The Many Lives of Joe Bear
Joe Bear as fans know him — the cartoonish black bear mascot working the crowds at games and events — first appeared on the sidelines at a basketball game in 1961. Until then, the Lenoir-Rhyne mascot had been a succession of four live bears, first housed on campus, then in a local zoo, but standards for human and animal safety had changed since Joe Bear came to campus in the 1920s.
After a rival school’s prank accidentally ended the life of Joe Bear IV in the fall of 1961, the Student Government Association raised funds to obtain a bear costume and held an election to select the first student mascot to wear it, Robert Rowland ’63.
“I was the guinea pig for the Joe Bear mascot,” Rowland told Profile in 2002. Although he had no mascot training or experience, he tackled the role with enthusiasm, doing anything for a laugh. “The more I was out front, the more people looked for Joe Bear to be there.”
As the years passed, elections gave way to auditions, and now students participate on a volunteer basis. Anonymity is now the custom. One thing that hasn’t changed is Joe’s popularity with fans and performers.
“You’re not visible in the bear costume, so it’s all about the character,” said J.J. Self ’95, a photographer for schools and sporting events who held the title of Joe Bear from 1994-95. “You can lose yourself and connect with people. I wasn’t the type of person to just talk to anyone and everyone, but I could be that in the bear.”
That flair for connection, combined with a sense of humor and the ability to perform under pressure has given Joe Bear’s players the skills to excel in a wide range of places — from classrooms to courtrooms to pulpits.
“It was always a great thing to bring smiles to people’s faces and make people laugh,” shared the Rev. Mike Shackelford ’89, M.Div. ’97, who served three non-consecutive semesters as Joe from 1987-89. “That’s part of my personality, but playing Joe Bear helped me see it and ask myself, ‘How can I do more of this?’”
A completely unscientific survey of the careers of alumni who have played Joe Bear reveals the ministry as a commonly chosen career path. There are some similarities in the working conditions, after all.
“I was always drawn to ministry, but the thought of working weekends, getting up in front of people every Sunday was intimidating,” shared the Rev. Gerald (Jerry) Nordsiek ’84, M.Div. ’88, who spent many undergraduate weekends in front of crowds. “It’s a little different when you’re in the bear suit. Your inhibitions go away, and you develop a comfort level.”
In his current assignment, Nordsiek serves as pastor at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Tampa, Florida.
“I think what I brought with me from Joe Bear was that piece where you’re connecting with people, touching lives. That’s what you’re doing as a mascot, and that’s what you’re doing as a minister,” he added.
Nordsiek first put on the costume when his roommate, the Rev. Craig Bollinger ’84, invited him to share the job of Joe Bear after Bollinger refurbished the costume and reinvigorated the role. The two were in the Joe Bear rotation from 1980-84. Bollinger also graduated from LTSS in 1988 with a master of divinity and is the head pastor at Christ the King Lutheran Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“In ministry, you have to have a light side, and I think the staying power of Joe Bear over my 35-year career has been bringing out that sense of humor,” Bollinger said. “I don’t think there’s any cause and effect between Joe Bear and the ministry because Lenoir-Rhyne has such strong Christian roots and professors and mentors who care a lot about the ministry, but connecting with people, making them laugh — that carries over.”
Service as a judge is less common than ministry for past Joe Bears, but before Marvin Pope ’70 was appointed as a North Carolina District Court Judge in 2001 and then as a Superior Court judge in 2010, he was elected as Joe Bear in 1967.
“One thing I always remember about being Joe Bear is how much the kids like him, so I always made a point to pay attention to the kids — pictures, high fives, whatever made them happy,” he said. He has maintained that facility for addressing others’ needs in his 23 years on the bench.
“The best thing about being a judge is helping people, and a lot of the time that means putting jurors and defendants at ease in court, making sure they know I’m here to help.”
The history of Joe Bear was thin on mascots who have gone professional until Joby Giacalone ’84 joined Bollinger and Nordsiek in the Joe Bear rotation in 1982 and spent the next 40 years performing. It started with an elaborate prank.
“When I got cut from the baseball team, I decided I wanted to be Joe Bear at the women’s basketball game that evening,” said Giacalone. “My friends and I planned to steal the costume from the closet in Shuford, but we couldn’t get in — not even with a hammer and chisel.”
Giacalone didn’t want to give up, so he returned to the scene one more time and encountered the sports information director. “He asked if he could help me, and I said, ‘I’m here for the Joe Bear costume.’ He let me in. It was that easy.”
His friends helped him improvise an extended routine involving doctors, nurses and a stretcher made out of a door. “Don’t ask me how we got the medical uniforms. That’s a different story,” Giacalone laughed.
That first impression led to regular appearances. During Giacalone’s tenure on the field, Joe Bear was a nationally ranked mascot, alongside the University of Kentucky Wildcat, Brutus Buckeye from the Ohio State University, Cocky the University of South Carolina Gamecock and Willie the Wildcat of Northwestern University.
When Giacalone graduated and moved to south Florida to start a career in technology, Joe Bear went with him.
