In best-case scenarios, a school’s mascot is a rallying symbol. It evokes a sense of pride and, for most schools, is derived from affiliations or surroundings.
For instance: Johnson-Savannah High School opened its doors in 1959 as Powell Laboratory School under the direction of Savannah State College.
In 1960 student William Jackson designed the school emblem, the "Atom Smasher," and thus a mascot was born. While the school is no longer confined to a school of science, it still hangs on to its mascot: The atomsmasher.
There are those school mascots, however, that lend themselves to questions; ones that have no true point of reference where affiliation, environment or a communal theme is concerned.
Such is the case with the Red Elephants of Gainesville High School.
The superficial details aren’t a mystery, but the details surrounding how the unique mascot came to be are vague.
"Gainesville High School was playing in Marietta and was wearing red jerseys," said Phil Jackson, longtime sports editor of The Times and former voice of the Red Elephants. "Gainesville didn’t have a nickname at the time and had large players. Very few teams had large players, so because of the red jerseys and the big players, an Atlanta sportswriter wrote that they looked like a thundering herd of red elephants."
Thus, a mascot was born.
From "60 Years of GHS Football," a history of the program put together by former WGGA Radio Sales Manager Doris Smith and her staff:
"GHS went to Marietta, where the nickname, ‘The Red Elephants’ was given to the red and white by Atlanta sportswriters.
"Marietta had a fine bunch of wholesome, clean players, but was not strong enough. The game was ours, 26 to 6."
Steve Hartley, a 1966 graduate of Gainesville, who played football and was in the band, worked with Smith on the "60 Years" project. He found the origins of the mascot in a Gainesville High yearbook.
"Gainesville’s got such a tradition, especially in football, that it’s nice they got the name during a game," Hartley said. "It’s unique for sure."
Unique in the high school ranks at least.
For University of Alabama fans, a red elephant has little to do with Gainesville High.
According to rolltide.com, the offical Web site of the University of Alabama Athletics, Everett Strupper, a sports writer with the Atlanta Journal, wrote these words on Oct. 8, 1930: "At the end of the quarter, the earth started to tremble, there was a distant rumble that continued to grow. Some excited fan in the stands bellowed, ‘Hold your horses, the elephants are coming,’ and out stamped the Alabama varsity."
While the underlying story of when and how Gainesville’s mascot came into existence is relatively clear, what’s missing are the details.
"I came here in 1963 and I’ve never heard any other explanation (than the one from "60 Years of GHS Football")," said Curtis Segars, principal at Gainesville High School from 1968-86. "I think it’s a shame that we don’t know more than that."
Former editor of The Times Johnny Vardeman has spent time researching old Atlanta papers and said that details of that night in 1935 are, as far as he knows, nonexistent.
"I haven’t run across it," he said. "Now that doesn’t mean it isn’t there, but nothing I’ve seen refers to the details of the origin."
Regardless of whether or not a detailed story ever arises concerning how the Red Elephants came to be, the mascot is a source of great pride for those who have donned the red and white.
"It means everything to be a Red Elephant," said Walt Snelling, longtime voice of the Red Elephants. "It’s about tradition and it’s been this way ever since my generation."
Snelling played football for Gainesville during the 1953-54 seasons, the 1954 season being the first year as head coach for the legendary Bobby Gruhn.
"Even in our down years, and we’ve had some in the past few years, we were still the Red Elephants and until the good Lord brings me home it will mean the world to me," Snelling said.