What’s the real story behind True Grit? Why was a Chesapeake Bay retriever chosen as the school’s mascot?
—Zozscha Bomhardt ’93
In the fall of 1966, a piece in the inaugural issue of UMBC News (later dubbed The Retriever Weekly) announced a contest to choose a mascot for the new university. Entreating readers to choose a mascot “that will become the loveable pet of students for years to come,” the contest garnered dozens of entries, ranging from whimsical fancies (unicorn, angel) to prosaic suggestions (muskrat, crab).
On October 30, 1966, the university announced that student Tom Berlin had won the contest with his nomination of the Chesapeake Bay Retriever. And soon after, UMBC received its first live mascot in the form of a spirited Chesapeake Bay Retriever pup with curly brown fur. Dog breeder Claude L. Callegary – whose son Peter Callegary attended UMBC and played lacrosse for the Retrievers – donated the dog to the school in the spring of 1967. Another contest failed to yield a name for the puppy, which eventually became known as “Campus Sam.” Lacking any formal arrangements to care for the dog, Guy Chisolm, UMBC’s first director of physical plant, volunteered to take the mascot to live with his family in their Catonsville home, which was adjacent to the campus.
Richard Chisolm ’82, interdisciplinary studies, who has made a notable career as a documentary filmmaker, recalls that “Sammy” (as he and his siblings Mac and Susie called the puppy that their father brought home) grew into a large dog with a fierce bark who loved to swim in the family’s swimming pool. He and his siblings were responsible for training and walking Sammy. From time to time, coaches or faculty members from UMBC would borrow Sammy for games or campus events, where he would be adorned for the occasion with a black and gold UMBC scarf.
While Campus Sam’s life was largely peaceful, Richard Chisolm recalls that it was nearly cut short when the mascot escaped a fenced yard to chase after a deer. Richard ran after and witnessed the determined dog crash headfirst into a moving car. Sammy survived a permanent bump on his head.
UMBC has had a number of other live Chesapeake Bay Retriever mascots – as well as mascot images to represent the university. (Two of these images, including the most recent, have been created by Jim Lord ’99 – design director of UMBC’s Creative Services.)
But perhaps the most prominent symbol of the university is a 500-pound bronze cast sculpture of the mascot, dubbed “True Grit,” which graces the plaza between the Administration Building and the Retriever Athletic Center (RAC).
UMBC commissioned artist and alumna Paulette Raye ’87, who had graduated summa cum laude from the university with a degree in philosophy, to create the sculpture. Raye created the work in a studio at Towson University, using “Nitty Gritty” – a champion Chesapeake Bay Retriever owned by Howard County residents and veterinarians James and Brenda Stewart – as her model.
In an email to UMBC Magazine, Raye recalls that “the mascot was the first dog I had ever sculpted – of any size. It was the only large size sculpture that I had ever done.”
Raye relates that a number of setbacks delayed the completion of the project. In fact, she writes, the project almost literally melted down.
“The wax casting was made and then sat in the foundry – very warm in there – for a full year before [UMBC President Michael] Hooker released the funds to complete the casting in bronze,” she recalls.
“In the meantime, the wax casting had distorted – not terribly, but it did not cast nearly as detailed and beautiful as it had been sculpted because of some warping from the heat that it had sat in for a year.”
Raye also helped UMBC Magazine solve one enduring mystery about UMBC’s mascot that an extensive search for details about the project in the university archives did not reveal: The model’s name was “Nitty Gritty,” so what was the origin of the name “True Grit?”
“‘True Grit’ was the name of Nitty Gritty’s father,” writes Raye.” Exactly why the mascot received that name, I am not sure, other than it sounded bold and strong – like the team.”
Hooker and UMBC director of athletics Rick Hartzell oversaw an unveiling of the statue – with a tug from model Nitty Gritty himself – at a ceremony on December 7, 1987. In a letter to Hoke Smith, then president of Towson University, Hooker lauded the statue’s creation at Towson’s art studios as an historic truce in the “traditional Retriever-Tiger” rivalry, and graciously invited Towson’s president to stop by and “see us, and True Grit, when you can.”
True Grit remains a steadfast and enduring campus presence – greeting new students and visitors on their arrival to campus, and bidding a fond farewell to UMBC’s proud new alumni with cap on his head and diploma in his teeth as they graduate. And that shine on his muzzle? UMBC students have developed a tradition of rubbing True Grit’s nose for luck in their exams.
— Theresa Donnelley ’13 and Richard Byrne ’86