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Mountaineers Are Always Free

The WVU Mountaineer is not just a nationally known mascot — it is a symbol of West Virginia history and identity embraced throughout the Mountain State. Rosemary Hathaway, folklorist and associate professor of English, explores the spirit of the Mountaineer in her new book, “Mountaineers Are Always Free.” We sat down with her to learn more about the history of the Mountaineer and how it has shaped the state and the University’s history and culture. The book is available now from WVU Press.

What are your overall research interests? How does this book project fit in?

Since my graduate school days, I’ve been interested in issues of cultural representation and how, in particular, marginalized groups get presented in various cultural productions to outsiders. There was a certain point in doing this project where I realized this work was just like my dissertation, only about a different figure. My dissertation was about the Shawnee leader Tecumseh — contemporary stories about him and the ways in which white culture appropriated him and his story. There was a certain point where I really felt like I was rewriting my dissertation except now it’s about the Mountaineer. There are similar issues in terms of what happens: How do people on the inside of Mountaineer culture feel about this figure? How is the Mountaineer interpreted outside that culture?

How did you decide to study the Mountaineer?

It was a gradual process. In part, I was interested in it right off the bat because both of my parents attended WVU. I had grown up hearing about what it means to be a Mountaineer and understanding the figure of the Mountaineer in a particular way. When I arrived on campus in 2007, it became apparent to me very quickly that identifying yourself as a Mountaineer was something really different. For example, I am a graduate of Ohio State University, so I can identify as a Buckeye because I grew up in Ohio and went to Ohio State. But that doesn’t necessarily mean anything about who I am and the kinds of values and ideals I hold. It became clear to me that being a Mountaineer was more about character and a certain kind of identity.

It wasn’t until I had already done some oral history recordings with my dad to record his story about his days at WVU after World War II. I had always planned to write those up as an article. I gave a talk about that work at a faculty research colloquium in the Department of English, which is a space where we can give short talks about current research and get feedback about what we’re doing. People were really enthusiastic about it, and they had all kinds of suggestions. That’s when I realized that this was a book. That was the genesis of this as a book project.

Author and mascot smiling together
Rosemary Hathaway discusses the book with 2019-2020 Mountaineer Timmy Eads during Mountaineer Week.

The chapters are organized chronologically, but also thematically. How did you select the five distinct themes that guide the book?

That was not my original plan. I’m not sure I even remember what my original plan was at this stage! I had done a number of interviews with former Mountaineers, and I do still hope to be able to interview all of them because I would like to put those interviews in the WVU Libraries’ West Virginia and Regional History Center. But I realized that it would take me the rest of my life to interview all of them and transcribe the interviews. I needed to find some ways to focus project.

The thing that jumped out at me, and I hope this is clear in the book, was that there were definite moments in the Mountaineer’s history where there was a conscious and sometimes contentious debate about what it means to be a Mountaineer and who the Mountaineer is. So I decided to organize the chapters around those particular moments when the image of the Mountaineer was shifting and when there was some public controversy about who the Mountaineer is.

I realized I didn’t want the book to be exclusively about the individual people who had been the Mountaineer. What’s really interesting to me about the Mountaineer is that it is both the singular individual who is the official mascot, but it’s also everybody else. And not just everyone at the University, but everyone who is a West Virginian can claim that identity, too. I wanted to bring individuals in there who had served as the Mountaineer but also connect that to larger questions of identity.

How has the identity of the Mountaineer changed over time?

What’s been amazing to me is how little ideas about the Mountaineer have changed over time. As I talk about in the beginning of the book, the first use of “Mountaineer” as a synonym for someone from western Virginia — before West Virginia was even a state — embodied some of the same values we have now of independence, a sense of defiance or rebelliousness or at least pushing back in some ways. Parts of this identity are exactly the same almost 220 years later.

The things that have changed have more to do with the physical aspects of the Mountaineer. The University has definitely tried to be more inclusive in more recent years. Part of the book is about the image of the hillbilly Mountaineer versus that frontiersman Mountaineer. We have, at least officially, come down on the side of the frontiersman Mountaineer, so that has been interesting to me, too — how that hillbilly version has been pushed to the background, but not entirely erased, over the years. Those are the pieces that have changed: the physical aspect and trying to have a much greater awareness and self-consciousness of not wanting this person to appear to be a hillbilly.

The image of the Mountaineer has all but disappeared in most of WVU’s official communications, except for athletics. What are the motivations behind that shift from what you have learned through this research?

It was interesting to hear about the results of a marketing survey WVU did a few years ago where they discovered that the flying WV logo had very positive brand identification but the logo of the Mountaineer was a lot iffier for people — the implication that you have to be a white male and look like this guy to really be a Mountaineer. I think it was smart on the part of the University to listen to that and recognize that we didn’t want to send that message. That shift that they made — to recognize that the Mountaineer identity is much more about a set of values and ideals than it is about a particular look — has been savvy on their part. What’s interesting to me is that the University made that shift pretty rapidly and seamlessly. Mountaineer fans and students and alumni are slower to catch up with that because they still want to hold on to the Mountaineer logo.

