Beloit College Magazine

Beloit College Magazine

Spring 2011 (March 22, 2011)

Turtles All the Way Down

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March 22, 2011
By Marlo Amelia Buzzell'10

Turtle FurnaldHow many turtles does it take to climb all the way down to the beginning of Beloit’s love for this creature?

It’s a long way down.

There’s Turtle Creek, flowing to the east and south of campus, nearby Turtle Township, and the famous turtle mound behind the Wright Museum of Art. There’s Chelonia, the college’s dance company and blockbuster spring concert (Chelonia is a genus within the Cheloniidae family of modern sea turtles). Major donors to the college become members of the Chapin Society and are given a gold turtle-shell pin created by acclaimed jewelry designer Robert Lee Morris’69.

The city’s minor-league baseball team is named the Snappers, and just a few blocks off campus sits the Turtle Tap.

Beloiters abroad take photos of turtles or turtle objects and post them to their Facebook pages, often with captions along the lines of, “Beloit!” Back in the 1930s and ’40s, Beloit had a synchronized women’s swim team called the Terrapins. Historically, physically, and intellectually, turtles are everywhere in Beloit’s past and present.

TerrapinsThe oldest connection between the college and turtles is the turtle-shaped effigy mound that still exists behind the Wright Museum of Art (formerly Observatory Hill). Based on its similarity to other mounds in the region, the turtle mound on Beloit’s campus is between 900 and 1,400 years old, says Bill Green, Lockwood Director of the Logan Museum of Anthropology. While several claims have been made, the mounds have no definitive ties to a particular culture or group of people—all that’s certain is that Native Americans built the turtle mound and the other burial mounds on campus.

In the early 1800s, several hundred Winnebago Indians lived where the Rock River and the Turtle Creek join, in a village they called Ke-chunk-nee-shun-nuk-ra. (“Ke-chunk” means “turtle” in the Ho-Chunk language.) Early white settlers often referred to their village as Turtle before settling on the name “Beloit.”

The early cultural significance of turtles themselves is also unclear, but Green has a few ideas. “There are many suggestions for why turtles could be chosen as an emblem, from being a segment of a totem, or an identifying marker for a particular clan. So there could have been a bear clan, a buffalo clan, a turtle clan, et cetera,” he explains. “Another possibility is that it could represent a sort of cosmological turtle, with the earth resting on the back of a giant turtle. The turtle was an important animal in a lot of origin and creation stories, so it might symbolize the creation, rebirth, or renewal of the earth. Another [possibility] is that it might simply be a place name or territorial marker.”

Beloit CrestMaking it our own

Beloit College snapped up this history by incorporating a turtle into its official coat of arms. In 1930, when the University Club of Chicago decided to decorate its main dining room with the coat of arms of each charter member’s alma mater, several of the Midwestern schools did not yet have official emblems. A group of Beloiters helped to design a wood-carved coat of arms for Beloit. They borrowed symbols from the college’s seal and the flag of the city of Beloit, ultimately selecting a shield, a dove (representing pure faith), an open book (representing true knowledge), a “flaming wheel” to symbolize city of Beloit industry, ribbons, flora, and—on top of it all—a turtle. The coat of arms is now stored in Middle College.

Students in a February 1949 issue of the Round Table explained the turtle’s significance simply and directly in a get-to-know-the-coat-of-arms quiz: “The turtle appears as a crest above the helmet. On our campus, a turtle mound exists, and a creek flowing into the Rock River is called Turtle Creek. Thus the significance of the turtle.”

But long before then, students had already appropriated the turtle emblem for themselves. One of the earliest instances is the Turtle Mound Society, a secret organization that met on the turtle mound late at night from 1901 through the mid-1970s. While the group’s stated goals included “further[ing] the high ideals and standards of Beloit College, and to pass on to succeeding generations, as much as possible, the ‘Beloit spirit,’” the group’s influence ranged from hosting prospective students, to persuading the college to allow the Round Table to become a weekly paper in 1916, to inviting students to pass through lines of faculty during the Commencement recessional, which remains a Beloit tradition.

TerrapinsThe Turtle Mound Society often met with the current college president to share student opinions. Starting in 1943, Beloit’s yearbook, The Gold, revealed the society’s graduating members among club photos. To spot members sooner, students had to keep their eyes open, as active members were allowed to wear their gold turtle pins (bearing the college’s seal and the letters “TMS”) in public beginning the day before final exams. The Turtle Mound Society membership included some of Beloit’s most well-known alumni names: Lucius Porter (1901), Walter Strong (1905), Holman Pettibone (1911), and former college presidents Edward Dwight Eaton (1872) and Irving Maurer (1904). The society struggled during the Beloit Plan era and eventually faded away just as mysteriously as it operated.

