Ever wonder how Lee Academy’s mascot came to be the panda?

Read firsthand from the woman who helped make it happen.

By Wilma Coffin Cobb ‘1946

For the first hundred years of its history Lee Normal Academy, which later became Lee Academy, had no mascot. As part of its centennial celebration in 1945, it was decided that it was time for the Academy to have one. So, under the direction of a very capable and admired teacher, Mrs. Leona MacDonald, two students were chosen to come up with an idea for a mascot to be presented to the student body for final approval. I was fortunate enough to have been one, along with another junior classmate, Charles “Chuck” Boutot.

We were selected by the Student Council and quickly decided that it should be a panda because it is known for its clean, rugged appearance, it’s total commitment to others within its community, its ability to exhibit determination, and its ferocity when challenged.

Chuck happened to be a very gifted artist, so after he and I decided on the panda bear he immediately sketched out a design, which was presented to the student body for approval and the rest, as they say, is history!

Chuck Boutot"s '46 Original LA Panda design
Chuck Boutot”s ’46 Original LA Panda design

Some might wonder why we didn’t select the black bear since that animal was common around Lee in those days and highly respected. But thanks to another academy graduate, Vinyl Houghton, class of 1918, the black bear had already been adopted as the mascot of the University of Maine in Orono some years earlier.

With the recent influx of Chinese students at Lee Academy and the establishment by the Academy of a satellite school in Shenzhen, China, one might wonder if the choice of a panda may not have been a public relations stunt since the panda is an emblem of China. Far from the truth. Chuck and I were just a little ahead of ourselves in 1945!

I think that the choice of a panda might have been influenced by the wide publicity brought about by Ruth Harkness, a designer and socialite from New York who, in 1936, traveled to Southwest China with a Chinese American named Quentin Young. In November of that year, they captured a nine-week-old panda which would go on to be bottle-fed on baby formula and become the first live panda to be brought back to the United States-not in a cage, or on a leash, but wrapped in her arms!

Ruth Harkness with Su-Lin
Ruth Harkness with Su-Lin

The panda, named Su-Lin, caused a sensation in the American press, and eventually ended up at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, Illinois. Years later there would be a book written about her infatuation with pandas.

Those of you fortunate enough to have Mrs. “Mac” as a World History teacher know that she would have been all over this story and would have included it as part of her chapter on China. Little did she know that actual students from China would one day grace the halls of Lee Academy!

Charles Boutot ’46 passed away in Bangor in the summer of 2008. Today I make my home in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, with my husband Merrill Cobb ’42, and I am pleased to present this story to the students and alumni of Lee Academy in memory of my classmate and friend, Chuck.

After this writing, Wilma passed away in 2019 at the age of 92.