Why does the Mountaineer matter so much in West Virginia’s history and culture? Why is there such an attachment to it?

I’m still not sure I have the full answer to that — that’s what makes it endlessly fascinating. A lot of it just lies in the fact that West Virginia has always been a redheaded stepchild in a way. People either think we are part of Virginia, or, if they know we’re our own state, they have a lot of stereotypes about West Virginia and West Virginians are like. Because of those things, we have had to insist on a distinct identity to clarify this is who we are — we’re Mountaineers. I think that’s a lot of it. Because of that sense that people have all the wrong ideas about us, we need to have a really strong sense of who we are.

Also, West Virginians and the state of West Virginia (meaning the governmental aspects of it) have an investment in the state’s history and cultural traditions in a way that other places don’t. You don’t have the Golden Horseshoe competition or a state magazine like Goldenseal in most other states, official things that are devoted to honoring the state’s history and documenting its cultural traditions. It says a lot about the value West Virginians place on their history when you go to a state-level competition and get a pin for it, and you still boast about that pin years later. That, to me, is so heartening and important that we have that kind of emphasis on the significance of knowing that history and knowing those traditions. I think that’s also what makes the Mountaineer a distinct figure, too, because it’s all tied up in the history.

Did anything surprise you as you were working on this project?

So many things. Part of what motivated me to think about this as a book took place about two years after I arrived at WVU. Rebecca Durst was the second woman Mountaineer. I figured students would be really excited about that. Some were, but I was shocked by how many students, and how many women students in particular, said, ‘This is just wrong. A woman can’t be the Mountaineer.’ It was 2009! That, also, told me there is a lot more going on with this figure than I realized, that we have a real sense that this can only be a man. That was probably the most surprising and shocking thing.

The other thing that surprised me was how many of the people who served as the Mountaineer were adamant about the fact that the they were not mascots; the Mountaineer is not a mascot. A mascot is someone who wears a costume and a big foam head that doesn’t talk. They described themselves as representatives of the University and of the whole state. That really was interesting to me, too — how seriously so many of those people took that role, even though that role, even more so originally than now, is about being a trickster and a joker. It’s a weird combination, that you are both a rabble-rouser having fun at sporting events but also the representative of WVU and the entire state. It takes a really special person to combine those qualities.

What should readers know ahead of diving into the book?

This isn’t a coffee table book about the Mountaineer where you have a glossy photo of everyone who has ever been the Mountaineer and a profile of them. That’s a book someone needs to write, for sure. But that’s not this book. I hope readers will approach it with an open mind and will find Mountaineer identity just as perplexing and fascinating as I have, as I’ve realized there is a lot more going on with this figure than I ever imagined there was. I think that’s certainly what kept me going throughout the whole process. Every time I turned around, something else complicated my ideas about the Mountaineer.

How has this study affected your own identity and connection to the state?

As I say in the introduction to the book, my parents were West Virginia natives, and all three of my older siblings were born in Morgantown, so I’ve always been the odd one out in that way, having been born in Ohio. Weirdly, it feels like now I can finally claim my own Mountaineer identity, and it’s legit! That’s part of the beauty of being a Mountaineer. In West Virginia, we feel that anyone who has passed through or spent any amount of time here and loved this place gets to call themselves a Mountaineer. That’s an amazing thing about it. Everyone has a story about wearing the flying WV somewhere in the world, anywhere in the world, and someone coming up to them to have a conversation about being from West Virginia or knowing someone who went to school at WVU. I think that points to the openness of Mountaineer identity and the sense of community that it creates.

What’s next for you?

Part of what I realized in doing the research for this is we don’t have a lot of history about African American students at WVU. We have bits and pieces scattered here and there. But especially doing the research for the chapter on WVU in the late 1960s, it’s clear that there was an African American Students Association that was very active. A lot of the progressive student organizations on campus were fighting for civil rights. I don’t know that we know much about what the experience was like for African American students who were enrolled on campus during that time. Part of that realization came from talking to Matthew Watts, the minister of the church that runs the organization that has the mural in Charleston with the black Mountaineer on it. He talked about older siblings and other friends who were at WVU in the late 1960s and how difficult it was for them here at that time. It was clear that they had a very different relationship with this notion of the Mountaineer than white students would have had at the time. Because there just wasn’t that much archival material about that and because I didn’t know where to even start interviewing people about it, that idea was left out. That’s a gap I hope to fill next.

What’s your Mountaineer story?
Professor Hathaway would love to hear from you!