Wampus Cat? What’s That? “Looking Back”

Today’s column is for Conway residents and newcomers who have often wondered, but were afraid to ask, “What is a Wampus Cat exactly?”

One of my first assignments as a feature writer for the Wampus Cat student newspaper years ago was to write about Wampas Cats in other places. Mind you, this assignment was done in the late 1970s before Google or Wikipedia. But somehow, I found five other schools that had this unusual creature as their mascot.

A quick look on Wikipedia today reveals six schools that still have the Wampus Cat as their mascot: Clark Fork, Idaho; Atoka, Oklahoma; Itasca, Texas; Leesville, Louisiana; and yes, Conway, Arkansas.

Fast forward to 2005. I’d been facilitating a student company at Conway High School for about 14 years called Wampus Cat JA and it had become known for producing and marketing Wampus Cat sportswear. Chances are that old Wampus Cat hoodie or t-shirt in your wardrobe came from one of these Junior Achievement companies that operated from 1991 to 2012.

Aaron Knight, now Conway’s Chief Information Officer, was president of the Spring 2005 student company. Under his leadership, the students determined that the Wampus Cat became the mascot for Conway High School sports around 1922. Knight then went on to have Conway Mayor Tab Townsell declare April 22, 2005 as “Wampus Cat Spirit Day” in the city of Conway to honor this 83-year tradition.

An account in “Faulkner County: Its Land and People” indicates that in 1922, a “bunch of boys on the football team were trying to think of something that sounded risqué.” The first printed reference was found in the Log Cabin Democrat on October 13, 1922.

Recently, however, while paging through old newspapers, I came across this picture of the 1921 Conway High School football team. The caption indicated that it may have been the first football team to be called the Wampus Cats. However, the young man in front of the group, Jessie Lee Witt, was identified as the mascot.

The caption under the photo also revealed another bit of information. It said that the name Wampus Cats was given to Conway athletic teams by Lewis Wilson, the young man who stood third from the left on the center row in this picture.

The team’s coach was John E. Moore, standing by the team on the back row. Moore later moved to Dover, Arkansas. At that time, the team’s chief opponents on the gridiron were Benton, Morrilton, Russellville, North Little Rock and Searcy.

Each school has a different interpretation of what a Wampus Cat looks like but the Conway’s version is unique in that it is a ferocious blue and black cat with glowing eyes and six legs—“Four to run at the speed of light! Two to fight with all its might!”

Various artistic interpretations of the Wampus Cat have found their way onto the school’s campus over the years. The blue metal sculpture that sits in John McConnell Stadium is just one of many. Students who attended classes in the “pods” may remember the one that stood in the Commons.

A drive through the east parking lot at Conway High School will give you a glimpse of the latest rendition of a Wampus Cat. This bronze statue was erected in the roundabout there shortly after the new high school building was completed in 2012. It has even caught the attention of Roadside America which suggests a quick drive-by.

Photo Credit: Log Cabin Democrat
This may have been one of the first Conway teams known as the Wampus Cats. The name was given to the Conway team by Lewis Wilson, center row, third from the left.

The Conway High School football team in 1921: Back row (from left): Coach John E. Moore, Luther Hickman, Morrison Cline, Reginald Whiddon, Junior Owen and Shafford Goode; center row (from left): Frank Purifoy, Marvin Allmon, Lewis Wilson, Skeet Henderson, Carl Harrison and Russell Charles; front row (from left): Johnnie Douglas, Cline Bassett, Nathan Smith, Maurice (Inky) Smith, Bill Powers and Sid Coleman. Jessie Lee Witt is in front.

Reprinted here by special permission of the author, Cindy Beckman, a retired Conway High School history teacher who writes local history.