It turns out that there are two versions of the story, both coming from the same basketball game in 1933–yes, the name goes that far back. Before then, Youngstown College, as it was then known, was called “Y College,” “YoCo,” “Wye Collegians,” or simply
“The Locals.” On the snowy evening of January 30, 1933, the YSU basketball team drove to West Liberty State Teachers College in West Virginia for a game, pulling their cars out of snow drifts on two occasions.
One version of the story has players coming up with the name in one of the cars during the trip. This had been a topic of conversation throughout that school year.
The more popular one, that I always heard, was that when the team arrived, to warm up they were stomping their feet and waving their arms, either in windmills to warm up for the game or just flapping their arms around. Whatever the case (and accounts differ here) the opposing team coach remarked that they “looked like a bunch of penguins.”
When the players returned, the student body unanimously accepted the name. It was announced formally in The Jambar in the December 15, 1933 issue before the first basketball game of the season against Slippery Rock.
There have been three live “Pete the Penguins” during the history of Youngstown. The first was brought back from Antarctica in 1939 and died in 1941, pursuing fish under the ice at Crandall Park pond. A second Pete, along with Patricia, his mate, were purchased shortly after, but died in 1942 of tuberculosis. The last Pete was acquired in 1968 and died in 1972–my freshman year, an event that seemed insignificant amid concerns about the Vietnam war and the re-election of Richard Nixon, and the pathetic football teams of that era under Dike Beede.
The first student mascot, later revealed to be Vic Rubenstein, was chosen in 1964. His costume was a penguin head and a tuxedo he rented himself each weekend from Rondinelli Tuxedos. Rubenstein, who was a managing editor of The Jambar, only revealed his identity after the last game of 1965. Eventually there was the costume we know today. Then, in 1986 Pete was joined by Penny, who were married in a ceremony. Most mascots are bachelors (think Brutus Buckeye) so in this respect Youngstown State is also quite unique.
In 2004 penguin statues were decorated by local artist and placed around the Youngstown community and on campus. One was decorated to look like John Young, another to commemorate Ohio presidents. A number can be seen in locations in downtown Youngstown, at Southern Park Mall, and a number around campus, including one at University Plaza, greeting visitors to the university.
I think most students of my era just thought it kind of odd. We would probably have laughed and mocked the idea of “fighting Penguins.” The change came in the Jim Tressel era of championship football teams where logos, and sports memorabilia and mascots became a much bigger thing. Now Pete and Penny are beloved symbols and “fighting Pete” adorns a gift we received, a set of Wendell August Forge coasters, and matching sweatshirts. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a few “Penguins” around your house as well. As we say when we root for our Youngstown teams, Go Guins!
Pete and Penny Penguin Mascots, YSU Sports
Premier Penguin, The Jambar, October 21, 2013.
Marah Morrison, The Story and Significance of Penguin Statues, The Jambar, January 11, 2018.