Cornelius’ roots go back 50 yearsWinner of recent mascot contest was created by three Mitchell students.
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
Fifty years ago, three Mitchell High School seniors thought the Kernels needed a mascot.
So, Ellen Jo Baron, Pat Jirsa and Roberta Andersen created the now-familiar winking Kernel that has become the beloved MHS sidekick known as Cornelius.
While he’s been a local favorite since 1963, he also is getting some statewide and national attention. Cornelius just won a USA Today High School Sports online contest and was named South Dakota’s top mascot.
“I cannot believe it,” Baron said Thursday in a telephone interview.
She had no idea the creation had claimed the honor and is now competing for the national award as top mascot. Baron said she remains fond of Cornelius and proud of her work designing it, although she turned to science after her flirtation with art.
She said the three girls who created it were inspired by their desire to support Mitchell High School and its athletes.
“It’s fair to say we did it as a team,” Baron said. “I think I did the original drawing.”
Roberta Andersen, whose married name is Rylance, studied art and has worked as a professional artist since graduating from MHS in 1964.
“We were creative,” Rylance said Friday in a telephone interview from her home in Watertown. “We just decided to do it. I don’t know why nobody had thought of it.”
Rylance said she considers her class a very special group of people.
“We were a group of people who liked each other, liked the school, and had a lot of school spirit,” she said.
Jirsa, who now lives in New Ulm, Minn., recalled the creation of Cornelius in an email to Mitchell Area Historical Society President Lyle Swenson in 2012.
The decision to create a mascot was made at a September 1963 Pep Club meeting, Jirsa wrote, and “by Christmas Cornelius was complete and was being used.”
The original Cornelius was a papier mache doll, about 2 feet tall. He appeared in a January 1964 edition of the school newspaper, The Crocus, where it was revealed his full name was Cornelius Kernel.
The mascot appeared at games, where he was propped up next to the cheerleaders. Rylance said by the time of a state tournament, the papier mache creation was in rather rough condition. He was stored away in school staffer Bob Brooks’ office, and she’s not sure what became of him.
In addition to the paper version, Baron said she wore a Cornelius costume, complete with green tights, to games and jumped around in an effort to help fire up the team and the fans. There was a downside to that, she recalled with a laugh, because when she would go to dances after the games, she was wringing wet with sweat and her hair was plastered to her head.
“Meanwhile, the cheerleaders were there in their cute little costumes,” Baron said, chuckling at the memory. “It was not a good plan for attracting boys.”
But Cornelius’ debut season was one for the record books. The Kernels won the State A boys’ basketball title. That was a significant year, and not just because of the title.
Mitchell’s school colors had always been purple and white, with the shade known as Northwestern Purple used for uniforms and other school-related designs. It’s an apparent reference to Northwestern University, which has purple as its landmark color.
Roger Allen, 74, of Mitchell, said the boys’ hoops team wore black uniforms with gold trim during the 1963-64 season. Allen, a 1956 MHS graduate, taught at the school from 1961 to 1998 and was later an assistant professor of communication at Dakota Wesleyan University.
He said the success of that state champion team captured people’s interest, and many of them liked the new colors. Coach Brooks claimed he had trouble obtaining enough purple fabric for the uniforms, mandating the switch, Allen said.
“In fact, they called us the Black Knights at that time,” Allen said. “And it just kind of evolved over the years.”
Swenson, a 1953 MHS graduate, can still cry out “Purple and white, fight, fight, fight.” He said a lot of people of his generation were upset by the color change, and some still aren’t thrilled by it.
Swenson said he attended a Mitchell High School reunion in San Diego a few years ago and donned black and gold MHS clothing. Some graduates who are still fond of the original colors wanted to throw him over the balcony, he said with a laugh.
“They didn’t like that black and gold,” Swenson said. “Purple and white — fight, fight, fight!”
In 1969, the Mitchell school board officially changed the school colors to black and gold.
There are reports that MHS teams didn’t always play under the nickname “Kernels,” but extensive research doesn’t clear it up.
The teams were the Kernels according to the 1933 MHS yearbook, which was then known as The Warbler. The yearbook is now called The Maize, and changing that name in the late 1990s was not without controversy, either, according to Superintendent Joe Graves and Swenson.
Allen, a lifelong Mitchell resident, said he doesn’t think the school ever used a different nickname.
