The Herald and Review
By SHARON MOSLEY
SHELBYVILLE - An NCAA ruling against the University of Illinois' Chief Illiniwek symbol has members of one Shelbyville family sad and angry.
Sixty years ago, the late Robert Bitzer of Shelbyville, a student at the University of Illinois, was the eighth Illiniwek. Bitzer loved his role as the symbol of the Fighting Illini so much that went on his own to the 1947 Rose Bowl in Pasadena so he could be with the team.
"They didn't take as many people back in those days," Bitzer's widow, Marilyn, said. "The band didn't go with the team. Bob just got in a car and went."
The devotion to the University of Illinois and the Chief continued. Bob and Marilyn Bitzer attended the university, as did four of their six children.
One son, John, served as Chief Illiniwek from 1970-74, and another son, Don, was an alternate Chief during his college career. Bob Bitzer in later years shared stories of Chief Illiniwek and the American Indian culture with schoolchildren and Boy Scouts around Shelbyville.
"I think the first time was when our daughter Nancy was in third grade," Marilyn said. "Her teacher asked him to talk to the class. He always felt that the Chief was a symbol, not a mascot, and that's what he wanted people to know."
The Bitzers, like many other fans of the Chief, were upset when the executive committee of the NCAA ruled last month that Illiniwek is an image that is "hostile and abusive."
Former Chief John Bitzer, 53, a Collinsville attorney, said the ruling shows how little the NCAA knows about the legacy of Chief Illiniwek.
"The whole intent of Chief Illiniwek is to honor the past," he said. "The tribes of Illinois were warriors, and they were loyal to their tribes. That's what the Chief exemplifies."
John Bitzer said he received a few letters complaining about the Chief during his term as Illiniwek. He said he answered the letters with background information about the history of American Indians in Illinois and why the Chief was chosen to represent the University of Illinois. A member of the "Save the Chief" organization, he fears the Chief will be eliminated.
"I'm afraid the university won't have the stomach to stand up to this nonsense," he said. "There needs to be a judge rule that the NCAA is stepping out of its sphere of authority."
Bitzer said the NCAA's decision to let the Seminole Indian symbol of Florida State University stand while rejecting the Chief is an example of the organization's lack of understanding.
"They said Florida State could have their symbol because the Seminole tribe agreed," he said. "The Illini were a loose confederation of Illinois tribes. There's no one here now to speak about the Chief."
Douglas Cruitt, son of David and Nancy Bitzer Cruitt, is a December 2005 graduate of the University of Illinois and a member of "Students For Chief Illiniwek." He said students who want to save the Chief recognize the values he represents.
"They have respect for the honor and dignity he portrays," Cruitt said. "The Chief isn't a mascot, he doesn't cheer on the sidelines and he doesn't lead cheers. He represents Illini loyalty."
Cruitt compared the student population at the university to the American Indians of Illinois.
"We come together from all kinds of backgrounds and groups, and we have a loose confederation because we're all loyal to the university at the same time," he said. "Honor and loyalty; that's what the Chief is all about."