How We Saved Donald Duck
With the Oregon Ducks playing in the Rose Bowl this afternoon, and the Official History forever confused, we thought we’d explain once and for all why the University of Oregon mascot is a Disney-licensed cartoon character, and why it’s all our fault.
The full story goes back long before our time. The real team nickname was “Webfoots”, which had nothing to do with delicious waterfowl. Instead, the original Webfoots were Massachusetts fishermen (even longer story), the name came West with the settlers, and eventually it landed on the UO’s doorstep in Eugene.
The Media (then quaintly known as The Press) couldn’t handle eight-letter names in headlines, so “Ducks” started showing up in sports sections. The UO students offically confirmed Ducks as the team mascot in 1932.
Ducks. Not Donald.
However, since Donald was introduced in 1934, a casual association was inevitable, and the Duck became that duck in the local imagination. Walt Disney himself informally approved the use in 1947 — that’s a photo of him posing with the UO athletic director and a real bird — and after Walt’s death, a legal agreement was drawn up.
And there things stood.
Until 1978. Our freshman year.
Here’s how the Official History reports it:
Oregon’s duck endured another popularity contest in 1978 when a cartoonist for the student newspaper pushed his Mallard Drake as a suitable successor to Donald, prompting one local high school student to comment that “if that sleazy Duck makes it, I’m going to OSU.” Donald was the students’ overwhelming choice by a 2-to-1 landslide in an election that saw more than twice the typical voter turnout on campus.
That election is where we step into the picture.
The cartoonist was Steve Sandstrom, and Mallard Drake was his suave Daffy-like creation for the Oregon Daily Emerald. The annual student elections were approaching, and some genius at the Emerald filed a ballot measure to officially declare Mallard the UO mascot. The Emerald then began running a series of clever house ads promoting its campaign.
We had worked up a casual acquaintance with the Emerald’s features editor, based on a self-distributed parody we literally slipped under the office door, but as yet had no formal association with the paper. (We later became satire columnist and all-around troublemaker.) Instead, as we saw house ad after house ad appearing in its pages, we thought—
Well, here’s what we didn’t think: Who’s standing up for Donald? Honestly, we couldn’t care less. But if the Emerald was running a mock campaign for Mallard, surely someone needed to start a mock campaign against him. And thus the Retain Class in Your Bird committee was formed.
By us. As a counter-gag.
Our RCYB conveniently shared an acronym with the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade, a ridiculously silly group of post-Sixties lefties still haunting campus at the time. Adopting their shopworn tactics, we held an “upper-class sit-in” at the Emerald’s office on Monday of election week, smoking cigars and squatting on their couch until a photographer arrived to memorialize the occasion.
The story ran the next morning. And that’s when everyone started paying attention — and joining in the fun. Mallard may well have won, but thanks to our intervention, the ginned-up “controversy” drew a record turnout: Mallard was trounced, 1,068 to 590.
Technically, Donald didn’t “win” — the election wasn’t a “choice” between mascot candidates. It’s our fault that the election was regarded as a referendum for Donald, and not a referendum against Mallard. We made Donald the issue.
The Official History also misses an important nuance: 1,658 votes were cast in the measure. The race for student-body president drew less than half the votes. On the same ballot.
That comparison was our immediate public spin after the election, and we were quite proud of it. So proud, in fact, that we used it as our rallying cry the following year, when we ran for student-body president — as the “Apathy Candidate”, claiming the allegiance of some fifteen thousand students who never voted in campus elections.
We promised nothing. We played solitaire at the presidential debate.
And we missed the run-off by only 25 votes.