The Strange but True History of Lee Roy the Tiger and the Bengal Lancers
By John Grace, PC '83
If it were not for the Bengal Lancers, Lee Roy the Tiger, might never have stepped paw on Trinity’s campus. The story of how Lee Roy the Tiger came to be Trinity’s official mascot is a twisted “tail” that involves a borrowed mascot, the Bengal Lancers, XBE, a Zoo with a laissez-faire attitude toward animal stewardship, one of India’s oldest universities, a spare microscope, a generous San Antonio developer, a brilliant inventor and entrepreneur, and an (alleged) CIA front company.
Trinity’s mascot has not always been a tiger. In the very early years, Trinity’s athletic teams were known as the “Trinitonians” or, sometimes, the “Presbyterians.” This all changed in 1916. That year, the Detroit Tigers baseball team used Trinity’s Waxahachie campus as its spring training facility. Trinity students were excited to have a major league ball club on campus. The students befriended the Detroit Tiger players, and in a show of unity, the student body adopted the Tiger as the school’s mascot. The first public use of a tiger logo came in 1922, when a tiger was featured on the cover of the Mirage and was featured prominently throughout the yearbook. Since then, Trinity has been indelibly linked to its tiger mascot.
In the 1950’s many collegiate teams had live animals to represent their mascots. In keeping with the club’s mission to “promote school spirit,” the men of the Bengal Lancers decided to help Trinity obtain a live Bengal tiger to serve as a mascot at Trinity football games.
Bengal Lancers Fred Hansler and Ran Cooper, and Lancerette Jane Ella Brooks, spearheaded the idea. (The Lancerettes were the precursors to XBE.) According to the October 13, 1950 edition of the Trinitonian, the three student leaders visited the Zoo and negotiated a deal with its director. "He assures us that we need not worry about additional cost after the purchase," said Hansler, "as the zoo will house, feed, and doctor the animal, in return for permission to display it before the zoo patrons." The Zoo agreed that the tiger could be removed for such functions as pep rallies, parades, and athletic activities. It was a simpler time.
The asking price was $1200…a rather large sum in the 1950’s…equivalent to about $10,000 in today’s dollars. Realizing that Trinity’s enrollment was, coincidently, 1,200 students, the Lancers and Lancerettes announced a joint fundraising campaign, asking each Trinity student to donate just one dollar.
Lancer pledges, as part of the initiation program, sold “I’m Buying a Tiger” ribbons for a dollar each. The two clubs intended to raise the necessary funds in time to acquire a tiger before homecoming. Regrettably, the fundraising fell short and the Zoo lost interest.
In 1951, a new plan was hatched. The Lancers’ faculty sponsor, Robert E. “Doc” Hunter, contacted the University of Mysore, one of the oldest universities in India. The university expressed interest in trading a tiger for microscope. Apparently, Mysore knew where to find a spare tiger, and Trinity knew where to find a spare microscope. After a promising start, Mysore University stopped responding to Doc Hunter’s letters. He resorted to sending a telegram…but Mysore never responded. Trinity kept its spare microscope and India kept its spare tiger.
Despite the efforts of the Lancers and Lancerettes, by 1953, the fundraising efforts had stalled, The acquisition of a live tiger seemed destined to fail.
Deciding to give it one more try, Trinity and the Lancers looked off campus and found help from local San Antonio contractor Lee Roy Pletz. Mr. Pletz agreed to find and purchase a tiger for Trinity. He found a suitable specimen in California…an adult Royal Bengal Tiger, recently retired from the movie business. Mr. Pletz arranged for the tiger to be flown to San Antonio by his friend Tom Slick.
Tom Slick was a Trinity Trustee. He was also an inventor, businessman, adventurer, and heir to an oil fortune. He was one of two inventors of the Youtz-Slick Lift-Slab Method of construction, used to build most of Trinity’s first buildings. It is the reason so many older dorms have oddly placed support columns in the middle of the room. Slick founded the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in 1947 to seek revolutionary advancements in technology. Slick was also a cryptozoologist, who lead several expeditions to find the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, the Yeti, and other mythical creatures. With the help of actor Jimmy Stewart, Slick smuggled a piece of a purported Yeti hand to England for scientific analysis. He was an inquisitive man with lots of money.
Important to Trinity’s acquisition of a tiger, he was also the owner of Slick Airways. Slick Airways was a commercial cargo carrier. It was also rumored that the business was a CIA air cargo company, preceding the notorious Air America. In any case, Slick offered his services in flying Trinity’s tiger from California to San Antonio.
When the cargo plane landed, the tiger was greeted by a host of dignitaries, including Lee Roy Pletz, San Antonio Mayor Jack White, and Trinity President James Laurie. The Lancers were out in force, as the designated caretakers of the school’s new mascot. They paraded the tiger down Broadway to the San Antonio Zoo, which had extended its offer to accommodate him. Mr. Pletz’ final gift was a rolling cage that the Lancers would use to parade the tiger around the football stadium after each Trinity touchdown. In gratitude, the tiger was named “Lee Roy,” after Mr. Pletz.
When he was not raising team spirit at football games, Lee Roy lived in a private enclosure at the San Antonio Zoo, just across the road from Trinity’s new Skyline campus. Before each game, the Lancers would take the trailer to the zoo and load up Lee Roy.
Sadly, Lee Roy was not in good health. He suffered from seizures and was generally known to be irritable and lethargic. During many celebratory laps around Alamo Stadium’s track, Lee Roy lay in the corner and looked away from the crowd. At other times, he used the lap around the track to …relieve himself…in front of the crowd. Lee Roy also was starting to become ill-tempered and hard to control. The decision was made in 1958 to let Lee Roy “retire.” In his place, the Zoo provided several of his offspring, named Lee Roy II, Lee Roy III, etc. (Although Trinity’s mascot is always portrayed as “male,” several of Lee Roy’s stand-ins were girls.)
Lancer Alumni Adviser John Mace was a tiger handler during his days at Trinity in the 1970’s. He said, “I pulled Lee Roy II around the football field after Trinity touchdowns for at least 2 seasons. The zookeepers at the time told me it was so hard to get him in the trailer, that they only put him in once a year and he had to spend the whole football season in that small trailer.” John lamented that, “…as I have gotten older, I have come to realize it was not a nice way to treat him.”
It was soon decided that public opinion was starting to shift, and the display of a live wild animal at football games fell out of favor. Trinity’s live tigers were left in peace at the zoo, replaced by cheer leaders dressed in fancy tiger costumes.
Lee Roy finally passed away in 1962. Without a breeding program, the Zoo’s collection of Royal Bengal Tigers was phased out in favor of smaller Sumatran tigers. There are stories around campus that Lee Roy’s pelt was preserved and that it was displayed in the lobby of the old Northrup Hall…but no one seems to know if the stories were true or what became of his pelt. Until the mid-1980’s, Lee Roy’s old trailer was still on the Trinity campus, tucked into the brush behind the football stadium…where Prassel dorm now stands. The trailer has since been removed and its circumstances are presently unknown. The final mementos of the Lancer’s stewardship of Lee Roy the tiger can be seen when Lancer actives wear the distinctive red, black, and white jump suits that were worn by Lee Roy’s handlers during football games. The final reminder of Trinity’s once-proud Royal Bengal Tiger is his name…Lee Roy…which lives on as the official moniker of Trinity’s mascot.
The Trinity community now embraces Lee Roy as its mascot, but few students today know how the tiger got his name, or how the Bengal Lancers and their XBE sisters played pivotal roles in the evolution of Trinity’s tiger mascot.
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