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A devil of a life

November 18, 2021

Nov. 20 marks 75 years since Sparky the Sun Devil was born at ASU

On a clear, sunny day in 1946, Arizona State College track coach Donn Kinzle was on an early morning run along the Salt River bed. A dust devil materialized, swirling and dancing above the sand and rock.

At that instant, the idea for the Sun Devil was born.

More Hot Stuff than Mephistopheles, Arizona State University’s mascot turns 75 this Saturday, Nov. 20.

Dancing, prancing, crowd-surfing and crowd-pleasing, the pitchfork-wielding imp looks a lot different after seven and a half decades — who doesn’t? — but he’s passionately loved by his maroon and gold fans.

Consider the reaction to two news items last August: a survey listing the most offensive and creepy college mascots in America included Sparky on the eighth spot. Later the same week, a petition circulated calling on ASU to change its Sun Devils nickname to Sun Angels.

Social media and online comments boiled. The general response? “Fork that.”

1946 illustration of the original Sun Devil mascot

Original Sparky design, 1946 Arizona State College yearbook.

During the 1940s, Arizona State’s mascot was a bulldog. Bulldog mascots originated with Yale and continued with a string of colleges, notably the University of Georgia. University boosters worried the team name didn’t stand out. Arizona needed something that represented the institution’s place in the Southwest.

Three other higher education institutions have devils as their mascots: Duke University, Dickinson College and Central Connecticut State University. There are more than 100 high schools in the U.S. that use red devils as their mascots, according to CBS Sports.

“I personally think it's an advantage because a Sun Devil is something that's very unique and tied to Arizona's climate and culture,” said Tony Grandlienard, mascot manager for Sun Devil Athletics at ASU. “Whereas the school down south is a wildcat, I could probably tell you at least five to 10 schools that are also wildcats. So I think it gives us an edge in terms of school spirit. And I think Sparky just kind of brings a lot to the table in terms of his colors and personalities.”

After Arizona State Teachers College became Arizona State College in 1945, the student body voted 819 to 196 on Nov. 8, 1946, to make the change to the Sun Devils after frequent appeals to the student newspaper, the State Press. The moniker was officially adopted on Nov. 20, which is the date the university marks as Sparky's birthday.

Sparky was designed by artist and former Disney employee Berk Anthony in the late 1940s. But he was designed as a logo, not a mascot.

Sparky didn’t appear “in the flesh” until 1951, when he showed up at games wearing a satin jumpsuit with a long tail and carrying a pitchfork. He may be one of the earliest costumed sports mascots. Experts cite Mr. Met in baseball and Brutus Buckeye in college football, both debuting in 1964, as the first.

Played by gymnast, former Marine and ASU student Dick Jacobs, he performed dangerous stunts that would be forbidden today. He was also joined by two “Sparkettes,” Peggy Holiday and Peggy Sparkman.

Video by Ken Fagan/ASU News

Alan Wald played Sparky from 1980 to 1983. Without the Cardinals or Coyotes in the Valley, the Phoenix Suns and ASU were the only games in town back then, and the house was full at every game.

Since Wald couldn’t be an athlete, he decided to be Sparky. His parents were less than thrilled.

“Really? We sent you to school to be a mascot?” was their reaction, he said.

But being on the field, with 50,000 people roaring at him, there was “nothing like it.”

The suit was corduroy, zipped in front. It was no frills compared with the 2021 suit. Disney made the mask (which he still has).

Wald started the tradition of doing pushups for every point scored. At a Stanford game, Wald remembers he did 317 pushups. He was also the first Sparky to bring a flaming pitchfork on the field. (“That I stole from Florida State.”) 

“It was an unbelievable experience,” said Wald, who works for a nonprofit trade association. It’s his claim to fame — that and being the father in the only father-son Sparky duo. His son, Kyle, later donned the horns and tail.

“People all have their own stories about Sparky,” Wald said.

But Sparky doesn’t have his own stories, because Sparky doesn’t speak. That’s verboten in the mascot realm, according to Grandlienard. No talking in the suit.

1983 photo of Sparky

Sparky circa 1983, played by alum Alan Wald. ASU archive photo

What’s the process for becoming Sparky? There are tryouts once or twice a year. Can you do pushups? Can you be interactive with the crowd? Can you act in character based on your settings, i.e., imitate basketball moves during a basketball game or football moves during a football game?

And are you available? Sparky does more than 300 appearances every year. Off-campus, Sparky appears at weddings, bar mitzvahs, quinceañeras, 5K races, school visits — anything that’s not potentially damaging to the university’s reputation. (To date there has never been a request for Sparky to appear at a bachelor party.)

Sparky is a lot like Santa on Christmas. He’s in a lot of places at once. Athletics does all the sporting events and special requests. Each campus has a suit, as do some large colleges. (The W. P. Carey School of Business, the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering and the alumni office all have their own suits.)

