When Rob Dyer ’93 was a sophomore, actor Jimmy Stewart ’32 was honored with the Woodrow Wilson Award. At the reception, Dyer walked in uninvited, went up to Stewart, and threw an arm around him. Nobody stopped him; in fact, people took photos. Dyer was, after all, in his tiger suit — the one that turned him into the Princeton Tiger at athletic events.
“[Stewart] got up and turned around and said, ‘Oh, Tiger, how you doing there?’” Dyer recalled. “And I said, ‘Just fine, Jimmy! How are you?’ And he goes, ‘Well, I’m doing all right.’ And he gave me a hug, and I thought, ‘Oh my goodness — I have to call my mother! I just hugged Jimmy Stewart!’” Dyer called that moment “a highlight of my career in the suit.”
Leea Driskell ’17 also had a brush with notable alumni while playing the Tiger. She donned the suit for a day during the NCAA Women’s Division I Basketball Championship last year — and at one point almost knocked over Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor ’76 and Elena Kagan ’81 as they passed behind the Princeton Band. The suit “is intended for someone much taller than 5 feet 3 inches [Driskell’s height], so I didn’t see them walking behind me,” she explained. “It was also absurdly hot inside the costume,” Driskell added, an observation shared by the four other Tigers interviewed. Max Schwegman ’18, a sprinter on the varsity track team, put on the suit for the first time to participate in the mascots race at the Armory Track Invitational in January 2015. He won the race by 20 meters. Nevertheless, conditions inside the suit meant that was “probably the only time I ever appreciated the team having shaved my head the previous week.” He later reprised his mascot role for an Athletics Department web series called “Who’s the Tiger?”
When Blanche Rainwater ’95 served as the Tiger, she also participated in a mascot race — but she lost, on purpose. She knew that whoever won the first-ever mascot race at the Penn Relays would have to return in two days to race the Philly Phanatic. The second race coincided with Houseparties, however, and she also knew that nobody would want to stand in for her and “get their hair all gross” on the Saturday of Houseparties. At the first race, Rainwater ran backward and came in dead last. “It’s twice as much fun when you’re not trying to win, when you’re just trying to have fun,” she said.
That same playful spirit characterized Jean Telljohann ’81’s experiences in the suit. She remembers mock-sparring with the Columbia Lion. On one occasion, a young couple handed her their baby for a picture. “It did strike me odd that they would hand their baby to a total stranger!” she said.
At the same time, people sometimes forgot there was a real person in the suit, leading to difficult situations. At one basketball game, Dyer had to sternly remind a boy who repeatedly punched him that there was a full-grown college kid in the suit. Telljohann remembers being hit by a member of the opposing band as the latter ran across the field. Rainwater had a more serious run-in with an opposing college’s band: During one football game, she was attacked by several musicians and had to go to the hospital afterward to be treated for her injuries.
“That was embarrassing,” Rainwater said. After The Daily Princetonian reported the incident, some people wrote in to say it was wrong for Princeton to have a girl in the costume. Other than that, however, both Rainwater and Telljohann said that gender had little effect on their experiences in the suit.
The mascots interviewed have mostly left their days as the Tiger in the past, though in 2013 Rainwater published Tigering: Memoir of an Ivy League Mascot, which chronicles her four years as mascot. Telljohann has moved on to another role with a long tradition — for years, she has served as a P-rade marshal at Reunions. And though Dyer, now a pastor, hasn’t been in the tiger suit since his days at Princeton, he sometimes sees connections between the work he did in it and the work he does now.
“When I got to be the Tiger, I just felt like I was part of a really awesome, incredible tradition,” Dyer said. “A lot of my [current] job is encouraging people, getting them excited about what’s going on. Every once in a while, I think to myself, I’m kind of still a mascot. Except instead of a big furry suit, I have a big black robe I wear. In some ways it keeps going. It’s kind of neat.”