Chris Rosenblum | Memories of an unlikely Nittany Lion

Robert Ritzmann wore the Nittany Lion mascot suit from 1942 to 1945.
Robert Ritzmann wore the Nittany Lion mascot suit from 1942 to 1945. Photo provided

This time others led the cheers.

“Happy birthday!” Robert Ritzmann’s family called out as he walked into a Nittany Lion Inn dining room Saturday, wearing a festive Hawaiian shirt, for a dinner to honor his turning 90.

“OK, not quite,” he said, smiling. “Twenty more minutes.”

It wasn’t 6 p.m. yet, when the oldest living former Nittany Lion mascot was born on July 5, 1924, in a house with a doctor’s office on the corner of Fraser Street and West College Avenue.

But it was time for remembrance.

A Foxdale Village resident, Ritzmann is the only Nittany Lion to serve for four seasons, including one when he wasn’t a student.

Ritzmann’s two sons, Larry and John Ritzmann, and their respective wives, Irene and Connie, drove into town for the party. So did Jean Helms to be with her father. Larry and Irene brought two grandchildren, Jimmy and Alyson.

Penn State banners festooned the room’s walls and Nittany Lion blue drinking glasses and stuffed lions decorated the table, courtesy of Norm Brown, the sales manager of Penn State Hospitality Services.

Before the meal to celebrate the present, Robert Ritzmann entertained everyone with a trip back to the past.

“One of the great things about being the Lion, it’s like a masquerade ball,” he said. “No one knows who you are, so you can get away with anything you want inside that lion.

“And I was an introvert chemical engineer. When I got into that thing, I could do anything, and no one knew who it was.”

He arrived at Penn State from Pittsburgh in 1941, with no thoughts of becoming the only Nittany Lion mascot during World War II.

A statue piqued his interest.

On his way to class, he kept passing by a work of art in progress. He ended up seeing Heinz Warneke finish the famous Nittany Lion Shrine.

“Then afterward, I thought, ‘Boy, that’s pretty neat. That is something. That’s a really nice sculpture,’ ” he recalled.

When he picked up an issue of The Daily Collegian in his sophomore year and saw an ad calling for applicants to be the Nittany Lion, he was in the right frame of mind.

See Gene Wettstone at Rec Hall, the notice said.

So Ritzmann did.

Wettstone, a legendary Penn State gymnastics coach who died last year at 100, had been the mascot in 1939. Though the tradition began in 1921, Wettstone first wore the predecessor of today’s Lion suit.

“Here he is on the stationary rings, swinging, and he looks down at me,” Ritzmann said. “I’m thinking, ‘Oh God.’ He’s amazed at what’s standing there.

“He climbs down and he doesn’t say anything and he looks at me. I said, ‘What do I have to do to try out, Gene?’ He looks at me, and he looks at me.”

Could Ritzmann ride a unicycle? No. Could he climb a rope to the Rec Hall ceiling? Nope. Could he turn a cartwheel or somersault? No way.

Finally, Wettstone asked if Ritzmann could at least do a comical skit. Probably. Ritzmann, doubtful of his chances, was told to come back in a week.

“So I stopped back and he said, ‘OK, you’re on. Nobody else has applied,’ ” Ritzmann said.

A war was on, and men were in short supply. For the 1942 and 1943 seasons, he donned the suit and performed on the sidelines. During that time, he won over one fan especially.

A younger coed named Barbara Jane fancied him. He took her to a “Big Man on Campus” dance in 1943 at the Nittany Lion Inn — reluctantly at first, because his status as the mascot generated the ticket and he was supposed to keep a low profile. Wettstone always said: ‘It’s the Nittany Lion that’s honored, not the man in the zip-up suit.”

Of all the crazy things, he and Barbara Jane ended up winning a raffled $25 Series E War Bond. They registered it in both their names. Then, to Ritzmann’s chagrin, two newspaper stories shared their good fortune.

“I was supposed to keep it quiet, and here it was all over,” he said.

The 1943 season brought another fond memory.

On a bitterly cold October day at Maryland, with the wind cutting through the stands, Penn State was enjoying a rout.

Ritzmann was having a good time as well. Over and again, he taunted the Maryland fans.

“All of a sudden, I hear out of the side of the (Lion) head: ‘OK, let’s get him.’ Fifteen guys jumped the fence and came in and picked me up, and I’m horizontal. They were carting me off.”

Just then, 20 campus police vaulted the fence and charged the Lion-nappers.

“First time I was ever glad to see campus police,” Ritzmann said. “They just dropped me. Boom, right on the ground.”

He dashed across the field to the Penn State stands, where Wettstone ordered him to get out of the costume, pronto, for his own health. He couldn’t — not out of stubborness, but because he was wearing nothing but underwear under the fur.

Settling for Ritzmann removing his head, Wettstone concealed his identity with a draped raincoat.

In 1944, he graduated and was drafted. The Navy placed him in the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. But Barbara Jane, by now his fiancée, stayed back at Penn State with two more years to go.

Ritzmann came back for the first home game that fall.

“My future wife was up here,” he said. “I didn’t want to let anyone take her to a football game.”

After the game, he bumped into Wettstone.

Ritzmann wanted to know why there wasn’t a Nittany Lion. The war had taken so many men, Wettstone hadn’t bothered to recruit.

On the spot, Ritzmann volunteered.

So for the rest of the season, Ritzmann would finish work, take an evening train to Harrisburg and then wait for the overnight bus to State College.

Sometimes, he got impatient.

“Rather than stand there for two hours, I would hitchhike,” he said, adding he usually arrived at dawn ahead of the bus.

After his 1945 discharge, Ritzmann returned to Penn State for more courses to get a second degree in chemical engineering — and for a final stint as the Lion.

One home game, he enlisted some help. A fraternity brother donned Ritzmann’s naval officer’s uniform and started a mock fight with the Nittany Lion, who got the worst of it.

When Ritzmann retaliated with a bucket of water, his doused friend threatened to respond in kind. Their chase led to the stadium section reserved for naval officers.

Pandemonium ensued as officers scrambled for safety.

“So (my friend) got his bucket and threw it ... and it was just full of confetti,” Ritzmann said. “It’s an old circus trick.”

He pulled his own stunt in the stands at another game.

One of his standard routines had been to plant smooches on unsuspecting women. But by then, he was married, and he wasn’t sure how Barbara Jane would take it.

Just to be safe, he took pre-emptive action.

She died two years ago after 67 years of marriage. But he still has their war bond, framed. And he still has this memory.

“I spied her in the stands and I ran up to her, and I hugged and kissed her and I was doing all this. So I get up to leave ... and someone says, in back, ‘Who was that?’ ”

His cover was blown.

“The friend who was sitting with her turned around and said, ‘That was her husband.’ ”