Students and faculty walk past them every day; fans stand next to them, waiting to cross the street to the Ice Castle before a football game; and prospective Penguins see them for the first time while on a college visit. The Pete the Penguin fire hydrants are a traditional landmark around campus, but how they came to be is a classic Youngstown story.
Twenty years ago, Leslie Cochran, president of Youngstown State University at the time, asked professor Susan Russo if her art students would be interested in revamping the campus hydrants over the summer. Only one student raised his hand — Bob Barko Jr.
Barko said he had needed a summer job and thought it would be a great way to spend his break.
“Dr. Cochran had seen something similar out west in Colorado or something and came to Susan Russo and said It would be something he wanted to do here,” Barko said.
The project started the summer of 1993 and took Barko approximately a few months to paint just less than 100 hydrants. A few issues arose that the young artist didn’t expect. One of them was the strategic method firefighters use to differentiate one type of hydrant from another.
“If you look at regular fire hydrants, some tops are orange, some tops are yellow some tops are white — it means different water pressures. So we had to come up with what that meant around campus,” Barko said. “We ended up doing the same thing. If you look around, some Petes have white hats, some Petes have black hats, some have white.”
As the first batch of fire hydrants were complete, Barko started to get recognition for his work from the campus and community. Barko said he rememebers former Board of Trustee Scott Schulick, student body president at the time, complimented him for his work.
A special feature not many people would notice at first glance about the penguin hydrants is that all of them are unique in their own special way. It’s a plan Barko wanted to stick to with his original design.
“Every single one has a little something different. If you walk by the one next to the planetarium, he’s got a little telescope. The one by McDonough had a pallet and paint brush,” Barko said.
If you look closely, Barko also said that there are two Penny fire hydrants, one close to Buchner Hall.
The Penguins were a huge success, but after 10 years, Barko got a call from YSU to redo the hydrants. In 2002, they not only had him redo the existing hydrants, but to paint a new batch of hydrants that were considered new university property.
“In 2002, before I went away to journalism school for the military, in February, they asked me to come back and do a batch because they said the ones around campus core looked really shabby,” Barko said.
When Barko finished in 2002, he did a final head count and realized he had 114 painted penguins parading around campus. This parade let to the official Penguin Parade, a display of 31 fiberglass penguins that went on display all over Youngstown in 2004.
Barko’s influence on YSU has made him appreciate his education from the university. He gives much recognition to many mentors he met throughout his career.
“It’s funny because I think about Al Gallo, and a lot of folks that aren’t with us anymore but were such great mentors to me and taught me things about marketing and all of these different things that all rolled up and ended up being what it is today. I sit there, and I miss them and I’m so grateful for all of the great things these people have taught me over the years,” he said.
Barko has had much success selling his artwork over the years through his own business, Steeltown Studios. He hyper-focuses on Youngstown landmarks in a fine art, graphic design style. He has done prints of Isley’s, Stambaugh Auditorium, the Youngstown skyline and Idora Park.
“This is my enjoyment; this is what I like to do on my spare time. I work out on the air base full time and every once in a while I get to take leave and do a [art] show, or go paint fire hydrants for a couple hours, that’s my relaxation,” Barko said.
His Youngstown pride beams as he speaks about his favorite places around town, says hello to familiar faces as he hangs out downtown, and creates artwork using his favorite city as his muse. Barko plans on participating in YSU’s “Summer Festival of the Arts” and many others this summer.
“There’s nowhere else like Youngstown, or YSU. It’s the best place in the world by far. My travels with the air force have brought me all over the world, but it is always so great to come home and that kind of spirit, just that little thing to show who we are and what we are about just shows it right there,” he said.
The 20th anniversary of the fire hydrant project has passed, and Barko is ready to get out on the streets to re-do the chipped Pete’s.
“I was talking to Dr. Dunn over the holidays, and he said, ‘lets do it. Just send [the proposal] to my office,’” Barko said.
YSU’s Student Government Association is planning on taking the project on as its volunteer work for this year. A merge of YSU generations could potentially come together to get the penguin hydrants looking their best.
“It’s pretty cool to think about: 20 years later we are talking about and thinking about doing them again,” Barko said. “They are just such a great part of the school history.”