St. Louis University, where I attended college and grad school, has perhaps the weirdest mascot of any educational institution in America, the Billiken. When I was a student, the story going around was that it was originally an early twentieth century novelty doll. People thought the football coach resembled the doll and the name stuck. This is far from certain but the university itself endorses it as a theory. Over the years, it has morphed into a modern cartoon figure. One of the strangest manifestations of our strange mascot it the beat-up, 10 foot tall topiary Billiken standing in front ot the student center on Grand Boulevard.
Even stranger are the Billiken's relations in Japan and Alaska. This has been the subject of scholarly research. A few years ago, my wife and I were checking into a guest house in Kyoto. We took off our shoes, stepped into the foyer and, wham, a Billiken in my face. The owners spoke little English, our group leader was busy with the check-in and I never did get a complete story. What was it? A Japanese good luck charm or a minor Shinto deity? Perhaps the sins of my college days were following me.
My hunt for the meaning of the Billiken became more confused when we were walking down the street in Juneau, Alaska, and stumbled across the Billiken Gift Shop. I was drawn in like a fly to a back yard bug zapper. Contrary to the research cited above, the owner maintained that the figure originated in Japan and was brought to Alaska by Japanese fishermen. He was well aware of the association with SLU. Well, beats me. I didn't write a thesis on the subject. I bought a little 2 inch Alaskan Billiken, wondering what the heck I was going to do with it. It's been in my dresser drawer ever since.
By the way, the SLU campus has been transformed since my day when, honestly, it was kind of a dump (not entirely due to my presence). Now it has beautiful landscaping and many new buildings. In addition, I believe it to be the largest repository of really bad outdoor sculpture in the area. We will return to this one day when I do a series on bad art and architecture in St. Louis.
TOMORROW: City Exchange