From school colors of purple and gold to the “Leatherneck” nickname, Western Illinois University is alive with spirit and traditions.
Our school colors date back 113 years, to 1902, the opening year of what was then called the Western Illinois Normal School. A first-year student, Mary Jarvis, inspired by the surrounding “golden prairie” filled with purple coneflowers, suggested the color combination as part of a school-wide contest. The purple and gold ribbons can be found on her 1906 diploma, which is housed in the Leslie F. Malpass Library Archives.
Ms. Jarvis was the first to see the power and pride in the purple and the gold. As I have told students at Commencement, those affiliated with Western have purple passion and gold grit. Purple is the color of good judgment and peace of mind. Gold is associated with higher ideas, wisdom, understanding, and enlightenment. It is the color of success, achievement, and triumph. Gold also represents generosity and giving. Students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends of Western Illinois University represent that passion, that wisdom, that grit.
And no one represents “grit” better than a Leatherneck. We are so fortunate to be associated with this powerful nickname, and we have the late, longtime Coach and Athletic Director Ray “Rock” Hanson to thank for our nickname, “The Fighting Leathernecks.” Hanson, who served at WIU from 1926 to 1964, was a decorated Marine Corps colonel and a war hero. Because of his affiliation with the Marine Corps, Hanson was able to secure permission to use the nickname, “Leathernecks,” for Western Illinois University. Today, WIU remains the only public school allowed to use the “Leathernecks” nickname.
Our mascot, Col. Rock III, aka “Rocky,” is named after that legendary coach and administrator. The first Rocky arrived on campus in 1958, followed by a succession of four-legged, and two-legged costumed, mascots. Our current mascot, Col. Rock III, joined the Western family in May 2015.
Wearing the school colors with pride, singing the fight song loud and clear and recognizing such traditions as celebrating Purple and Gold Day every April 24 and Founders’ Day every Sept. 23 are part of what keeps our school spirit and traditions alive and going strong. To ensure the spirit continues, new freshmen are indoctrinated into WIU culture during move-in weekend with the “Leatherneck Legacy” program.
“Leatherneck Legacy,” which was established by WIU Admissions in Fall 2014, brings new freshmen together in Western Hall on the second day of move-in weekend to learn the fight song and to hear from motivational speakers about the importance of Leatherneck tradition and pride. During the inaugural event, Jude Kiah, the former director of Go West Transit and the University Bookstore, shared “What It Means to Be a Leatherneck.” I think Mr. Kiah’s words bear repeating as we talk about spirit and tradition:
A.) To some, it means sports, athletics, games, being outdoors, intramurals.
B.) To others, it means you’ll open your mind to so many new things. The people who make it here will get connected and try new things. Join new clubs, make new friends, get connected.
C.) Being a Leatherneck means being focused, having a focus. You didn’t come here for just any reason. You came to get a degree and to eventually have a career. You are here to do something special.
D.) Being a Leatherneck is about fun. These will be the best four years if you let them be. But if you get too far into the fun, they can also be the worst four years.
E.) And finally, being a Leatherneck is about being home.
As we begin a new academic year, I ask our students, our faculty, and our staff to wear your school colors with pride. Get involved in campus activities and attend campus events. Be a true part of Western Illinois University. Embrace the traditions and the Leatherneck Legacy.
It’s a great day to be a Leatherneck!