photographic evidence proves the 8-foot rule wasn’t always followed as Washburn and others freely approached Boscoe to strike a pose; they even put a freshman beanie between the “newcomer’s” ears.

Duly inspired, the football team defeated the University of British Columbia 33-0.

Disaster (Almost) Strikes

After the game, Washburn and Kraus handed Boscoe to another pair of students while they got the car for the trip back to Portland. But when they returned, everyone was gone — including the bear. Someone yelled from across Sweetland Field that Washburn had an urgent phone call. The voice on the other end of the line reported that “the Phi Delts had kidnapped the bear” and had taken it to their fraternity house, where Boscoe was tearing up all the furniture. Washburn and Kraus were asked curtly to retrieve the bear.

Sure enough, Boscoe was acquainting himself with the house furnishings, but he eventually made it back into the trunk and onto the highway. So far as anyone can tell, there were no other damages or injuries.

“I can imagine bears being loaned out like that,” Mothershed says. “Things were done pretty differently back then. Now there are certainly more safety protocols. Even animals in the zoo are wild animals; they can be unpredictable and dangerous in a situation where they could be frightened.”

Like a college football game, or the trunk of a car.

“We returned Boscoe safe and sound to the zoo that afternoon, just like they had asked,” Washburn says. “But Kraus and I said to each other, ‘Whew — we’re never doing that again.’”

Regrettably, record-keeping wasn’t very good in the 1940s. Current zoo staff don’t know what happened to Boscoe, but we do know that he was a well-traveled cub.

Who Were Those Guys?

Washburn and others still wonder who “cared for” Boscoe and led him into the fraternity house from which he had to be rescued.

Do you know? Was it you? If so, email us at scene@willamette.edu. We promise we won’t add it to your permanent school record. But we might publish it in The Scene.