Without multiple Sparkys, Sun Devil Athletics would have three to five times more requests, as well as some exhausted kid racing from the West campus to the Polytechnic campus and everywhere in between in one day.

“We all communicate and do our best to make sure we don't have two Sparkys in the same area visible at the same time,” Grandlienard said. “Because of course that goes back to the mascot rules: There's only one that exists.”

It’s not always a young man in that suit. Women are accepted and welcome to try out for the part. (Currently there aren’t any women on the roster.)

“It's something that you probably wouldn't be able to tell because they're the same kind of height and weight as what we require in athletics,” Grandlienard said. “We’re completely on board with it as long as they can do the pushups.”

The devil has been cast from the stadium only once, when the Pope visited Arizona. Pope John Paul II came to the Valley in September 1987. The pontiff held an evening Mass at Sun Devil Stadium for more than 75,000 people. ASU charged almost $200,000 for the event to be held there, but the Vatican had one stipulation: All images of Sparky (and the pitchfork) had to be covered.

Sparky “would tell you it is what it is,” Grandlienard said. “He's glad that he was on the stadium banners and whatnot. But just speaking for the university, we wanted to respect the magnitude of something like that occurring at Sun Devil Stadium and wanting to take proper precautions and preserving that image and respecting their traditions as well.”

Where does Sparky go from here?

“It's full steam ahead for Sparky,” Grandlienard said. “And we're excited that he's had 75 years of experiences and changes and stuff to add to his legacy.”

Top image: Cameron Kling, 3, plays with his Sparky balloon at the 2017 Homecoming Block Party. Cameron's father, Shannon, is an ASU alumnus and hopes his son will attend the school as well. Photo by Anya Magnuson/ASU News

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News

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Morrison Institute looks at silver lining of pandemic disruptions

November 18, 2021

State of our State examines how innovations can be sustained

The COVID-19 pandemic has been distressing and disruptive, but many of the forced changes have revealed a silver lining. The annual State of the State conference captured that glass-half-full attitude on Nov. 15.

“Sparked by Disruption: The Role of Public Policy in Sustaining Pandemic-Era Innovations” was the topic of the livestreamed event held by the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University.

ASU President Michael Crow said we should consider how to learn from the pandemic.

“How will we address the pandemics of the future and the complexities of the future, which will come the way this pandemic came – unexpectedly?” he said.

“How do we use this moment as a design moment?

“How do we take metro Phoenix and all of Arizona away from our historical economy founded on fragility – ups and downs – beyond even an innovative or resilient economy all the way to what we call an anti-fragile economy, where organizations are continuously innovating in terms of adaptation and creative, economic opportunity?”

Pandemic pivots

The webinar featured several speakers discussing how their institutions pivoted during the pandemic in order to achieve their goals. They included:

Carolyn Stewart, superintendent, Bullhead City Elementary School District: This small rural district, along the Colorado River in northwest Arizona, is dependent on tourism, including recreation on the river and casinos in nearby Laughlin, Nevada. Like other rural districts, Bullhead City has had trouble attracting and keeping teachers and staff.

During the pandemic, people paid cash for properties in the district, turning housing that had been rented to district employees into weekend getaways.

“As a result, current employees have been forced to leave when homes they were renting were sold,” Stewart said. “Even if Bullhead City could attract teachers from outside the community, there is no affordable housing for them.”

So the district decided to use recovery funds to build affordable housing. The goal is to put one-, two- and three-bedroom manufactured duplexes on a 5-acre property.

“The concept is to have a landing place for new employees from outside the area to foster social connections and encourage them to remain in the community to find permanent housing.” 

Robbie Koerperich, superintendent, Holbrook Unified School District: This rural district has four schools and 1,800 students in an area the size of Rhode Island that includes parts of the Navajo Nation. Some students were spending up to 90 minutes each way on the school bus every day. During the pandemic, learning in most districts went remote.

“In Holbrook and other rural school districts in Arizona, we knew we couldn’t bring live teacher-led activities to students’ homes because many don’t have internet, and some don’t have electricity,” he said.

So the district started delivering food and school materials to families at bus stop locations around the district.

“That experience caused us to think, ‘What if we could take a whole classroom to them?’ ” he said. So they used federal funds to create the “Road Runner Learning Bus,” outfitting an old bus with a generator, Wi-Fi, desks and laptops.

“Now a driver, a teacher and an assistant can travel to students and they can receive one-on-one education at a parking lot, gas station or in their neighborhood,” he said.

“It’s easier for them to go 5 miles to the learning bus than 45 miles to the school.”

For now the bus is limited to reading intervention and special education. Koerperich said the district wants to convert small, 15-student buses to learning centers so that teachers can drive them without needing a commercial driver’s license.

