Soon after arriving on campus, most George Fox freshmen get a lesson on the university's oldest and oddest tradition.
The instructions are simple. Be vigilant for a flash, the moment the leather pillow-shaped Bruin Jr. is exposed on campus. Then, grab it and run for the nearest exit.
It would be a lot easier if students from the other three classes weren’t trying to tackle you, tear the leather prize from your hands, and carry it off themselves. Today, students call this Bruin Brawl, but previous generations remember it as Bruin Flash or B.J. Fight. Yes, George Fox University is affiliated with the pacifist Quaker movement. And yes, the irony is undeniable.
Although disdained by some as a testosterone-soaked mix of mud wrestling and tug-of-war, no one can deny Bruin Jr.’s ability to spark a memory. “When you ask people about Bruin Jr., you always get a story, even if they’ve never touched it,” says Greg Woolsey, a 1994 graduate whose father battled for Bruin Jr. while a student in the late 1960s. Alumni still tell about the first airborne flash in the late 1970s when Bruin Jr. dropped from a helicopter into a crowd on the old football field. Dennis Sturdevant (’81), owner of Precision Helicopters outside Newberg, estimates he’s airlifted Bruin Jr. to campus six to eight times over the last three decades.
The grand tour
Those weren’t the only times Bruin Jr. picked up frequent-flier miles. The younger Woolsey took it on a George Fox study tour to Italy, Germany, Switzerland, France, and England. While at the Tower of London, Bruin Jr.’s belly picked up the signature of a member of the British Royal Guard.
Most of Bruin Jr.’s travels are local. Jeff Rickey (’76), now dean of admissions and financial aid at Earlham College, remembers Bruin Jr. taking a trip down the Willamette River during the annual George Fox raft race. A student in the race flashed Bruin Jr. as he passed under spectators on the Highway 219 bridge.
“Of course, everyone was waiting for him when his raft made it to shore.” Bruin Jr.’s appearance has always caused a stir, sometimes at inappropriate locations. It has appeared on the court at halftime of varsity basketball games, at a Christmas candlelight ceremony, and, of course, at the biggest student gatherings on campus: chapel.
“The numerous chapel flashes were in poor taste, but very entertaining,” says Rickey, “especially when done on the stage behind a speaker who was invariably running late.”
Object of obsession
How seriously do some students take Bruin Jr.? Early in the school’s history, students were known to chase each other through Newberg, even stopping traffic. The school newspaper reported a struggle “amid falling trees” during the legendary 1962 Columbus Day storm.
Age may not dampen Bruin Jr. fever. The class of 1957 brought a vintage version of Bruin Jr. to the 2007 50-year class reunion. “They wouldn’t even let me touch it,” says former alumni director Robby Larson. Kara Newell (’57) warned Larson to keep his distance. “She told me: ‘If you try to take it, we’ll get you.’ I think she was serious.”
Gary Brown, former alumni director, remembers the reaction of fellow student Ken Kumasawa (’63) when a group of friends spotted Bruin Jr. from the second story of Minthorn Hall.
“Bruin Jr. was flashed outside, and we headed for the stairway,” Brown says. “Ken threw open a window and bailed out. He was on the ground and in hot pursuit before we were.”
The amazing part of the story is Kumasawa dove out the window with a cast on his already broken leg.
Dancing in the street
Bruin Jr. appeared in fall 2007 following the university’s annual all-campus Serve Day. Encircled by more than 100 cheering spectators, about 50 young men surged back and forth for more than three hours. At the center of the scrum, one student clenched Bruin Jr. while the nearest students attempted to tear Bruin Jr. from his hands, a third layer of students struggled to peel away the second layer of students. Grass turned to mud, which in turn covered shoes, pants, shirts, hair, and faces. Finally, at 10:30 p.m., Bruin Jr. came free, and a senior sprinted to the edge of campus with dozens of classmates. They swarmed him and his prize. “We all danced in the middle of the street and took a group picture with our Bruin,” says senior Sarah Reid.
A 1968 flash may hold the record for the longest Bruin Jr. contest. Mike “Biggs” Wirta (’74), now a George Fox custodial supervisor, recalls the epic struggle that raged across campus.
“It started in late morning and ended at dusk,” he remembers. “Guys would go in shifts. They’d wrestle for it, then leave to go to class or to eat.”
Larry Herrick (’72) remembers how exhausting a Bruin Jr. flash was.
“They got pretty brutal. Once when I walked away, I could hardly hold up my arms, they got pounded so much.”
Not surprisingly, administrators have occasionally tried to quash the tradition to prevent injuries. Other times, Bruin Jr. has been confiscated temporarily. Levi Pennington — who served as president from 1911 to 1941 — was said to “charge into the fray” in an attempt to keep excited students under control.
Today, Bruin Brawls are restricted to outdoors and announced in advance, and they require supervision by representatives from the student government.
Modern Bruin Brawls often leave large patches of mud on the campus lawns, but few permanent scars. “Nobody’s gone to the hospital in a couple years,” says Heather Eslinger ('08), a former student government officer who oversaw Bruin Brawls during her time at George Fox.
Things have gotten so civilized that former George Fox President Dave Brandt helped start the tussles several times during his tenure. His favorite flash occurred when he faked an ankle injury in the middle of the campus quad. A group of concerned students gathered as an ambulance arrived, siren screaming. When the paramedics reached him, Brandt reached into their gurney and pulled the blanket back to reveal Bruin Jr.
George Fox Bruins
George Fox’s athletic teams can trace their Bruin nickname and mascot to the same bear that began the Bruin Jr. tradition. Although sportswriters called the college’s athletic squads “Quakers” in the 1950s and ’60s, the Bruin nickname was used in the 1940s and officially adopted in 1970 by a vote of students and faculty.
The descendant of a black bear that lived on campus in the late 1800s, Bruin Jr. has had numerous reincarnations in canvas or leather skin. Sometimes the struggle is too much, and the faux bear must be replaced. Other times, Bruin Jr. disappears during the summer vacation, going into hibernation in some alumnus’ closet or garage.
Somehow Bruin Jr. always returns to campus. Psychology professor Kris Kays (Ba ’87, PsyD ’94) admits she doesn’t really understand the allure of Bruin Jr., but says she’s glad for the stories and the tradition. “It’s helped me feel part of something bigger than me, my class, and my generation. It helps give us a sense of community, and that’s one of the richer parts of being at George Fox.”
Steve Bury (’83) spearheaded a student government effort to bring back the tradition in the early ’80s after a period of dormancy. New students were educated on Bruin Jr. etiquette at dorm orientation meetings, and a leather worker created the new Bruin Jr. based upon a retired Bruin Jr. found in a museum display case.
Bury improvised the inside filling. “We stuffed it with cotton and my mom’s nylons.”
Another story out of the 1970s tells of the worn-out remains of an old Bruin Jr. being placed inside a new leather Bruin Jr. Wherever Bruin Jr. went, it carried inside a part of its predecessor, a link with the past.
If not always so symbolically, Bruin Jr. lives on at George Fox.