“Heinz Warnecke, noted animal sculptor, agreed to carve the Lion Shrine
yesterday,” read the article in the April 30, 1941 Daily Collegian. Warnecke,
who had brought six plaster models and three full-scale drawings of lion figures
for review by the Class of 1940 Shrine committee said, “I believe in the
work the College is doing for the sake of art and I will try to traditionalize
the figure of the lion.”
From Warnecke’s models, a student committee selected what they believed
to be the characteristic representation of the Pennsylvania mountain lion and,
as the saying goes, a shrine was born.
Today, with few exceptions, the Nittany Lion shrine reigns supreme at University
Park and just about every one of the University’s 20 undergraduate campuses.
And at least one campus (Penn State York) has two Nittany Lion sculptures.
Mike Bezilla ’75g, ’78g in his book Penn State: An Illustrated History explains
the origins of Penn State's Lion mascot. The story is excerpted here.
The Nittany Lion
“Every college the world over of any consequence has a college emblem
of some kind—all but The Pennsylvania State College. . . . Why not select
for ours the king of beasts—the Lion!! Dignified, courageous, magnificent,
the Lion allegorically represents all that our College Spirit should be, so
why not ‘the Nittany Mountain Lion?’ Why cannot State have a kingly, all-conquering
Lion as the eternal sentinel?” So wrote H. D. ‘Joe’ Mason, a Penn
State senior, in the March 1907 issue of the student publication, The Lemon.
Mason had been advocating the adoption of a college symbol since the spring
of 1904, when he had visited the campus of Princeton University as a member
of the baseball team. Embarrassed that his school had no counterpart to the
famous Princeton Tiger, Mason invented one on the spot: the mountain lion.
The student body liked Mason’s idea. The mountain lion was indeed a “dignified,
courageous, magnificent” animal, and it had roamed Mount Nittany and environs
until the 1880s. And by assuming the title Nittany Lion, the beast would have
a character unlike that of any other college’s mascot. (The origin of the word
“Nittany” is obscure. The most commonly accepted explanation traces
its derivation to Indian words meaning either “single mountain” or
“protective barrier against the elements,” in either case a reference
to what white settlers called Mount Nittany.) No vote was even taken on the
adoption of the Nittany Lion. It seemed to be such an appropriate symbol that
students, faculty, and townspeople accepted Mason’s idea almost from the first.
Two alabaster African lion statues, left over from the Pennsylvania exhibit
at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition were placed atop the columns at the main campus
entrance on College and Allen streets in 1907. These were the first tangible
lion symbols, and students affectionately referred to them as “Pa” and “Ma.” In the 1920s, a pair of stuffed mountain lions was placed
in the Recreation Building to watch over athletic events. About that same time,
the tradition began of having a student dressed in a furry lion outfit appear
at football games.
During the 1930s, students launched a campaign for a lion shrine, a place where
they could gather to hold pep rallies and celebrate sports victories (and have
their picture taken with Mom and Dad). The Class of 1940 voted to give as its
gift to their alma mater the sum of $5,430 to pay for the construction of such
a shrine. A committee was formed and after much deliberation chose a location
between the Recreation Building and Beaver Field, where the lion could be framed
against a natural setting of trees, grass, and shrubs. Sculptor Heinze Warnecke
was retained to carve the lion at the site from a thirteen-ton block of limestone.
Warnecke worked through the summer of 1942 and finished the statue in time for
it to be dedicated at homecoming ceremonies on October 24.
Since then, the Nittany Lion shrine has come to be one of the most visited,
photographed, and talked about places on the University Park campus. And the
image of the Nittany Lion has been etched not only in stone but in the memories
of tens of thousands of Penn Staters.