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ArtifactsHappy 50th birthday to our campus bruin.
Story by Jenny Lavey
We know the rules of the natural world when it comes to wild grizzlies. Give them plenty of berth, don’t surprise them and be extra mindful in fall and spring.
But during this autumn, for this particular bear, UM’s cherished Urus arctos horribilis welcomes your awe.
As we toast our 100th Homecoming this fall with University activities and celebration, there’s a second and equally important UM anniversary to proclaim: our bruin’s 50th birthday.
UM’s mammoth Grizzly Bear statue was commissioned by former UM President Robert T. Pantzer who led UM from 1966 to 1973. The famous griz was created by former UM faculty and ceramics legend Rudy Autio.
According to news releases from UM’s former Information Services offices, UM’s griz arrived campus on Aug. 27, 1969.
Before a truck delivered the nearly 3-ton bronze bear to the UM campus 50 years ago, a story uniquely Montana took place.
Autio arrived on the UM campus as new faculty member in the University’s Art Department in 1957, after helping establish the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena.
For years prior, the dream of a physical mascot was heavy on the mind of UM presidents as another school 300 miles east had chosen its feline version.
In the 1960s, Autio lobbied for a bigger space on campus for teaching ceramics and sculpture. Wartime budgets, materials, and adequate classroom space were tight on campus.
Rumored to have been encouraged over a “liquid lunch” courtesy of President Pantzer, Autio agreed to create a UM mascot in exchange for a 3D studio to be located in the former ice rink on campus, providing Autio the teaching and workshop space he desired.
It was a deal.
Visiting zoos, studying photographs and relying heavily on paintings of grizzlies by the late Charles M. Russell of Great Falls, Autio created several plaster-silica models of the bear at his home in Missoula. University alumni Brian Persha, formerly of Great Falls, and John Murphy, formerly of Snohomish, Washington, assisted Autio in making early models of the grizzly.
Bronze for the statue was donated by The Northern Pacific Railway Co. and the Pacific Hide & Fur Co. in Missoula.
The final prototype was shipped to San Francisco, where the bronze version of the statue was completed by the San Francisco Art Foundry, then driven to Missoula.
The cost of casting and shipping the bear was estimated to be about $12,000 ̶ a substantial portion of which was contributed by UM alumnus Joseph Theibes of Great Falls.
The bear was given its permanent home on a concrete podium with the backdrop of Main Hall, surrounded by a habitat of manicured perennials, in the same place that UM used to call its “Baby Oval.”
Autio went on to transform the UM ceramics program into one of the best in the nation, and he chaired the UM School of Art from 1957 to 1985. His works are all around the UM campus, in the Permanent Collection of the Montana Museum of Art and Culture.
Autio’s griz has served as our trusted campus sentinel and a symbol of UM’s undauntable sprit for the past five decades, welcoming all walks of life to UM.
Readers, we welcome your letters and photos of your favorite memories with our Grizzly Bear. Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org, and we may print your letter and photo in our winter issue.