How Purdue Pete got light-headed
Entertaining crowds in Ross-Ade Stadium is hard when you have a 12- pound bag strapped to your head. Yet in the late 1980s, before each football game, Andy Gentry, alias Purdue Pete, would do just that. Strapping on a shoulder harness and neck brace, he would then engulf his own head in Pete’s massive papier-mâché one — which weighed around 12 pounds.
Andy’s dad, Don Gentry, was dean of the then School of Technology (now College of Technology). Don challenged students in the school’s Advanced Composite Technology class (AT 472) to come to Andy’s rescue and make a lighter head as a class project. The students came through with a five-pound version, and Pete has been light-headed ever since.
“The key to each head’s lightness is that it’s made out of composite materials,” says AT 472 professor Raymond Thompson, an associate professor and assistant head in the Department of Aviation Technology. He explains that composite materials are made out of a reinforcement (such as glass fibers) and a binding (such as resin).
“When you make things out of composite materials,” Thompson says, “they’re as strong as metal but not as heavy. Because of this, composites are heavily used in the aviation industry.”
More than just a help to Purdue masCoTs, AT 472 teaches students how to fabricate, test, and repair composite materials — valuable industry skills. In addition to the Pete heads, the students make clipboards, creepers, and rockets during the semester.
Lorraine Holtaway, an Aeronautical Engineering Technology major who graduated in December, helped make Pete heads in fall 2005. While wearing goggles and green gloves and working in tandem with fellow classmates, she would brush a gel coating of resin onto the inside of a latex mold. She would then take a wispy layer of woven fiberglass cloth and press it into the resin. After 3–4 repetitions of this process in two different molds — one for the front of the head and one for the back of the head — a Purdue Pete head emerges. Total production time: 15–20 hours of labor.
Holtaway says she learned to pay close attention to detail while making Pete heads. “Making them is definitely a challenge because the mold has a lot of angles, crooks, and crannies.”
Students in the class also have to sand down any imperfections on the heads — a process Holtaway describes as “not so fun.” But that’s the cost of preparing a celebrity for nearly constant public appearances and flashing cameras. Everything has to be perfect.
And then there are the “head injuries” that require doctoring. Professor Thompson and his students repair existing heads 2–3 times per year.
“The four guys playing Pete take abuse from fans and other masCoTs and even bump into things themselves,” Thompson says. “Typically, it’s Pete’s hat that gets dinged up.”
Thompson thinks his students get a good deal of satisfaction from working on a high-profile product like Pete. “When they see a Purdue Pete out in public, they get excited and feel proud,” he says.
Holtaway agrees. “It was nice to know I was building something that was actually going to be used.”
Purdue Pete Trivia
- Originally created as a logo for University Book Store in 1940, Purdue Pete took on human form during the 1956 football season and has been performing for crowds ever since.
- The first person to play Pete, Larry Brumbaugh, had to come up with his own costume. A woman in Brumbaugh’s hometown made him a head out of papier-mâché, supported underneath by chicken wire.
- A modern Purdue Pete head “fitting” sounds like something from a Frankenstein movie. Once the neck length is adjusted so that the neck won’t chafe against the performer’s shoulders, screws are driven through the Pete head, attaching it to a bicycle helmet worn by the student.
- When Purdue Pete heads leave the AT 472 class, they boast a fresh coat of light, flesh-colored paint. The four students who play Pete — each of whom has their own head — are then responsible for giving Pete a makeover by painting his lips, gluing on his hair, etc.
- The total life span of a Pete head is dependant upon how damaged each head gets, and how smelly. (Students sweat inside the heads and there isn’t much ventilation.) As a result, someone who’s a Purdue Pete for a more than one year may go through more than one head.
- Depending on their condition, retired Pete heads are either put into storage or given to the students who wore them during their tenure as masCoT.