100 YEARS OF KEWPIES: Hickman High School embraces unusual mascot

Hickman Kewpie suits up before a game

COLUMBIA — The naked baby wears a football uniform when it cheers from field level during games. Streaking is not permitted at Hickman High School. So the school's mascot, an adult-sized baby named a Kewpie — traditionally nude in the school's logo — comes swaddled in purple.

It's an offbeat mascot for an athletics department, but Kewpie supporters have cradled the name for 100 years now.

"What makes it so special? Because it’s the only one," said Charley Blackmore, a 1963 graduate and volunteer historian of all things Kewpies.

There's plenty of history associated with the Kewpie, a naked, cartoon baby doll created by artist Rose O'Neill in 1909 and adopted by Hickman five years later. The Kewpie represented "the innocence and pluck of childhood," according to Shelley Armitage, the author of a 2011 biography about O'Neill titled "Kewpies and Beyond."

To the modern-day Kewpies — the athletes, coaches and teachers who have passed through the school — the Kewpie represents individuality. These people ooze Kewpie pride, even if they do not completely understand the name or its origins.

"People always ask where I’m from," quarterback Carter Nicoli said of the teammates he meets playing travel baseball. "I say, 'I go to Hickman. I’m a Hickman Kewpie.' They say, 'What’s a Kewpie?' 'It’s a naked baby!' … They’re just like, 'Really? How does it feel to be a naked baby?'"

The football team is honoring the century-old mascot this season with an emblem on its helmet.

Formerly known as Columbia High School, the school on the north side of the city, many believe, was nicknamed the Trojans. But that's just so common. And singularity is sexy.

So raise a sippy cup and toast a century-old baby.

Missourian graphic by Austin Huguelet

Embracing the baby

Well before Twitter made the exercise public, kids from rival high schools have traded barbs leading up to big games. The Kewpies, with their baby-faced mascot, are an easy target.

"They make fun until they play us," football coach Arnel Monroe said from the seat of a golf cart the week before Hickman’s first football game. His team hasn't exactly backed up that claim this season, still winless through seven games heading into its home finale Friday against Liberty.

But Monroe remembers sunnier days in the crib, when the 1986 Hickman graduate played as a Kewpie and shut out some Jays from Jefferson City.

Like Monroe, many of Hickman's employees are alumni — umbilical cords still tied to home.

Another is David Johnson. He's the coach of the reigning state runner-up basketball team. And sure enough, he played for Hickman, graduating in 1980. He later laced up in Australia, where he would often wear his old Kewpies paraphernalia.

"Everybody looks at me crazy, like, 'What the hell is a Kewpie?'" Johnson recalled.

A Kewpie is a character that O'Neill drew as a comic strip "to teach people to be merry and kind at the same time," she said, according to the State Historical Society of Missouri. It was a cutesy, genderless version of Cupid, with wings on its shoulders, starfish hands and a head that comes to a point called a topknot — apparently the early 20th-century version of a fauxhawk.

O'Neill, who lived near Branson, became a key figure in women's suffrage. The ceramic bisque dolls of her Kewpies, which sold from 25 cents to $1.25, became ubiquitous after their arrival in 1912.

Hickman High School's main office is decorated with dozens of Kewpie figurines, including one with a miniature Hickman jersey. Missourian photo by T.J. Thomson

"They became popular during a time of great regard for motherhood and thus mothering and children, so as icons or toys," said Armitage, the author. "... They could be said to represent the American fascination with childhood."

You can still buy the dolls on Amazon.com for about $50. Just don't be distracted by the Japanese Kewpie Mayonnaise, another product available online.

It's a crazy Kewpie world out there, but there's a standard learning curve for Kewpie comprehension in Columbia. Young kids don’t understand the name at first; by the time they’re of age to attend Hickman, they embrace it.

Elijah Crum remembers attending Hickman games as a child. He’s a third-generation Kewpie who evolved from confused spectator to junior running back.

He admits the name is a bit odd, but he likes it.

"It is what it is," Crum said before practice this summer. "It’s not changing."

Theories behind the mascot

Hickman High School students, alumni and faculty have embraced its mascot, the Kewpie. Although the adult-size baby is naked in the school's logo, the mascot wears a football uniform to games. Missourian photo by Loren Elliott

Hickman football might be winless, but its mascot won't reshape its facial expression, a tongue-exposed smile and bright blue eyes with long lashes. OK, maybe the Kewpie is upset beneath the cheery disposition it can't change — a mascot head is an inanimate object, after all. Babies cry, but Kewpies don't frown.

In fact, Hickman might have inherited the Kewpie name because of its players' positive attitude. Might have.

After all, no explanation for the Kewpie adoption is completely, indubitably verified. It happened 100 years ago. You can't just call the school principal from 1914 and ask for an explanation.

Variations of the Kewpie's origin at Hickman range from plausible to outrageous. Everybody's got a theory.

"I think there's a lot of old wives' tales," said former athletics director Doug Mirts, who retired this summer after 17 years in that position and many more as a teacher and student at Hickman. "Depends on what generation you're talking to or whose story is told. Depends on what story you want to believe."

The story Mirts believes is that the football team was being beaten handily, and an announcer remarked that the players were still "smiling like Kewpies."

Monroe believes it was the boys' basketball team that was losing, and doing so with great dignity and a smile. "Evidently that basketball team put up one hell of a fight," he said.

Ask the current cheerleaders, and they offer yet more tales.

“My uncle actually told me … they had a Friday night football game, and they were losing really bad, and it was raining, and a newspaper article said, 'But their eyes still shone like Kewpie dolls,'" senior Lily Burns said.

Burns' story has made rounds in Columbia, but a search through newspaper archives in the Library of Congress' database yields no mention of Kewpies in this context.

