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Monson: Pioneers in Utah linger, among Cougars, Utes and Aggies

Published July 23, 2013 1:30 pm

Team nicknames • Only Lehi High can claim connection to Utah's pioneer spirit.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

For a state with a history so ensconced in pioneer heritage, it's rather remarkable that when it came to sports almost nobody around here thought enough of the attendant imagery and connotation to immortalize it as a team nickname.

There are no colleges and only one high school in Utah that uses Pioneers in that way: the Lehi High Pioneers. In other places, the nickname is fairly popular.

On the college level alone, among others, there's the Malone University Pioneers, the Sacred Heart Pioneers, the Wayland Baptist Pioneers, the Wisconsin-Platteville Pioneers, the Grinnell College Pioneers, the Denver University Pioneers, the Cal State-East Bay Pioneers, the Marietta College Pioneers, the William Paterson University Pioneers, the Mid-America Nazarene Pioneers, even the Transylvania University Pioneers.

Here, we have Cougars and Utes and Aggies and Wildcats and Wolverines. And Rebels and Griffins and Golden Eagles and Bears and Badgers. On the high school level, there are Dinos and Beetdiggers and Bulldogs and Darts and Beavers and Red Devils and Bengals and Hawks and Tigers and Cavemen.

But only one group of Pioneers — at Lehi High.

A woman who answered the phone at Lehi High had no idea how or why the school took Pioneers as its nickname. She asked around the office there and said she could find nobody who knew. She recommended talking with Mr. Hanks, an assistant principal, who didn't immediately pick up his phone. She then recommended checking with the Lehi City Museum. It was closed. A call to Lehi City led to a conversation with a member of the Lehi City Chamber of Commerce. He didn't know and suggested asking the mayor. A call to the mayor was a dead end.

Lehi High's John Hanks later called back and said he had asked around and discovered that the school formerly had used the nickname "Pelicans" and that somebody some time ago had changed it to Pioneers. He looked through a collection of old yearbooks, dating back to 1913, and found no mention of the Pioneers until 1936.

"Somebody told me that, at one point, they tried to change the nickname to the Wolverines," Hanks said. "But that word, they decided, was too long."

According to Donna Barnes, a former district school board member who has two children who now teach at the school, the original nickname at Lehi High was, in fact, the Wolverines. But that, she said, was later changed to the Pelicans, on account of Wolverines being too fierce, and because of the thousands of water birds of the Pelecanidae family that used to live along the shores of Utah Lake.

By the 1930s, somebody decided that Pelicans were unattractive, clumsy birds not particularly suited to conjure a picture of athletic prowess.

"The student body voted to adopt the name Pioneers in 1935," she said.

An Internet source claims, logically so, that use of that nickname stems from honoring the Mormon Pioneers who founded Lehi in 1850.

Lehi High notwithstanding, a lot of schools pick nicknames based on a kind of fear factor. They want something — often an animal — that reflects ferocity.

The notion of a Pioneer isn't particularly intimidating, although it seems that the groups of people who settled this region back in the mid-1800s were a tough, hardy bunch. Still, a covered wagon loaded with supplies, a barrel of wheat and driven by settlers decked out in boots and bonnets probably strikes fear in the hearts of nobody: "Dad-blammit! Run for your ever-lovin' lives! Ma and Pa Kimball are a'comin!"

Apparently, intimidation isn't always the goal. A quick glance around the country reveals all kinds of variation when it comes to school nicknames.

There's the Presbyterian College Blue Hose. The Stetson Mad Hatters. The Rhode Island School of Design Nads. The South Dakota School of Mines and Technology Hardrockers. The Youngstown State Penguins. The Tufts Jumbos. The Puerto Rico University Tarzans and Janes. The Saint Ambrose Bees and Queen Bees. The Lincoln Christian College Preachers and Angels. The Central Arkansas Bears and Sugar Bears. The Arkansas Tech Wonder Boys. The Heidelberg Student Princes. And, of course, the standard-bearing UC Santa Cruz Banana Slugs.

(The controversy regarding whether Native American tribal names should be used as team nicknames goes on, some corners unable to distinguish or delineate the nuances of that usage and those issues, but that's a topic covered in previous columns.)

As it is, the proud Lehi High Pioneers pretty much stand alone in this state, happy to be who they are — even though it took them a while to get there — and probably happy to be Pioneers rather than Pelicans. Neither prized nor noble, Pelicans didn't settle the town back in 1850. Pioneers did.

On Pioneer Day, then, give a shout out to the Lehi High Pioneers. They're the only ones left in Utah.

GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson