Minnesota became known as the 'Gopher State' in 1857, the result of a political cartoon ridiculing the $5 million Railroad Loan which helped open up the West. The cartoon portrayed shifty railroad barons as striped gophers pulling a railroad car carrying the Territorial Legislature toward the "Slough of Despond". The first U of M yearbook bearing the name "Gopher Annual" appeared in 1887.
Minnesota's athletic teams became widely known as the "Gophers," but it was not until 1934 that the immortal Halsey Hall, great Minnesota sportswriter, and broadcaster, dubbed Bernie Bierman's all-gold uniformed team "The Golden Gophers". (Bierman chose the gold color because the football blended in with the uniforms!).
The embodiment of the Gopher mascot came to life in 1952 when assistant bandmaster Jerome Glass bought a fuzzy wool suit and asked technology junior Jim Anderson to climb into it.
"They took the guy who couldn't march or play and put him where he wouldn't do any harm," commented Anderson.
The paper mache head on "Little Ander's" new suit clamped on and couldn't be removed until after the game. As a consequence, he couldn't drink Coke and eat popcorn like the other band members. To make matters worse, the head only had one eye to use as a porthole which made vision very one-dimensional and difficult. Also, the suit didn't "breathe" and was very hot on balmy afternoons.
Under these adverse conditions, it was one of the Gopher's tasks to help whip a crowd of 60,000 into frenzied football fans.
In 1955 Milton Bix, a live wire from the percussion section, appeared sporting a new $110 gopher suit that was a little too big and again, much too hot. Milt also had vision problems where he had no useful eyes and had to peek out of the mouth. Unfortunately, his glasses would fog up on warm days, nearly blinding him. He began carrying a cane, which appeared to be a joke—however, he really needed it. Milt also had a lot of trouble getting in the way of the band during field maneuvers and had to memorize formations in order to save himself from becoming a traffic fatality.
Bix is quoted as saying, "They gave me this job to stop me from cracking jokes at rehearsals." He said that "Basically the Gopher was allowed to do his own thing. The only instruction I ever received from Gale Sperry was that I was expected to fill in at the game if anyone fainted, fell over, or just didn't show."
William Johnson was the Gopher in 1956–57. During his first appearance, he was besieged by a group of young pranksters who tore his tail off. Nevertheless, he asserted, "I've never had so much fun in my life!" He also claimed that being a Gopher, "doesn't take talent, just guts."
Along with DuWayne Kloos who served as Gopher in 1954, these exuberant fellows launched a tradition that is still going strong.
"Goldy" Gopher (the first name seems to have appeared sometime in the '60s) became a fixture with the Marching Band and Pep Band, as each year a bandmember was chosen to don the suit. Wherever these two bands performed, Goldy was there to glad-hand with the crowd, hug the little kids, torment the cheerleaders, and generally add a friendly Minnesota flavor to the event.
Wilbur "Gabby" Meiners, who was Gopher in 1960-61, recalls the football away trip in 1960 with a brand new Gopher uniform. Gabby was known for climbing the goal post, and some cop at the game kept shaking the post so he would fall off. When he did, someone snatched his tail and he never did get it back. Gabby notes he was "the lucky guy who got to be Gopher at the two Rose Bowls". During his years in the band, the Gopher was actually written into the football shows with a specific place to be.
Bill Travis, Gopher in 1965–68, recalls emulating Gabby's style and likewise climbing the goal post, but with one added twist. "The first time I was Gopher, after practicing in shorts all summer, my first game was high school band day. Well, I was on the crossbar, and it turned out the Gopher suit was really slippery and I started to slide off. I fell off right on my head, and 2,500 high school kids cheered and yelled 'Do it again, do it again!'"
Keith Randa, who, as Goldy, got to film a football commercial with Bob Hope in the fall of 1980, was Gopher for hockey and basketball from 1980–82. He especially recalled how hot it got in the suit and what a pleasure it was to find a breeze, turning his head so the eyeholes were aligned just right to let in some cool air. On the coldest days in Memorial Stadium, Goldy Gopher was probably the only fan in the stadium who stayed warm!
Dave Trembley remembers that being Goldy was perhaps the greatest therapy in the world. No matter how stressful the week had been, for a period of three or four hours on Saturday afternoon, he could put on the suit and "step into a fantasy world, with a license to do virtually anything."
Through the years, each person who was allowed the joy of being the Gopher developed an individual personality, a unique way of relating to the crowd. The mystique of Goldy Gopher became a tradition that absolutely prohibited removal of the head while in public, maintaining an illusion for the younger children that maybe, just maybe, the Gopher is a real live huggable animal.
The gopher suit has changed through the years, sometimes by chance, sometimes by design. Until the early 1970s, the head was narrow and pointy-nosed, reminiscent of the real animal. Then in 1972, Goldy suddenly grew chubby cheeks and a wider, forward-looking face, almost cherubic in appearance. In fact, the Gopher of the '70s and early '80s was comparable in appearance to a teddy bear, a favorite of children and grandmothers. For a brief period in 1985, a fierce-looking 'mega-rodent' appeared, with a barrel chest, clown feet, and sinister eyes. This look didn't last long, and Goldy soon again became a lovable, friendly character.
Goldy also has a mischievous side, which is most readily observed at the marching band indoor concerts. Whether cutting off announcer Rod Person's tie with scissors, mimicking the director as he prepared to conduct, or finding ways to distract the audience during the breaks, Goldy can definitely be a clown when the situation permits.
Until Jill Isacson was chosen to serve as Goldy in 1987, the position had almost always been filled by a male member of the Band. Andy Kanter, Gopher in 1971–73, recalls one exception.
"I only missed one football game during the time that I was the 'Squirrel', and, ironically, that one game led to one of my more memorable experience. . . I was scheduled to take an exam that day and had to find a Gopher substitute.
Clarinetist Kathy Hollenhorst told me she had always wondered what it would be like to be Gopher and asked if she could take my place. I agreed, and Saturday came and went. I never gave it much thought until next week's game. On that day I cavorted and danced, waved and wiggled, nothing out of the ordinary, my usual antics; however, as I approached the varsity football bench, the players looked at me with suspicion (and perhaps, much to my amazement, with a little fear), got up, and walked away.
Their puzzling behavior after several similar awkward encounters led me to finally lift my head and ask 'Hey, what's going on here? You're acting like I've got rabies or something.' One player, from a safe distance, responded, 'Man, what did you think you were doing last week, going right down the bench and pinching each one of us?' 'Pinching? What are you talking about?' Then it hit me. 'Oh, I know. That wasn't me. A girl I know substituted for me last week.' The player shot back a look of incredulity and simply said, 'Yeah, sure.'"
From 1952 until 1990, the Gopher appearing at U of M sports events was a member of the Marching Band, and a symbiosis developed through the years that on more than one occasion kept Goldy out of trouble. With a propensity for attracting tail-pulling kids, Goldy has long relied on the band to save him from their clutches. When the opposing team's cheerleaders or bandmembers managed to 'kidnap' the unfortunate rodent (a Big Ten tradition, it seems), bandmembers would always come to the rescue.
In recent years the Gopher Athletic Department began to make use of Goldy at an ever-increasing number of events. They actually held University-wide tryouts to secure a number of students who could cover the busy schedule; however, there will likely always be one special Goldy who is a bandmember and who will maintain the magical, rambunctious character that children of all ages have come to love.