“As far as I know, they’ve always been called the Kernels,” he said.
Newspaper accounts of the school teams refer to them as Mitchell, or the Mitchell boys or Mitchell girls, until the 1930s, when the term “Kernels” came into common usage.
Cornelius followed about 30 years later. He has been a popular figure, and there are several versions of Cornelius in town. There’s a statue located across the street from the Corn Palace, and thousands of people have posed for photos with him.
He also has a “wife,” a costumed figure known as Cornelia who appears from time to time. Unlike her husband, who is affixed in place, Cornelia can move anywhere her two legs take her.
There are two Cornelia costumes, one at the Mitchell Area Chamber of Commerce and one at the Corn Palace Gift Shop. MHS also has a Cornelius costume, and his face appears on district signs, shirts and countless other places.
Miedema Recycling also has a Cornelius statute at its business at 1805 S. Rowley. When Dale Odegaard from the Corn Palace Gift Shop placed the statue downtown, he encouraged other people in town to display the mascot, and the Miedemas took him up on the offer, buying a statue from a man who builds them, said Pam Miedema, a co-owner of the business.
“He gets attention from the people going by,” Miedema said. “In the summertime, we see motorcyclists point and wave at him. It’s fun.”
Creators proud, unpaid
Rylance continued her art career after helping create Cornelius.
She earned a degree in art at the University of South Dakota, where she studied with Oscar Howe, the famed South Dakota artist who designed the Corn Palace murals for many years.
Rylance then served as the gallery director at the Oscar Howe Art Center, located in what is now the Carnegie Resource Center, for 12 years. She then relocated with her husband to Watertown and operated her own business, Artistry by Roberta, for several years.
She said she still creates, draws and paints.
A few years ago, she decided to make some porcelain earrings using the image of Cornelius. Rylance was in touch with a Rapid City artist, who told her he owned the design.
“I said, ‘Actually, that’s mine,’ ” she recalled.
Baron was a National Merit Scholar and the MHS valedictorian. Before coming to Mitchell in the late 1950s, she studied art in Pittsburgh through a program for aspiring artists at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.
“I did a lot of pottery during the 1960s and ’80s, but then my career got too busy,” she said. But Baron said she hopes to resume creating art in the near future.
Her post-mascot resume is impressive.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in medical microbiology and public health from Michigan State in 1968, and her master’s in medical microbiology from the University of Wisconsin at Madison a decade later. Baron received her doctorate from that school in 1981.
She is a professor emerita at the Stanford University School of Medicine’s Department of Pathology. Baron is also the director of medical affairs for Cepheid, a Silicon Valley high-tech molecular diagnostic company, and is the co-founder of Diagnostic Microbiology Development Program, a private non-profit organization dedicated to improving laboratory capacity in the resource-poor world, now active in Cambodia, Africa and other areas.
Baron returned for a high school reunion a few years ago and said she saw how the corn-inspired mascot she created had become a fixture all over the city.
“Roberta and I were lamenting that we had not copyrighted and made some money out of it,” she said with a laugh.
Rylance said the artists didn’t get a dime for their creation, nor did they expect one.
“Heavens no,” she said. “Just a lot of gratitude and appreciation from the fans at the time.”
Jirsa, a retired school counselor from New Ulm, Minn., could not be contacted for this story.
In the USA Today vote, Mitchell’s yellow and black Kernel topped mascots including the Rapid City Central Cobbler, the Sturgis Scooper, the Newell Irrigator and the Sioux Valley Cossack.
Mitchell’s mascot will now compete in the region competition, which ends Thursday. Other states in South Dakota’s region are Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota.
Fans can vote at http://contest.usatodayhss.com to help Cornelius win the regional round.
The top six mascots, one from each region, have the chance to be named the best high school mascot in America.
Prize money will be awarded to the top five schools’ athletic departments after the final March 15-25 voting period. The national winner will receive $2,000, second place will receive $1,000, third is awarded $500, fourth receives $250 and fifth place is awarded $100.
Baron said she hopes the Mitchell mascot continues to thrive in the online contest.
“Sure, I am cheering for Cornelius,” she said. “I already voted and sent notes to a few folks to do the same, including my sister and a friend from Mitchell who lives in Sioux Falls now.”
Rylance echoed that.
“I voted,” she said. “We’re pulling for Cornelius.”