In 1949, the English department’s literary magazine, The Turtle, merged with the Ka Ne Literary Society to publish The Ka Ne Turtle, an anthology of student work. In its spring 1948 issue, The Turtle’s foreword explained that its name “though doubtless suggested by the Turtle Mounds, is appropriate in another way. A struggling author might well prefer to think of the soaring eagle as more symbolic of the creative process; however, the humble turtle, who creeps along the ground but eventually gets where he wants to go, corresponds better to the experiences of most writers.”

Eventually, Beloit’s fondness for turtles crawled to life at a slightly livelier pace. In the mid-1970s, students formed the Turtle Township Marching Band and Kazoo Conservatory, which featured a student mascot in a turtle costume, a small drum corps, and unabashed merriment. “The TTMB&KC was just for the fun of it,” says Alden Solovy’79, a former conductor. “No rehearsals, nothing formal. We marched and tooted. And we had a ton of fun.”

The turtle legacy continued in print into the 1980s and beyond, with smatterings of turtle cartoons in issues of the Round Table over the years, including work by cartoonist Kirk O’Brien’83 and the serialized “Turtle Tales” by caricaturist David Stephens’86. “I will always remember ‘Turtle Tales’ fondly,” Stephens says. “It is emblematic of my time at Beloit, where I learned to collaborate and explore my two great loves, science and art.”

The effigy mounds inspired him to create the comic strip. “I re-imagined the ubiquitous mounds as sites of underground, burrowed alien spaceships that had landed in the 1800s,” he explains. “These alien pods sprouted an invading army of plants, led by a pseudo-Marxist leader, who were intent on taking over the planet. The best defense against the plant invasion were the Beloit Turtles, with ‘Edwin’ as their leader. Gradually, he and his band of herbivore tortoises devoured the invading plant army and saved the planet.” An episode of Stephens’ comic strip is posted on the Beloit College Magazine website.

Turtles or Bucs?

TerrabucAs entrenched as they are in Beloit’s history, turtles—as college symbols anyway—are not universally embraced. In fact, in their symbolic role, they’ve been known to create confusion and even a little bit of controversy. Mainly, the preponderance of turtles all around Beloit raises a question about the college mascot. Which is it? A buccaneer or a turtle?

Director of Athletics Peggy Carl emphatically explains that “the college has a mascot, and it is a buccaneer, not a turtle.” But she concedes the turtle’s place in Beloit’s history, pointing out that the main trouble with the turtle, from her perspective, has to do with its mascot-like qualities that make it easy for people to misapply to athletic programs. And let’s face it, athletic prowess may not be the first trait a turtle brings to mind.

“Especially in first impressions, the turtle makes prospective student-athletes wonder what kind of athletic program we have,” Carl explains. “Is it just recreational athletics?”

Nevertheless, Carl says she doesn’t bristle at all references to turtles at Beloit. She is a fan, for instance, of President Bierman’s 2009 inaugural speech, known informally as “the turtle speech.”

“There is a campus-wide idea that any time a turtle is mentioned, athletics screams inside. Maybe it’s a little bit true,” Carl says.

Turtle fan
Presidential turtles

While most Beloiters, like buccaneers, are brave and swashbuckling and always headed for the horizon, many also harbor turtle-ish personality traits. And no one currently at Beloit identifies with the turtle more readily (or publicly) than Bierman, whose inaugural address began with three simple words: “I love turtles.”

Bierman first professed his affection for the reptile in middle school, when he ran for student council president and gave an allegorical speech urging his classmates to pick the steadfast and slightly nerdy turtle (himself) to be king of the forest.

“I’ve allied myself with turtle-dom ever since that time,” Bierman says. “So who knew what a bizarre set of circumstances would lead me from this glorious moment in eighth grade, to the ancient age that I am now, and giving a speech a year-and-a-half ago on turtles one more time. It was meant to be!”

Bierman says he struggled to write his inaugural address, a historical and humorous love letter to the college, which invoked turtles of different species, generations, temperaments, and pop culture oeuvres (and is viewable in its entirety on the college’s YouTube channel).

Turtle Middle College“Too many presidential speeches are about what you’re going to do as president,” Bierman says. “I backed off of that and said, ‘What this really is, is a celebration of the college, and the turtle is a phenomenal symbol for the college.

“The speech was about the college, and then it was about the set of people who, through history, had been so critical to the college, then the ‘turtleness,’ which is what every student sort of resonates with,” he explains. “The question became, ‘Who were the most turtle-ish of the characters associated with the college?’ The story was their story.”

