There is some debate over where the Youngstown State University nickname of “Penguins”
Two tales are cited as the possible origin, both taking place around a 1933 basketball game against West Liberty State Teachers College. One tale cites the enthusiasm of students at the game, while the other credits students driving through two feet of snow to get to the game. Either way, by 1934, students took a liking to the nickname and it stuck.
The origin of another penguin-themed tradition at YSU is much less muddled.
Today, Pete the Penguin is at every football game, every basketball game and countless other events in the YSU community. Thirty years after the Penguin name was created, Vic Rubenstein was named to be the first YSU mascot in the autumn of 1964, going by the simple name of “The Penguin” at the time.
Rubenstein arrived at Youngstown University — the name wasn’t changed to Youngstown State until 1967 — as a three-time high school drop out, taking night classes under the advisement of the Dean of Men, John Gillespie.
“I became his pet project to prove that a kid who was a high school dropout could make it,” Rubenstein said. “One day, he called me into his office and he said — I’ll never forget it — he said, ‘Not that you owe me, but I need a penguin.’”
Rubenstein was sent to get a penguin costume head by the athletic department. The price was covered by the Athletic Department, but he did have to rent his own tuxedo.
“Every weekend, I had to pay $19.95 at Rondinelli’s tuxedo place,” Rubenstein said. “They wouldn’t even give me a deal.”
The first time that The Penguin arrived on the field of Rayen Stadium, where Youngstown University played its football games, fans took an instant liking to it.
“We did a parade, so maybe it was homecoming, and then we went to the stadium. And, really, it was great. It was just great,” Rubenstein said. “Probably one of the experiences of my lifetime. When people saw The Penguin, they had never seen anything like that before.”
Rubenstein recalled one specific shenanigan involving one of Youngstown University’s opponents.
“I went to the other bench and harassed them. And two coaches picked me up by my arms and escorted me away, and they were serious. They didn’t do it as a joke. They escorted me away, and they thought this was in very poor taste,” Rubenstein said. “I owned the field.”
Much like today, the identity of the mascot remained a secret. At least, it did for the first season of The Penguin’s existence, despite attempts to unmask the true identity of the
“I did have one or two instances where people chased me out of the stadium,” Rubenstein said. “I’ll never forget that. It was down Benita Avenue because they wanted to take my head off. Fortunately, my dad followed us in the car and they weren’t smart enough to check the license plate.
“The second time, I’ll never forget because I was on Ohio Avenue and I had a friend who lived on Ohio Avenue … I hid in his garage for hours so they wouldn’t catch me. That was kind of fun.”
While at Youngstown University, Rubenstein was also the managing editor of The Jambar where several attempts were made to reveal the true identity of The Penguin. After a year of throwing his fellow journalists off the trail, the university sent out a press release.
“When he [the editor-in-chief] found out who it was, he said ‘I’m not even going to give you the press line.’ He was half-angry and half-satiric,” Rubenstein said.
The revelation of Rubenstein as The Penguin was not mentioned in The Jambar.
After his final football season in the fall of 1965, Rubenstein graduated in the spring of 1966 and the position went unfilled for a time until the university brought in Pete the Penguin, the current mascot.
“I didn’t [pass it on]. I wanted to desperately, but they either couldn’t find anyone or no one was willing. I went back to Dean Gillespie and I said, ‘You got to keep this thing going,’ and he said, ‘We’re trying,’ and I don’t think there was one for many years,” Rubenstein said. “Although, there was a live penguin at one time.”
In his final minutes as a student, before he received his diploma, Rubenstein had one final moment as The Penguin.
“When we graduated and I was introduced as senior class president at Stambaugh Auditorium, I didn’t get applause for being senior class president, but when Dr. [Howard] Jones said, ‘This is our penguin!’” he said. “It’s really funny.”
Today, being Pete the Penguin is a vastly different job than it was in its creation.
“It’s much more professional. It’s become part of the logo and signature, at least for the sports. I think that’s really cool. It’s something that it was not back then,” Rubenstein said. “Everything was ‘YU.’ I don’t think there was a graphic back then. There wasn’t much emphasis on the penguin … I think it’s become very sophisticated. I think it’s become
Being the first of something is always something to be proud of and judging from the numbers of YSU Penguins stuffed animals, bobble heads and cutouts in his office, it’s easy to tell what Rubenstein considers his biggest accomplishment.
“It is, to me, one of the greatest moments of my life … I love my community. I was born here, raised here. I love my college. How could any person have the beautiful opportunity of representing a university?” Rubenstein said. “It’s so cool to just talk about it … Every time I see a YSU anything, a sticker or a shirt, I just share it with them because it’s one of the proudest moments of my life.