COLUMBIA — Russell Stokes knows his truck full of stuffed tigers is an attention-grabber.
And, it’s easy to start in on questions about the plush felines when you’re staring at a black Chevy pickup truck that has more of them than your local Toys R Us.
But walk with Stokes to the front of his truck, where the mountain of tigers isn’t quite as visible, and you’ll find there’s more to him than his mini zoo on wheels.
Stokes, his wife and others were tailgating in the hours before Missouri took on Western Illinois on Saturday, a game which was accompanied by a “Salute to America.” The salute included an honoring of veterans and a flyover by a B-2 bomber*.
Stokes recently sent a message to Missouri Athletics Director Mike Alden suggesting a similar tribute. He proposed a ceremony honoring those who served their country in the military and also donned black and gold on Missouri athletic fields.
Stokes, who only played football in high school, was an ROTC member when he was a student at MU. He said when doctors at MU discovered a knee injury he suffered in high school, that was it for his military career.
He knew several people who were both veterans of World War II and the Missouri football program while they were alive. Similarly, he knows plenty of people his age who are Vietnam veterans. These friendships sparked his suggestion to Alden.
According to Stokes, the Athletic Department told him that it was too late to get such a ceremony organized for this season, and he was told it’s being looked into for 2012.
Stokes has been a Tigers fan for decades and has been coming to football games for more than 50 years.
“I attended my first game in 1960, when I was in high school,” Stokes said. “I sat on wooden bleachers.”
He grew up on a farm near Macon, but he didn’t want to be a farmer. He came to MU and graduated from the College of Arts and Science. He ended up becoming a high school principal in St. Louis.
“I owe all my success in my professional life to the University of Missouri,” he said.
Stokes gives to the university in multiple ways. He is a member of the Tiger Scholarship Fund and donates to the MU College of Veterinary Medicine.
Now, he and his wife live in a retirement community in Cherokee Village, Ark. They drive up for every Missouri home game, adorning the black pickup with Missouri magnets.
Stokes said he had several of those magnets made special, before they became a standard product for sale in many stores. Stokes also has a Tigers tailgate cover, as well as a personalized license plate that reads “MU 65.”
Once, the magnets covering his truck did not represent the black and gold of MU. He made a bet with his dentist in Arkansas — where he’s lived since moving from St. Louis in 1997 — on the 2003 Independence Bowl, when the Tigers took on the Arkansas Razorbacks. Missouri lost the bowl game 27-14, and Stokes was forced to put the Arkansas logo all over his truck.
The next time the two schools faced off, Stokes didn’t even get a shot at evening the score.
“When (Missouri) played Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl, he didn’t want to bet,” he said.
As for that eye-catching stuffed tiger collection, Stokes and his wife said they pick up another one wherever they happen to go. They listed Israel and Hawaii as two of the more interesting locations.
If you stop by the Stokeses’ tailgate before a Missouri game, you can identify the first tiger Stokes acquired. It’s wearing a white T-shirt, and it’s 30 years old.