In his address, Bierman described turtles and Beloiters all at once. “I love the anthropomorphic qualities that are attributed to turtles, of being survivors—winners, even, of being smart but with a wry sense of humor, of being principled nonconformists, of being responsible and resourceful, of being humble and generous … And they live for a really long time.”

Turtle GrusyFlash and Fido

With such temperaments, it’s no wonder, then, that Beloiters of the 1980s through the 2000s saw the biology department’s snapping turtles as college pets as well as friends and fellow members of the college community. Flash and Fido were highlights of campus tours, and students often brought visitors to meet them in their enclosure on the second floor of Chamberlin Hall, remembers Ken Yasukawa, professor of biology. Dave Waller, a technician for the science division, brought Flash, Beloit’s first turtle, to campus from a pond near Durand, Ill., in the early-to-mid-1980s.

“It was an experience to watch the keeper feed Flash fish-strips with tongs,” remembers Steve Wright, associate professor of English and friend of the turtles. “The creature was transformed from something most like a stepping-stone to energetically standing on its hind legs against the wall of the big tank’s glass, snapping at the offering.”

Flash died the day before the 1999 Commencement ceremony. “Marc Roy, a former biology faculty member, discovered him and had to remove him immediately,” says Yasukawa. “I remember students bringing their parents to see Flash, only to find an empty enclosure with a note saying he had died the previous day.” Senior biochemistry and biology majors from the class of 2000 dedicated their edition of The Beloit Biologist to Flash’s memory. Roy ultimately ordered a replacement common snapping turtle, which was named Fido in a campus-wide naming contest. Fido weighed 30 pounds, was commonly referred to as “grumpy,” and, as the informational plaque outside his enclosure reminded visitors, “In case you were wondering, Fido can and will remove fingers.” Fido died in 2008, and was memorialized in a Facebook group to which 130 Beloiters past and present belong. The biology department has not replaced Fido because of the difficulties posed by maintaining an enclosure in the Center for the Sciences atrium.

Turtle FrisbeeThe turtle in all of us

With or without real turtles to dote upon, Beloiters decorate their homes, offices, and bodies with the icon.

T-shirts created for special campus events like Spring Day and Folk ‘n’ Blues often invoke the turtle emblem. College Archivist Fred Burwell’86 keeps a grinning, stuffed-toy turtle mascot among the college treasures and memorabilia in his work space in the library’s lower level. Known as Archie, the mascot was a gift from Burwell’s son. The college President’s Office is awash in turtle objects going back generations—most were gifts. In the 1980s, hand-painted signs outside campus buildings bore turtle logos; today the trend continues on outdoor campus maps and on the Voces Latinas special interest house sign, which features a turtle whose shell is composed of flags from different Spanish-speaking countries.

Seeing turtles everywhere becomes a normal part of life on campus, and the animal’s prevalence is just another facet of what makes Beloit, well, Beloit. Still another quality that makes Beloit so Beloit-ish is an endearing sense of awkwardness, as Eric Dunford’10 lovingly described during his Commencement speech last May. Bierman finds this awkwardness—you guessed it—turtleish. 

Turtle Sign“One of the glories about Beloit is that you can be awkward and loved for it, embraced, welcomed. It’s part of the place,” he says. “And turtles are awkward critters. Yet they get things done. They have survived millions of years of potential onslaught to their genetic pool, and they’re still pretty much the same as they were before. They rely on each other, they stand on each other’s backs and are happy about it. I think that is part of the reason the turtle is such a beloved creature at Beloit College.”

Above all, like the turtle, Beloit alumni carry memories of Flash, Fido, secret societies, and sunny afternoons on the mounds with them, wherever they go. Bill Conover, who directs the college’s spiritual life program, said it best as he opened the 2010 baccalaureate ceremony (and was met with knowing chuckles from the audience). “It’s the march of the turtles, down to the edge of the sea and away. Once a year each spring we gather to watch them go, carrying home on their backs and Beloit in their hearts. The poets and the radicals, the activists and the nerds, they must be on their way, along with all of their classmates: the artists and teachers, writers and researchers, cynics and mystics, the questioners of authority, and the dreamers of a greener and fairer world. In four years, they have transformed this place, and it has transformed them.”

Marlo Amelia Buzzell’10 studied creative writing, journalism, and Beloit geekery, and was involved with WBCR, the Round Table, Voodoo Barbie comedy improv, and Theta Pi Gamma. In March, she started a staff writing position with Groupon, the Chicago-based pioneering online discounter.

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