Washburn University and its Ichabods both are named for an early benefactor of the school – Ichabod Washburn.
Washburn College operated for years before formal athletic teams were formed in the late 1800s. Teams didn't have a nickname until 1904, when in the first edition of The Kaw yearbook, baseball players were called the “Sons of Ichabod.” The next year the same was said of the football team.
It wasn’t until 1938 that the stylized image of Ichabod Washburn – complete with mutton chops -- was created by Bradbury Thompson.
That year The Kaw ran a contest seeking designs to represent the Ichabods. While some pressed for an animal rather than a human figure, the decision was made to represent all facets of the University with a single image. Thompson, (BA ’34), modeled his Ichabod after the real Ichabod Washburn and said he intended him to represent several key characteristics: courage, courtesy, kindness and studiousness. Thompson wrote in the Kaw at the time: “He has courage and enthusiasm, as shown by his brisk walk. He is democratic and courteous, for he tips his hat as he passes. Sincere in his search for truth and knowledge, he studiously carries a book under his arm. His friendly smile makes you like him. He is neatly dressed and he fits in well with his generation … but he adapts himself with equal ease to any change or any age.”
Over the years, the Ichabod has adapted well. The 1939 Kaw, for example, showed him at the beach, playing the flute, swinging golf clubs and surrounded by dreamy-eyed women. In 1943, also in The Kaw, he dons an army soldier’s uniform. 1958, Ichabod was pictured in The Kaw sitting on top of the world holding a scrolled paper with the other hand on his chin to represent seniors and holding a hooked cane in one hand and a brief case in the other to represent the Law School. He’s been pictured in a striped suit, with is coat tails down, rather than trailing behind his quick walk, and even more cartoon-like with a bigger nose and thicker glasses. He’s been dressed as Santa Claus, a skier, even in leiterhausen to represent the University’s German Club.
In 1990, to celebrate the school’s 125th anniversary, Bradbury Thompson updated his original Ichabod slightly. With the hand that had tipped his hat, that Ichabod held a Washburn 125 flag with a forward-looking bird perched atop of the pole. The bird, Thompson wrote, was meant to represent the University’s coat of arms, which was that of Ichabod Washburn’s ancestors in England.
The largest departure from the traditional Ichabod image came in the late 1970s and ’80s when the athletic department aimed to toughen him up. A 1976 Football program, for example, features Ichabod wearing boxing gloves along with his coat and hat. A few years later, Beverly Torbert, executive director of graphic arts for the university, designed “Fighting Ichabod,” which was used until the late 1980s. The muscle-man wears a hat, tie and glasses but he’s lost the coat and is rolling up his sleeves. He was also featured in a top hat, bow tie and football uniform.
The Ichabod’s likeness has been sold to students, staff and alumni to benefit the University as well. In 1948, metal “Mr. Ichabod” emblems that could be attached to a bicycle or automobile were sold by the Independent Women’s Alumni group for $1.10 each to raise money for the Memorial Union. The building opened in 1951. In 1995, nine-inch bronze castings of the statue now on campus were sold for $1,230.31 – with $700 going directly to the Washburn Foundation. Ichabod bobble head dolls have been produced and today, a stuffed Ichabod is available at the Bookstore in the Memorial Union.
Washburn’s unique mascot has been recognized as among the “weirdest” in America. Just as it was in 1938, The Ichabod is a symbol intended to represent courage, character, kindness and scholarship. And, like the image itself, Washburn University and its students continue to adapt to meet the challenges of the world around them.