“My brother and I went with some friends to a Fort Lauderdale Strikers soccer match. I looked at them and said, ‘I think I’m going to do Joe Bear,” said Giacalone. “I had the costume in my trunk. When I graduated, I raised money to buy a new costume, so I could keep the old one.”
He made it onto the field, improvised a performance, and the team ended up hiring “Joe the Striker Bear” by giving Giacalone free tickets to the games. After two years, Giacalone’s technology career took him to Charlotte, where he also performed for five years as Homer the Dragon for the Charlotte Knights, the local minor league baseball team, and helped the Charlotte Hornets NBA team through a transition period by performing as Hugo the Hornet to finish the 1990 season.
Soon after, a few major league teams made offers, including the iconic Philly Phanatic, but Giacalone moved to Denver, where he became the first Dinger the Dinosaur for the Colorado Rockies.
Giacalone retired as a professional mascot when he and his wife relocated again. In a way, Joe Bear introduced the couple — Giacalone was in costume at an LR football game in 1982 when he asked Jennifer Rader ’86 for help with a safety pin. In 1997 they moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, where they started a family and Giacalone developed the character of Cosmo the Sheepdog, named after his grandfather.
“I wanted it to be a dog,” said Giacalone. “Everybody loves a dog.”
Cosmo became a staple of Special Olympics events throughout Virginia for 25 years. Giacalone retired the character in 2022 but continues in the mascot world as Executive Committee Chairman for the Mascot Hall of Fame in Whiting, Indiana.
“Being a mascot is a passion. It’s not about like or dislike,” said Giacalone. “I just know when I do it, people smile.”
Giacalone knows his life as a mascot also fed his primary career journey. He is currently senior director of information technology for the University of Virginia healthcare system.
“One reason I’ve been successful in technology is that I’m willing to walk into any situation and solve problems. People ask how I can be so calm under that kind of pressure,” he said. “I tend to approach everything like a mascot appearance, which means I have to plan for every eventuality and still be able to adapt at a moment’s notice.”
ON THE AIR
When George Corell ’69 transferred to Lenoir-Rhyne in winter 1967, his fraternity brothers wasted no time in nominating him to be elected the next Joe Bear.
“It might have been a prank on the new guy, but they worked the campus as hard as they could to get me the votes,” Corell shared. “So, I wound up getting the Joe Bear job, and I loved it — talking to the fans who were there, interacting with the mascot for the other team. It really was a delight.”
Corell also poured his energy and humor into hosting a show on campus radio, and when the radio station expanded to offer TV production, Corell brought his show to the small screen.
“When I graduated, I auditioned at television stations all over the East Coast,” said Corell. “My first job was with an ABC affiliate in Columbia, South Carolina. A year later I moved to an NBC affiliate in Greenville where I anchored the 11:00 news.”
In Greenville, Corell also met his wife Barbara while covering events in the community. He left the station to join a colleague’s new advertising agency, and Barbara went to work for a local modeling agency, which the couple purchased from its founder in 1982.
“We kept the name Millie Lewis because Barbara worked there a long time. Millie gave her a chance in the business,” said Corell.
The Corells built the Millie Lewis Modeling and Talent Agency into the largest company of its kind in South Carolina. They work closely with a who’s who of major companies in the Southeast, including Bojangles, Ridgid, Publix and a host of others.
“Joe Bear gave me a leg up on getting to know people, getting involved in campus,” Corell shared. “Everything else happened because of that little radio show once a week at LR. One thing led to another.”
Wherever the performers go after graduation, Joe Bear leaves his mark and memories.
“I told my daughters growing up, ‘Have something memorable.’ Joe Bear was memorable for me,” laughed Karen Littlecott McGuire ’95, now president of the board of directors for the Green Room Community Theater in Newton, North Carolina, and one of the few female Joe Bears. “My clearest memories of that time are traumatizing a kid who wandered into the ladies’ room after I’d removed the costume head to cool off and getting knocked down by the Mars Hill mascot who then said, ‘Oh! You’re a girl!’”
Despite the occasional embarrassing incident, the role appealed to McGuire’s love of theater. “Getting to perform, it’s a rush. It’s live, so you don’t get a do-over, just like with theater. It’s a fleeting moment, which makes it something you treasure.”
The Rev. Todd Cutter ’96, M.A. ’00, M.Div. ’04, now university pastor and director of spiritual life and Cornerstone Counseling Services at LR, fondly recalls his time as Joe as a defining part of his college experience.
“Although the suit was hot and smelled awful, working with the cheerleaders to build school spirit and entertain attendees was a highlight of my college years. Sure, I had to run off the field at the first home football game because I almost passed out, but it was still an amazing experience. If I could do it again, I would,” he said.
It’s unlikely Cutter will need to revisit the role as Joe is currently played by three students, with one serving as the primary player. Joe is, after all, a busy bear. However, none of the three players know who the others are, which is part of the fun.
The primary Joe compared the role to being a superhero. “I’m basically Batman because nobody knows who I am, but they know the alter ego. People don’t notice me until I put on the suit. Then everybody is calling ‘Joe! Joe!’”