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December 5, 1996

University Archives

Before there was the Pitt Panther, there was the Pitt urchin. At least the boy wearing a bowler hat and holding a sign with "mascot" on it in a photograph of the University's 1890 football team brings to mind an urchin. Most likely he was a team member's younger brother or another student.

The panther itself did not appear on the scene until 1909. It was suggested as the University's mascot by George M. P. Baird, class of 1909, during a meeting of students and alumni in the autumn of that year. According to Baird, it was chosen because: "The panther was the most formidable creature indigenous to the Pittsburgh region; it had ancient heraldic standing as a noble animal; the happy accident of alliteration; the close approximation of its hue to the old gold of the University's colors, hence its easy adaptability in decoration, and the fact that no other college or university then employed it as a symbol." Although the panther may once have been the most formidable creature native to the Pittsburgh area and has ancient standing as a noble animal, it has not always projected those virtues as a Pitt symbol. Since its creation in 1909, there have been at least a half dozen versions of the Pitt Panther. They range from a leopard-like spotted creature from 1920, the oldest known photograph of the mascot, to a raggedy, truly pathetic specimen from the 1970s to the cartoon character of today. In between, there even was what appears to be a panther created from an actual lion's hide.

"From the mid '30s to the mid '60s, I think it's a female lion," says University archivist Rebecca Abromitis. "It would be totally not politically correct at all right now. I am sure it's real fur." The evolution of the Pitt Panther is just one of the stories about the University's past on display through the end of the month in the lobby of Hillman Library. Visitors to the exhibit, "Enduring Symbols of the University of Pittsburgh," also can learn about the University's seal and the changes it has undergone over the years and view the original blueprints for the Cathedral of Learning. Created by Abromitis, who was named University archivist in October, the first person to officially serve in that position since the retirement of Nory Rossell in 1988, the exhibit is in recognition of the 30th anniversary of the University Archives.

"As the official repository we're responsible for keeping documentation on the University related to its history," Abromitis explains. "We're required to keep material for legal or fiscal reasons. We're required to keep material for administrative reasons and for future research purposes." Before the archives were established by acting Chancellor David Kurtzman in 1966, Pitt's history was housed under less than ideal conditions in what was known as "The Vault," really a corner of the library. Some items in the collection still carry stickers labeled "Vault." The archives contain over 2,000 cubic feet of material (imagine more than 2,000 file boxes) housed in both Hillman and the Masonic Temple. Only about 40 percent of the material, however, has been processed for use by scholars and members of the University community, a situation Abromitis plans to remedy over time.

Initiatives planned by Abromitis also include an oral history program using long-term faculty and staff; an active outreach program to encourage departments, administrative units and faculty to deposit materials in the archives, and closer collaboration with the Department of Records Management to develop guidelines for the retention of University records.

Although Pitt was established as the Pittsburgh Academy in 1787, very few items in the archives go back beyond the 1860s. Almost all of Pitt's early records were destroyed in fires, especially the fire of 1845, which incinerated most of Downtown. The few documents in the archives prior to the 1860s exist because they were housed in locations other than University buildings when the fires struck.

Among those records is the monthly notice for student Andrew Potts dated June 1, 1794. At the time, the administration and faculty kept much closer tabs on students. The report shows that during the month of May, Potts was absent from prayers three times, absent from morning classes twice, late for afternoon classes once and absent from afternoon classes on two occasions. According to then faculty member J. Davidson, Potts was "generally attentive; lessons and exercises pretty carefully studied; but sometimes too talkative." The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Other old documents are limited to an alumni register, student roll books, grade books, a few items of correspondence and the minutes of faculty meetings.

"My very favorite thing in the archives is a photograph that was done in 1920 when a large portion of the faculty and students formed the shape of a panther," says Abromitis. "It's wonderful. I don't know how they got that many people to stand still long enough." One of the most unusual events in the history of Pitt was the visit of Premier Khrushchev, his wife, Nina, their three children and a host of other Soviet dignitaries, including the Russian writer M. A. Sholokhov and the editor of newspaper Izvesta, on Sept. 24, 1959. Khrushchev came to Pitt at the invitation of Chancellor Edward Litchfield, who had been in Russia the previous year. Following a tour of Downtown and a stop at Children's Hospital, the premier arrived at the University for a luncheon.

Along with Khrushchev, Chancellor Litchfield and other high-ranking Pitt administrators, luncheon guests included Pittsburgh Mayor Thomas Gallagher, Pennsylvania Gov. David Lawrence and Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. of the U.S. State Department.

During the luncheon, the Russian leader claimed that the Soviet Union would surpass the United States in production within a few years and urged that the two nations find a way to cooperate for peace.

"Neither you nor our people want war, so let us live like good neighbors," Khrushchev said. "Under conditions of tension the cold war may easily turn into a hot war, into a very hot one, a nuclear war which could not only burn but incinerate. The surest way to avoid this unenviable proposition is to destroy the means of war…We propose that the cold war be outlawed everywhere and for all times." Chancellor Litchfield responded with one of his best speeches: "I would suggest that we compete in establishing societies in which all men find opportunity to develop their knowledge and their abilities in accordance with their capacities; societies, both of ours, in which men's minds are free to explore the universe with no limits imposed upon them beyond those of their own abilities; societies in which the search for truth is our mutual and constant objective." Despite such speeches, less than three years later, in October 1962, the United States and Soviet Union were on the verge of nuclear destruction in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Pittsburghers talked for days about the Khrushchev visit. A story in The New York Times announced "Pittsburgh Stop Warmest of Tour" and the Pittsburgh papers praised Chancellor Litchfield's speech. The Pittsburgh Press even quoted at length from it in an editorial.

Along with photographs of the Khrushchev visit, the University Archives contains a film of the event.

The archives are available by appointment. To schedule a time, call Abromitis at 648-7998.

–Mike Sajna

Filed under: Feature,Volume 29 Issue 8

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