William "Bill" Sagal, aka Bucky Badger, Kicks It

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:53

    Not bad. But the university's Pep Committee, chaired by commerce major William "Bill" Sachse, a junior, wanted to inject some additional oomph into the Nov. 11 homecoming pep rally, held on the steps of UW's Memorial Union. These evening-before-the-game hoedowns assembled the football team, its coaching staff, cheerleaders (all men, incidentally) and pep band, with as many as 1000 students, from a total enrollment of 17,690, gathering to rah-rah on behalf of the Badgers. "Homecoming was approaching that memorable season," Sachse recalled in Gwen Schultz's charming 1981 booklet The Bucky Badger Story, "and the Pep Committee needed a gimmick to get the crowds out for the pep rally." It concocted a twofold scheme: (1) create a human embodiment of UW's scowling cartoon badger mascot and (2) hold a contest to name the critter.

    Phase One: Sachse's frat brother William "Bill" Gesell asked his art-major girlfriend Carolyn "Connie" Conrard to devise a wearable badger head. "I didn't know exactly what a badger looked like," Conrard admitted to Schultz, so she trekked to the Capitol, sketching several mounted badgers she found there. "From the sketches," Conrard remembered, "I made a chicken-wire frame and covered it with papier-mache. I shall never forget the thousands of miles of newspaper strips and flour-and-water mixture." Eyeholes were punched in the neck, enabling the wearer to see, and the badger head, complete with baleful stare, was painted white with cardinal red markings, the school colors. Filling the badger head would be sophomore phys-ed major William "Bill" Sagal, the 5-foot, 4-inch head cheerleader, a gymnast famed for his halftime endzone-to-endzone backwards handsprings. "Bill tried it for fit," Sachse told Schultz, "and with a few snips of the scissors we had a living badger."

    Phase Two proceeded less ideally: When only a handful of entries for the name-the-badger contest dribbled in, none of which gained the benediction of the Pep Committee, by executive decree it declared the winner Bucky Badger?formally, Buckingham U. Badger, with the "U" standing for "university." Accompanied by a tooting band, barking cheerleaders and a passel of gung-ho students, Bucky Badger?Sagal inside Conrard's papier-mache head, dressed in a long-sleeved, white "Wisconsin"-emblazoned sweater and cardinal trousers, plus, in a minor stroke of genius, sporting red boxing gloves?debuted at the Veterans' Day 1949 homecoming pep rally. Sagal-cum-Bucky returned the next afternoon for the homecoming game versus Iowa. Schultz chronicles the halftime activities: "[This] is when law school seniors traditionally parade down the field, toss their canes over the goal post crossbar, and try to catch them as a sign they will win their first case. And as usual the band performs. That Saturday something new was added. Suddenly out from under the stands shot Bucky Badger for the first time. The fans loved him. He led cheers and strutted along the sidelines, hoping all the while that his loose-fitting head would stay on. Of course, Wisconsin won?35 to 13."

    Born Jan. 3, 1927, in Sheboygan, WI, Sagal attended North High School, served with the Army in Europe from 1945-1947, then matriculated in 1948 at UW-Madison, where, after his Bucky Badger bow in 1949, he carried on his mascot duties during the 1950 and 1951 football seasons, and graduated in 1951 with a degree in physical education. Given the post-World War II glut of teachers in the U.S., Sagal could not immediately secure a teaching post and, consequently, toiled as a car salesman in Madison. Finally, in 1956 he joined the staff of the Waukesha Boys School, a facility for juvenile delinquents, working as a phys-ed teacher, athletic director and assistant principal; by the mid-60s he became an administrator and a phys-ed teacher at the state's Kettle Moraine Correctional Institution, in Plymouth, about an hour's drive north of Milwaukee, eventually retiring in 1989.

    Over the years Sagal filled the basement rec room of the Plymouth home he shared with his wife Kay and their six kids with the tchotchkes of Buckyana?pendants, pillows, ashtrays, calendars, plaques, a trashcan, plush Bucky toys?while installing a bar in his alma mater's colors. He also retained the papier-mache badger head, which he toted to talks he gave to local schools and organizations concerning his mascot experience. And according to Sagal's son Tom, reached via telephone at his parents' home where he was checking in on his mom, just about everyone around Plymouth called his father Bucky. But Tom hastens to point out that the Bucky role did not obsess his dad: "He really didn't dwell on it after the fact. Occasionally, when an article would come out, we'd say, 'Did you read that, Dad?it was in the paper?' And he'd say, 'Yeah, yeah.'"

    Still, he cared enough to obtain "BUCKY I" vanity license plates, which he kept for more than 20 years, right up until he died of a heart attack at home on March 20 at the age of 73. Sagal held the plates dear. Gov. Tommy Thompson once contemplated naming his state plane BUCKY I, but retreated graciously when his staff learned of Sagal's proprietary interest. Also, when UW-Madison changed its alumni license plates to accommodate a logo, limiting the total number of characters on its plates to five, the Sheboygan Press documented Sagal's despair of losing the "BUCKY I" franchise. That mini-tempest prompted then-school chancellor Donna Shalala, current U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services, to write Sagal a March 1990 letter, which now hangs framed on a wall in his basement. In it, Shalala guarantees, "You will always be 'BUCKY I.'"

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