By Mike Lunsford
TERRE HAUTE — Over the years, I’ve written at least four columns about unique school nicknames, but Casey resident Jim Blome reminded me in a letter about a year ago that I’ve never done a story about interesting names from Illinois schools. I think it’s time I remedied that error.
Along with his letter, Jim sent a rather long list of names I might want to include in my story, a virtual nickname bonanza that I would normally have had to labor to put together myself through research. He gave credit for the list to long-time Marshall Lions basketball coach Nellie Bennett, so I want to be sure to pass my thanks on to him as well.
Along the way, I also ran into yet another source for my material, Fred Willman’s Why Mascots Have Tales (IHSA, 2005, $20.00). Willman, a retired teacher, told me via e-mail that he got interested in school nicknames because “I like sports and I like good stories.” The Naperville native’s book appears to be filled with both. According to Willman, there are 788 high schools in Illinois; they share 250 nicknames, 144 of which he deemed “unusual.”
For most part, school nicknames from years ago often reflected their communities. In Indiana, as across the country, local businesses (Ladoga Canners), ethnic groups (Mecca Arabs), and tales from history (Vincennes Alices) were often the genesis for the local school’s moniker. Likewise, in Illinois, there is DeKalb (the Barbs were named for the barbed wire manufactured there), Addison Driscoll (the Highlanders), and Lincoln (the Railsplitters). Nicknames were a matter of pride, perhaps even prejudices, but at least they were unique. Illinois, like Indiana, has lost many of those names to consolidation, a few more to political correctness.
When I glanced down Bennett’s list — and I want to make it clear that, to my knowledge, all of these schools still exist — I was first attracted to colorful nicknames. The Alexis Red Storm caught my eye, as did the Aledo Green Dragons, the Carthage Blue Boys, the Galesburg Silver Streaks, the Mattoon Green Wave, the Jacksonville Crimsons, the Knoxville Blue Bullets, the Litchfield Purple Panthers, and the Mt. Carmel Golden Aces. Andy Amey’s personal favorite — the Arcola Purple Riders — made the list too. The absolute coolest name to me was the Illinois Valley Grey Ghosts; there is nothing generic about being a Grey Ghost.
In light of the protest over the retirement of Chief Illiniwek at the University of Illinois, a number of high schools surely have had to take a look at their nicknames over the years too, and Antioch High School is one of them. According to Willman, Antioch, the home of the Sequoits, is actually using a word that is Native American in origin, but only by a long stretch. There is no tribe of that name, only an Iroquois word, Sadaquoit, a term given to a stream that runs in upper-state New York in Oneida County. When settlers moved from there to Illinois, they used a variance of the word. By the way, the Aurora West Blackhawks, Cahokia Comanches, and Mooseheart Mohawks use names of Native American tribes. Pittsfield, a central Illinois town where Abraham Lincoln once roamed, is known as the “Hog Capital of the Midwest,” but students in its school with an enrollment of about 480 still calls themselves Saukees, presumably after the Sauk Indians.
There was certainly an adventuring spirit at work when many Illinois schools chose nicknames. The Belleville Althoff Crusaders and Alton Marquette Explorers were among that group, as were the Argo Argonauts, the Chicago Mt. Carmel Caravan, and the Mudelein Corsairs. The military was represented as well with schools like the Argenta-Oreana Bombers, the Bunker Hill Minutemen, the Ullin Centurians, the Chicago Marshall Commandoes, the Farragut Admirals, the Decatur MacArthur Generals, the Milledgeville Missiles, and the Streamwood Sabres.
If history is your subject of choice, make the connection between Monticello and its Sages, Arthur and its Knights, East St. Louis and its Fliers, Fulton and its Steamers, Polo and its Marcos, and Springfield and its Senators. You can find Turks in Tremont, Saxons in Schaumburg, Norsemen in Newark, and Pharoahs in Tamms. If meteorology interests you, hang on to your hat in Catlin Salt Fork (The Storm), Woodstock (Hurricanes), Taylorville (Tornadoes), and LaHarpe (Cyclones). You can watch the Meteors in Marissa, and keep your eye on the North Stars at St. Charles North.
I know that Illinois is a civilized place, but it still has its Dragons (Divernon), Demons (Dongola), and Vandals (Vandalia), and, as most towns do, its Tomcats (Aurora East). It is a state abundant in wildlife, substantiated by the Kewanee Weathersfield Flying Geese, Indian Creek’s Timberwolves, Colfax’s Mustangs, Fisher’s Bunnies (Does Fight’in Bunnies sound better?), Havana’s Ducks, McLeansboro’s Foxes, Mounds Meridian’s Bobcats, and Petersburg Porta’s Blue Jays. The Scotties from Waverly, Terriers from Carbondale, and Greyhounds from Chicago Hubbard at least sound more domesticated.
Willman’s “unusual” category must be full too. There’s Appleknockers in Cobden, Orphans in Centralia (the girls’ teams are the Orphan Annies), Flaming Hearts in Effingham, Whip-Purs in Hampshire, Cornjerkers in Hoopeston, Caxys in Lake Forest, and, of course, Wooden Shoes in Teutopolis (their junior high teams are reportedly called Booties).
By the way, have you ever heard about some of the unusual school nicknames in Kentucky? Well, there’s the Somerset Briar Jumpers, and the Lloyd Memorial Juggernauts, and ...
In next season’s Sidelines, Mike Lunsford take a look at Illinois high school nicknames of the past.. You can contact him at email@example.com, or by regular mail c/o the Tribune-Star, PO Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808.