Behind the Mask of an Original Oski





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At first glance, you might not guess that 57 years ago Paul Hillinger, a dentist from Long Beach, Calif., was one of the first Oski bears. Then again, looking at Oski 57 years ago, you would not have known it was Paul Hillinger.

Hillinger, now 79, said his Oski identity was kept a big secret.

"Nobody was supposed to know," he said. "It was kind of fun having it a secret. I could fool around."

And fool around he did.

"I would climb up into the stands and visit with people or sit on some girl's lap and look foolish," Hillinger said. "I was on stage a lot."

Hillinger said the best part of being Oski was "being able to act silly and relate to people." He said the costume, a mask that fit over his head, was light and comfortable. In fact, Hillinger said he got the job simply because he fit into the costume.

"I lived in a co-op on campus and another young man named Bill Rockwell was a resident at the co-op," Hillinger said. "He made the mask out of paper mache. After Pearl Harbor, he joined the army and he said 'Paul, I'm leaving and you're my size. You're the Oski bear.' "

Before the costume was created, UC Berkeley used live bears, but the practice was abandoned in the 1930s when the animals grew too rowdy.

Rockwell came up with the idea of dressing up as a bear because he had previously donned the suit of Ole Olson the Viking, the mascot of his junior college.

With the help of Washington Colescott, The Daily Californian's art editor at the time, Rockwell pieced together the Oski costume and made the mask. Originally, Rockwell wanted to name the character Algy, but Colescott persuaded him to name it Oski, after the popular "Oski wow-wow" cheer.

Oski stepped into the stadium for the first time in the fall of 1941, at a game against St. Mary's College, - perhaps spurring Cal on to its 31-0 victory.

In 1942 Rockwell was called to duty, and Hillinger took over.

Hillinger said he thinks Oski has changed since his days behind the mask.

"The character has evolved," Hillinger said. "I think he's possibly toned down a bit."

After serving as Oski, Hillinger's career as a mascot ended and he went into the military. His daughter also graduated from UC Berkeley.

"It's a wonderful school," he said. "It's a rah-rah school. There's a lot of spirit there."

The veil of secrecy surrounding Oski's identity remains in place today. The human inside the mascot is selected by the Oski Committee, the governing body that administrates and protects the bear.

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