The Oski Committee: Keepers of Bears, secrets

Photo of Oski
Sunny Shen/File

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They don’t want you to know.

Hiding in plain sight, they slip into its skin and assume its identity. They transform into something not of this world. A beast whose mouth is bound shut. Whose countenance never changes. Whose pitch black eyes allow it to see — and consume — the world around it.

This is the Oski Committee, keepers of UC Berkeley’s iconic golden bear. For 75 years, the committee has kept its secrets. This is its story.

Oski’s origins

Oski was born Sept. 25, 1941. At the freshmen rally that night, he set himself out as a troublemaker: He threw tomatoes at rallygoers, “jitterbugged with co-eds” and literally made a splash by falling into water left by a fire hose.

The mascot was created by Billy Rockwell, who was a junior at the time. It sported a papier-mache head, yellow sweater, gold pants and plump physique. His identity was revealed a week after Oski’s debut.

Though he was not UC Berkeley’s first mascot, Oski was an instant hit. He began attending various California spirit events as the ASUC mascot. Tom Putnam, who was then chair of the Rally Committee, told Berkeley News in 1999 that Oski grew popular enough that he enlisted some Rally Committee members to detail Oski for his protection.

When Rockwell joined the Navy — and later the Marines — to fight in World War II, he handed Oski duty off to his classmates, who continued to occasionally perform as Oski while he was at war.

Stout but sturdy: The Oski Committee

Upon his return in 1946, Rockwell was “somewhat involved” in Oski, he told Berkeley News in 1999. It’s said this is when the Oski Committee — the secret organization that brings Oski to life and protects him to this day — was founded.

Historically, the Oski Committee required members to be of short stature — Rockwell was only 5’5”. The height cap varied between 5’4” and 5’7” over the years. Being a man was also a requirement of membership, though that restriction was ostensibly dropped from ads by 1974.

No one was to know who was in the costume at any one time. Whether membership in the committee could be divulged changed over the years. Initially, membership was secret; by 1962, it was open. By 1974, it was secret again.

The Oski Committee declined to identify any of their current members to The Daily Californian or to confirm any details about the present structure of its organization.

The secrecy of the committee was said to promote humility but also unaccountability. In 1955, Oski threw ice cream at a crowd, allegedly causing “permanent injury” to a 12-year-old boy. He thwarted a $50,000 lawsuit from the alleged victim because the plaintiffs could not identify the person in the suit.

Growing pains

Oski’s behavior during his first 50 years was at times charmingly mischievous — or salaciously depraved. He was well known for pelvic thrusting and allegedly attempting to look up women’s skirts. In the ‘60s, he visited a topless dancer; in the ‘70s, he allegedly “goosed” pom-pom girls; in the ‘80s, he physically attacked the Stanford Tree.

The last straw came in 1990, when Oski threw a two-layer cake into a crowd, splattering the family of All-American Oakland local Gary Payton. Thirty-four years after he had gotten away with the ice cream incident, his antics had finally caught up with him.

For the first time, Oski was banned from a Cal game. The bear returned after a two-week hiatus, following discussions with administrators about his future, secrecy and alleged alcohol use. He was made to wear a “Just say no” button and do community service promoting anti-drug and alcohol use programs.

The committee was forced to adopt a constitution for the first time, and the identity of the person in the costume was to be revealed to a faculty adviser. The first was alumnus Nadesan Permaul, and then Diane Milano, the former director of Cal’s spirit groups.

Some in the community viewed the changes unfavorably. Cedric Puleston, a former Daily Cal columnist, viewed the new Oski as “lobotomized” and wrote he missed the old Oski. In a letter to the editor, the Stanford Tree welcomed the changes, writing he would be glad to finally be able to “kick (Oski’s) butt” for the first time.

“Oski will now be a tool, a puppet, a whipping boy of the university’s bureaucratic machine,” the Tree wrote in the letter. “Good bye to the old Oski, and hello to the new and improved wimpy Oski.”

Golden years for the Golden Bear?

Despite changes over the years, Oski is much the same bear he was in 1941. He continues to appear at campus spirit events and bring joy to Cal fans. And he still conducts mischief, even if it’s tamer than it used to be (who doesn’t get less rambunctious with age?).

As for what he’s looking forward to at the ripe old age of 80, Oski indicated the possibility of finally passing his sophomore year this semester. He also pondered reconciliation with the Stanford Tree.

“We’ve had our battles over the years, and I think the tapes can speak for themselves,” Oski said in an email. “Although this year, the Stanford Tree has be(en) peculiarly nice to me… I wonder what it’s plotting?”

Contact Gabe Classon at [email protected]