Pete the Panther is the face of Chapman. He’s seemingly everywhere: at football games, the chili cook-off and even yoga on Memorial Lawn. Still, the identity of the man or woman behind the mask remains a mystery.
To become Chapman’s mascot, whatever student assumes the costume has to hide his or her personal identity so that it doesn’t interfere with Pete’s image. The athletics
department declined to release the identity of the current Pete the Panther to preserve the “school secret.” Though the department has some control over whether or not Pete’s identity remains secret, it is ultimately up to the student Petes – who tend to have a commitment to continuing the tradition of secrecy.
“My boyfriend was Pete and he tried to keep it a secret,” said cheer coach and ‘14 alumna Emily Hepp. “We dated for three years, and I even had to figure it out myself. On our first date at Disneyland, he kept referring to Pete as his good friend, and eventually, I had to ask, ‘Is it you? Are you Pete?’”
Hepp said that even after she found out her boyfriend’s secret, he still tried to distance himself from the Pete persona. He would often talk about Pete as if he was a separate person by saying, for example, “I wouldn’t do that, but Pete would.” Looking back, Hepp admits this behavior was “a little weird,” but as the person now in charge of appointing the Petes at Chapman, she understands the mindset.
“I think the Petes themselves are really proud to be Pete,” Hepp said. “In some way, they also want to be able to do whatever they want and not care what people think of them personally. The Pete we have currently is even selective on who we hire as his handler because he doesn’t want the secret to get out.”
Some Petes are strictly dedicated to maintaining the mystery – but not all of them.
“Oh, I told everyone I was Pete. I still tell everyone,” said senior integrated educational studies major and former Pete the Panther Ketzia Abramson. “It’s like my No. 1 fun fact.”
Students who want to become Pete have to try out and be approved by the cheer team. While Petes are usually work-study students who get paid minimum wage, some students volunteer to be Pete.
“They need to be able to move and dance in the suit, but most of all, we look for an energetic and engaging person,” Hepp said.
Abramson, who volunteered as Pete her sophomore year, said being Pete was “a blast,” but not something she would want to do again.
“Homecoming was such a traumatic experience,” Abramson said. “It was five people all sharing one sweaty costume. They clean it, but for a while, you just have to live with the germs.”
The costume, which has more than 10 separate pieces, is poorly ventilated and too heavy for one person to wear for an extended amount of time. Pete’s handlers have a special hand-signal communication system with Pete so the student in the costume can request breaks.
“Movement is definitely limited,” Abramson said. “I did a Yoga on the Lawn event as Pete and everyone kept asking me to do fancy poses and I had to say, ‘Listen, Pete can do a warrior pose and that’s about it.’”
Despite the burden that is the “clown shoes” and “furry overalls” of the Pete costume, Abramson said getting to interact with the community as Pete makes it all worthwhile.
“I’ve never been a person that is super popular, but you put on that costume and everyone loves you,” Abramson said. “They all smile even though underneath, you’re really just a sweaty white girl,” Abramson said.