What’s It Like To Be Pete the Penguin

Pete the Penguin learns a play. Photo courtesy of YSU Archives and Special Collections

By Joseph Chapman

Youngstown State University is the only NCAA program with the nickname the Penguins. Each semester, the students and faculty look forward to sports where the iconic mascot, Pete the Penguin, inspires school spirit and leads teams to victory.

Michael Sebastion, YSU alumnus and current Pete the Penguin, said his love for dancing led him to be the mascot for his high school. He continued to grow his mascot legend by stepping into the flippers of Pete the Penguin as a college student. He said his favorite memories as Pete are charitable events such as taking a trip to the Akron Children’s Hospital and  performing at the Panerathon. 

“I say fall for it, even if it doesn’t work out. If it makes you happy, just do it … when you put on that suit. You’re a completely different person,” he said.

Michele Ristich Gatts, Pete the Penguin from 1986-1987 and adjunct professor, followed Sebastion’s advice almost exactly and said one of the goals she set for herself in college was to be bolder. Gatts tried out for Pete and got the job. She said while she was Pete, YSU President Jim Tressel, football coach at the time, created a community-oriented, almost family-like environment, inspiring lifelong friendships.

Pete the Penguin learns a play. Photo courtesy of YSU Archives and Special Collections

She even got to be a part of one of Pete the Penguin’s most historic moments — his wedding. She said her friend, who played Penny the Penguin, decided the two should be a couple, and then they planned an event which inspired togetherness. It even managed to bring in archrival Akron Zip’s mascot Zippy to attend the wedding. Gatts said she believes being Pete the Penguin even assisted her as she continued life outside of college as a journalist. 

“Being Pete the Penguin was probably the best decision I ever made out of anything I did in my college career … [it] really opened doors. When people would find out I was Pete [it was], suddenly, ‘Wow! You were Pete the Penguin? How was that?’” she said. “When you think of YSU, you picture Pete the Penguin. Just mentioning that you were affiliated with the university in that capacity and being the most well-known cheerleader for it, so to speak. It really means a lot to people.”

Before YSU had a costumed mascot, it had live penguins. Even before then, the university didn’t have a nickname. They were simply referred to as “the Locals” or “Y college.” Lisa Garofali, YSU archivist, said the nickname arrived when YSU was still called Youngstown College. After traveling to play West Liberty College during a blizzard, the players were freezing in an unheated locker room. This led to the players performing an unorthodox warmup.

“The team decided to warm up on the court by flapping their arms. The West Liberty coach said, ‘Look at those kids from Youngstown hopping around the court. They look like a bunch of penguins,’” she said. 

The name stuck, and in 1938 when the first football team for Youngstown took the field, they did so as Penguins. The following year, YSU’s first president, Howard Jones, acquired Pete I, who made his first appearance during the second homecoming game. Unfortunately, he died in 1941, only to be taxidermied and put in Jones’ office. He was then stolen a week later, never to be seen again.

Former Jambar managing editor Vic Rubenstein was the first ever Pete the Penguin in 1964. Photo courtesy of YSU Archives and Special Collections

In 1942, Pete II was acquired but died from pneumonia; this led to the first Pete the Penguin in costume in 1964, who at the time was referred to only as “the Penguin.” 

Garofali said it was then when Jambar managing editor, Vic Rubenstein, was called into action by his mentor and dean of men, John Gillespie.

“So they made this papier-mâché head, and he had to rent his suits … and he would show up at the games, and the crowd loved it,” she said.

Since then, YSU has had another live Pete, Pete III, who died from gout. It seems now the school decided to let humans fill out Pete’s identity, and his legend grows to this day.