Gwendena Lee-Gatewood, chairwoman, White Mountain Apache Tribe: As the pandemic was escalating in 2020, the tribal council issued a cease-and-desist order to require social distancing in the community.

“Every one of us has had to make sacrifices, individually and overall,” she said, noting that the prohibition of funeral wakes and sunrise dances brought great anguish to the community.

The tribe established contact-tracing teams, sending community members along with health workers to foster trust as they knocked on doors. That was key in managing the pandemic and finding people who were symptomatic before they became very ill.

“Early outreach and strong partnerships saved lives — I cannot stress that enough,” she said.

Work changes

Several Arizona leaders discussed how their sectors innovated during the pandemic in a panel discussion moderated by Grady Gammage Jr.:

Samuel Thumma, judge, Arizona Court of Appeals: “My true heroes are the folks in trial court,” he said. Workers came up with ways to keep people safe, such as using restaurant-style pagers so people could wait outside for their hearing to be called.

Zoom court meant that more people could attend.

“When someone is seeking to evict a tenant, there’s a degree of futility – ‘I can’t make it there so I’ll give up,’” he said, noting that some courthouses are not reachable by public transportation. “Before remote appearances were allowed, about a third to 40% of tenants never showed up, and those cases were resolved by default.

“In March 2020, remote appearances were first allowed, first by telephone and then by (Microsoft) Teams and Zoom, and the failure-to-appear rate in February 2021 was about 14%.”

Maria Cristina Fuentes, executive director, Governor’s Office of Youth, Faith and Family: Fuentes said that some changes that were done by necessity will now likely stay because of convenience, such as online driver’s license renewals (although drivers will still need to go to an office to get photos taken if theirs is more than 12 years old).

While supervisors are still hashing out in-person and work-from-home options for many of the state’s 33,000 employees, one department that had to move very quickly was child safety.

“Child protection doesn’t work remotely,” she said, so that office worked hard to get the system back quickly, and partnered with the courts to keep custody and adoption hearings on track.

“Thousands of children, but for those efforts, would still be in foster care today,” she said.

Corey Woods, mayor of Tempe: Affordable housing has been an issue in the city for a long time, but the pandemic exacerbated it, with many people becoming unemployed or underemployed.

The city adopted Hometown for All in January and since then has raised more than $6 million for affordable housing.

“You do find in other communities, when you put these housing developments near people, folks say, ‘We want affordable housing but not near me.’ We’ve changed hearts and minds,” he said.

Michael White, chief clinical officer, Valleywise Health: At the height of the pandemic, 90% of ambulatory health care was virtual, which required a lot of technical support.

“People wanted the safety of being in their own space,” he said.

“As we’ve gone through various stages, we’re at 30% today and expect it to stay this way.”

Telemedicine does lose the human touch, he said.

“There will be times it just cannot be done virtually,” he said, but a new study has found that telemedicine can drastically improve blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Robin Reed, president and CEO, Black Chamber of Arizona: Reed says the pandemic made employers understand the value of their employees.

“We’ve had a significant paradigm shift from employers believing that the job opportunity was the prize and now realizing that the employee is the prize,” he said.

The disruption also allowed companies to focus on diversity and inclusion as a core change and not something to be considered in relation to an incident.

“As a former financial adviser, it was standard to advise our clients relative to investment capital that to get the greatest return, you need to diversify your investments,” he said.

“Why isn’t it the same with human capital?”

Working toward more solutions

During the event, Morrison Institute co-founder Richard Morrison honored the 2021 Distinguished Fellows: Cynthia Zwick, executive director of the anti-poverty organization Wildfire, and Jonathan Koppell, president of Montclair State University in New Jersey and former vice provost for public service and social impact at ASU.

Zwick said that the technology changes wrought by the pandemic, such as being able to apply for benefits or attend eviction hearings online, have helped poor people.

“While the pandemic was often painful in so many ways, the changes that were required are vitally important,” she said.

Koppell said that the pandemic forced Arizona to confront many of its challenges, including the lack of affordable housing and inequity in education.

“I’ve seen more discussion around health disparities, particularly around mental health, than I’ve ever seen,” he said.

But solutions remain out of reach.

“We’ve had this flood of money into the social services sector which is unprecedented, and all of that is going to dry up and how prepared are we as a state or a community to pick up when that bridge collapses?” said Koppell, who also was dean of the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions at ASU.

“Finally, if we’re being honest, we are still in the thrall of deep political dysfunction, and until we can reconcile ourselves to the need to solve that, it will be massively difficult to engage in the creation of any solutions.

“None of the problems we confront are unsolvable. The biggest problem is getting our act together to work toward solutions.”

Top photo: A banner flies above Mill Avenue at Fifth Street in downtown Tempe, reminding the Sun Devil community to take precautions against the COVID-19 virus and get vaccinated. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News