Oregon State’s mascot dates back to 1952 when alum Ken Austin created the first-ever sanctioned Benny Beaver, a homemade project.
On the 50-yard-line of Reser Stadium, Ken Austin and Benny Beaver greet with a handshake. Naturally, the mascot pulls Austin in for the real thing: a hug.
Like any good mascot, Benny Beaver doesn’t speak. He uses hand gestures, leg kicks and random poses to communicate, but Benny and Austin appear to be best buddies. The two are meeting for a photo shoot. They stand arm in arm. Austin talks, Benny nods, wiggles and shakes.
“Thank you for being here, Benny,” Austin says. “Thanks a million.”
Austin interacts with Benny like most everyone does. He talks to the brown plushy as if he were real.
But Benny is real to Austin because Austin was Benny Beaver. The first Benny Beaver.
Sponge and shag carpet
It was the spring of 1952 when Ken Austin created the beaver mascot. Back then, Oregon State University was still Oregon State College (OSC), and cheerleaders were part of what was called a “rally squad”. When the athletic department held a tryout for Yell King — the leader of the rally squad — Austin’s fraternity brother, Bill Sundstrom, won.
“He said, ‘Do you know why I won?’” Austin remembers. “‘I proposed that we have a student mascot, and I’d like for you to be it.’”
Austin had no idea what a mascot was, let alone one operated by an actual human. At the time, California had Oski the Bear, and Stanford had a Native American mascot. That was all Austin knew.
With the OK from OSC, Austin made his Beaver costume from scratch. He bought the head of a costume at a costume shop and decorated it with shag rug. He made a tail out of a big piece of sponge rubber, slipped on football pants and a jersey.
Oregon State had its mascot.
The following football season, it was time to bring the mascot to life in front of thousands.
“I think I was scared to death,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do.”
Decked in his homemade suit, carrying a shiny 38-revolver — yes, a revolver (shooting blanks, thankfully) — Austin brought the show to Beaver Nation.
“The ref threw down his hanky and I crawled out on the field like I was sneaking up on a skunk or something, and shot the hanky about three times,” Austin said of a game in Portland at Multnomah Stadium. “And the referee was laughing because he picked it up and it still had powder burns in it.”
The whole crowd was laughing along with the referee. Smoke bellowed from the penalty flag and the revolver.
When the Beavers played Stanford, Austin muscled his way up the goal post and took a seat on the crossbar during the game.
“Get off the goal post, you turkey!” the Stanford rooters screamed.
“I became known as a turkey when I came back to Oregon State that week,” Austin said.
By the end of the season, Austin was known for being funny, brave and outrageous. He was an entertainer, the spirit of Oregon State.
“You just kind of roll with the crowd,” he said. “I’m kind of a spontaneous guy.”
He got his wild ideas from the St. Paul Rodeo, close to where he grew up in Newberg, Ore.
“I went to every rodeo show and watched the clown and I did things like the clowns did, and one of those things was the clown carried a pistol,” he said.
So that’s where the revolver thing came from. But those were different times. The school had OK’d it and nobody was in danger. “It was all fun and games,” Austin said.
At the end of the football season, The Daily Barometer, the student newspaper, published an article that asked, “Who is this student dressed like a beaver that acts like a jackass?”
Well, that was Austin.
Last fall, Benny Beaver, who has become a staple in the university’s identity, was recognized on his 60th birthday. A season ticket holder, Austin was there. He remembers the feeling.
“I had no idea any of this would ever come to something like it has,” he said. “I had no idea anybody would even pay attention to it.”
Austin, along with his wife, Joan D., founded and owns Austin Dental Equipment Company (A-dec), a booming business. They are one of the university’s biggest donors, and most recently gave $10 million to help erect a brand new business building, Austin Hall, which will be completed in fall 2014.
Austin’s passion for making Oregon State better may very well have originated with his first creation: Benny.
“I have no idea what my life would be like if I hadn’t been Benny Beaver,” an emotional Austin said. “I didn’t do it for the recognition, nobody knew who I was. It gave me self-confidence. It’s through all of these experiences that I had that has made it possible for Joan and I to give to Oregon State. The school has done wonderful things for me.”
Kenny and Benny
The photo shoot is nearly over. Austin and Benny are posing like superstars. They have held “Go Beavs” signs, reenacted an old photo and performed multiple fist pumps together.
Austin steps aside briefly to talk about life and what it’s like to be the man who created Benny Beaver. He says most fans ask him what it was like being the first Benny Beaver.
“It has become something very special to me because I’m proud of creating the first Benny, and I’m also proud of Benny’s reputation all these years,” Austin says. “It’s so wonderful and so touching when I see Benny down on his haunches or knees, talking to a child, and how much the children love Benny and how much Benny loves the children,”
Austin says he feels a great deal of pride any time he visits Oregon State’s campus or talks about his alma mater.
“I’m awfully proud of my school and I’m proud to have been part of the traditions,” he says.
As if on cue, Benny joins the group of people. His arms are open — one more hug for Austin.
As the two embrace, Austin mutters into the side of the plushy soft head, no longer the shag carpet that started everything.
“I love you, Benny.”