Fellow senior cheerleader Mackenzie Murray offers another legend.

"It was a basketball game, and the secretary always had a Kewpie in the middle of the court, and no one stepped on it, and then they won," she said, admitting her story is mere hearsay.

A Kewpie doll at midcourt? That's patently absurd. Surely a referee would have removed it. Or one of 10 players running up and down the floor would have squashed it. Of all the stories, that one seems the least plausible.

Except that it might be true.

Recently, that story was "verified" by Blackmore, the custodian of the thorough and purple-packed Kewpie.net. The website features an email that Lucy Church sent to Blackmore in 2009. That email tells the story of Church’s great-uncle, who played on the famed 1913-14 basketball team — a squad that won the state championship and featured a little Kewpie doll sitting in front of it in the team photo (the first sight of the Kewpie in the school's yearbooks).

This is a portion of Church’s email:

"He (the great uncle) came to visit us once in the 1960s. During that visit he told us about the Kewpie, which was quite significant to him. Apparently, the school secretary owned a Kewpie doll, as they were popular figurines then, and she kept it on her desk. At one of the basketball games, she placed the Kewpie in the center of the court (I guess for good luck), and the entire game was played around it without its being broken. This was somewhat remarkable since the dolls were very fragile. Because it survived the game and brought a victory, it was thereafter considered the good luck mascot."

That’s the story the school uses officially. It’s the story Kewpies will celebrate this year — 100 years after that basketball team’s title.

A mascot that stands out

On Aug. 29, Hickman was beating Lee's Summit 17-14 at halftime of its first home football game of 2014.

The Kewpie mascot walked toward the bleachers to chat with friends.

A woman, holding an actual baby with a frozen-pop-stained face, approached the Kewpie. The Kewpie reached out to greet the baby. The actual baby cried.

Let’s be honest: The mascot is sort of eerie. And that's even before you walk into the school's main office, where you’ll feel like the victim of a Chucky movie.

Behind a secretary’s desk are two shelves of Kewpie dolls, 17 in total. In the top-right corner of the office is a giant ceramic Kewpie head.

Terry Hargrove, an A+ Program secretary at Hickman High School, works in the school's main office. The office is decorated with dozens of Kewpie figures. Missourian photo by T.J. Thomson

Maybe that’s the magic of the Kewpie, a character that doesn’t fall into the typical template of team mascot.

Eagles and Panthers are ferocious creatures that many high schools, colleges and professional teams use as mascots. They represent speed and toughness, attributes of great sports teams.

In Columbia, Rock Bridge High School calls itself the Bruins, and Battle High School is the Spartans.

"Why would you want to be named a Bruin or a Spartan?" Hickman running back Damarion Avery asked. "That’s lame. Kewpies. ... Everybody loves a naked baby. Who doesn’t want to be a naked baby? Everyone loves those. You come out a naked baby."

Nearly 100 high schools in America use the name Bruins, according to mascotdb.com. More than 400 are Spartans. There's only one result for "Kewpies."

Bruins and Spartans seem tough. Kewpies probably don't. Unless you ask one.

"The Kewpie’s a fighter; don’t let the baby doll fool ya," Monroe said. "We come to fight, and it’s been that way for years."

(Hickman eventually lost 41-17 in that game to Lee's Summit, but the Kewpies did put up a valiant fight against the ferocious Tigers.)

Hickman High School's mascot, the Kewpie, appears throughout the school, including on floor mats, decals, posters and signage. Missourian photo by T.J. Thomson

Hickman students embrace the Kewpie's nudity with T-shirts, ironically enough. One senior shirt spoofs Nike: Just Stay Naked. Another references the iconic ad campaign for milk: Got Clothes?

No one at Hickman shies away from the school's funky and iconic nickname. The cheerleaders say it proudly during games.

"Strawberry shortcake, gooseberry pie/ V-I-C-T-O-R-Y.

Are we it? I guess yes/ We’re the Kewpies of HHS."

The Kewpie behind the baby head

After the loss to Lee's Summit, the Kewpie walked into the locker room and removed its head. The Kewpie is a freshman at Hickman, and in addition to just finishing its first-ever game dressed as the mascot, it plays lineman on the junior varsity football team. The Kewpie also plays cello in the school orchestra.

The Kewpie reads Sports Illustrated religiously and wants to become a sports writer. First, it has to explain his experience to one.

"It was stressful at first, because I didn’t really know what to do," the Kewpie said after taking off the the large, sweaty baby head. "It was sort of like stepping off an edge, going out there. But after the first quarter, it was pretty fun."

Want to know what it's like in there? A modified hockey helmet anchors the Kewpie's dome when the mascot is hamming for fans. The Kewpie’s bright eyes are your only portal to the outside world. It’s humid in there, like sticking your head in Texas while the rest of your body's in Missouri. Everything you say echoes when you’re a giant baby. You're not supposed to talk much, anyway.

The Kewpie has researched mascot-head maintenance. Google provided a suggestion that helps it clean its cap. It stuffs the head in a bag with baking soda, to which any dirt and grime sticks. The Kewpie then vacuums out the rest.

After the game, the Kewpie planned to check in with its friends and possibly meet them at a restaurant or something. It was as typical as Friday night plans get for teenagers.

To that point, though, the Kewpie's Friday night was anything but ordinary. Unless there's an underground community we're unaware of, it was the only person in the world dressed up like an early 20th-century baby doll.

And judging by the smile on the real kid's face, the kid was awfully proud to be a Kewpie.

The Kewpie mascot cheers on the Hickman football team at the Sept. 12 game against the Helias Crusaders. Missourian photo by Josh Bachman

Supervising editor is Greg Bowers.

  • Mark is the Missourian's assistant sports editor and an award-winning columnist.

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