The Yellow Jacket: A brief illustrative history

Photo courtesy of Georgia Tech Archives

There are a few important developments in a college’s adolescence: a name, a mission and the institution of some sports teams. Even though Tech had a football team, it lacked a unifying mascot. For years, players were referred to as “Blacksmiths” or one of the other many nicknames that came and went. Nothing stuck — not until 1905.

That’s when the nomer “Yellow Jackets” was first used, in an article written by the Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC). The name was bestowed upon the players because of their yellow jerseys and was enthusiastically endorsed by then-coach John Heisman.

Photo courtesy of Georgia Tech Archives

A year later, the Jackets saw the first graphic production of their namesake; it was a cartoon in the AJC depicting a cartoon yellow jacket buzzing around a rather ugly University of Georgia football player, who cowers and begs not to be stung. The cartoon, signed by “Brewerton” is accompanied by a caption: “Somebody’s going to get stung.”

For decades thereafter, the mascot was drawn by various artists, cartoonists and illustrators, all with different interpretations.

Some depictions were more popular than others. Most featured an imagined creature that was half man and half insect. A few, according to Director of Living History, Marilyn Somers, were considered offensive because of their allusions to offensive blackface illustrations. The rest, luckily, were inoffensive and the offense intended was towards the Jackets’ rival.

Photo courtesy of Georgia Tech Archives

These illustrations are carefully preserved by the archives department of the Tech library.

Tech produced programs that would feature these illustrations of the yellow jacket. Despite different logos coming into fashion, there was no standardized cartoon of the character.

Photo courtesy of Georgia Tech Archives

In 1979, a student named Richie Bland ran onto the field dressed as a yellow jacket and soon after became the official mascot of Tech, alongside the Reck. This goofy character inspired the drawings that came after.

In 1984, one of those football programs — the Tech vs. Alabama game — featured the yellow jacket that Tech students know and love today.

This illustration was done by Mike Lester, who was a cartoonist for the AJC and eventually became known for his football programs. His piece grew to be the most popular depiction of the yellow jacket, used by the general media, fans and promotional materials from the Institution.

Lester drew about 130 football program covers for Tech’s Athletic Association, and his illustrations were so well-loved that he was presented with a plaque during halftime after 100 illustrations.

Lester, currently a syndicated cartoonist with the Washington Post, still considers this series of drawings one of his greatest accomplishments. He has been a Jackets fan since the start, when he was growing up in Atlanta.

“My dad worked at Capitol Automobile and took me to GT games on [Saturdays]. We walked to The Varsity and then to the game after he got off work. Bobby Dodd was my idol,” said Lester. “Georgia Tech has always been very good to me and my family — and I’m a UGA grad. Go Jackets.”

Photo courtesy of Georgia Tech Archives

The yellow jacket, who became known as Buzz, faced a few bumps in the road. In 1998, Tech officials filed a trademark infringement lawsuit against Salt Lake Buzz, the mascot for a minor league baseball team. After some back and forth, Tech won the legal battle — the team now goes by the Salt Lake Stingers. Tech students remain the only Jackets.

In 2002, Tech officially bought the copyright to Buzz from Lester. The image and name of the Yellow Jacket has remained safely guarded by the students of the Tech community.

“I think every time someone sees the caricature or the image …  you look at it and it’s familiar. It’s something you’re proud of. I think he’s for fun. He’s not to be taken seriously, not for one second.”

 

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