Fins Up!

Duncan the Dolphin roams the sidelines of JU home games delighting children and inspiring team spirit. Yet, no matter how popular the porpoise-costumed cheerleader becomes, there's one honor he lacks -- Jacksonville University's official mascot.

That title belongs to an aging, but playful marine mammal who has entertained crowds for half a century at Marineland of Florida. Nellie the Dolphin, who turned 50 years old on Feb. 27 of this year, was awarded that distinction and made an honorary JU Dolphin more than three decades ago by then president Dr. Robert Spiro.

Spiro and JU Student Government Association President Nancy Sanford made the trip to the oceanarium park just south of St. Augustine in the fall of 1970 to officially "adopt" Nellie as JU's mascot. Spiro fondly remembers the day Nellie was made an honorary JU Dolphin and awarded an unofficial JU diploma.

"We had good fun that day down in St. Augustine," Spiro said. "Nellie swam over and I handed her some books and then we conferred upon her a diploma." The ceremony, part of a publicity blitz the University was undertaking that year, included a certificate from the president that proclaimed:

"Whereas Nellie the porpoise has brought high distinction to herself, to her species, and to her human associates at Marineland of Florida through the skillful mastery of an impressive repertoire of aquatic antics; and whereas Nellie has made a significant contribution to man's knowledge of marine life; and whereas Nellie has unselfishly given many happy hours in the entertainment of children of all ages and from all parts of the world; the faculty and students of Jacksonville University hereby proclaim Nellie an honorary Jacksonville University Dolphin."

Spiro - who later created JU's Order of the Dolphin benefactors' society - said the Nellie promotion was very successful in helping raise JU's visibility at a time when the University was beginning to face stiff competition from the University of North Florida.

"We needed publicity to get JU in the public eye as much as possible," Spiro said.

"We just went all out to do interesting things and to let people know that Jacksonville University was an important part of the city and state. Nellie ended up helping us very much with that."

Now the world's oldest living captive dolphin, Nellie was born at Marineland in 1953 and was one of the park's featured entertainers for decades.

These days Nellie is considered retired from show business and her duties include mostly working with disabled visitors who come to Marineland for Dolphin-Assisted Therapy - an interactive experience between patient and porpoise.

"She's just chugging along," said Marineland trainer Bill Upson, who has worked with and trained Nellie for decades. "She's a very special dolphin."

Nellie, an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin, has already lived 20 years longer than most dolphins are expected to live. She's outlived one of her two calves, said Joy Hammp, operations director at Marineland.

"We have people in here all the time who came in here as kids and saw Nellie perform," Hammp said. "They come back with their own children and can't believe that Nellie is still here." Nellie has long maintained her JU icon status. While years of staff and faculty turnover on campus have diminished the number of those who still remember, many JU faculty and alums still remember the dolphin who inspired the name for the student café in Williams Hall.

One of those who remembers is 1971 graduate Ann Duncan. Duncan has taken her family, including 2002 graduate Joshua Duncan, back to Marineland to visit Nellie many times.

"She is a beautiful dolphin who, from all accounts, has amazed so many by living this long and having babies way past the age she should have them," Duncan wrote last summer in a letter to JU President David L. Harlow. "I feel she has special significance to JU. I know she always has to me as a student and graduate."

But Nellie has been significant to more than just JU alums and students. Florida Leader magazine in 1995 named Nellie as the state's "Best Mascot" saying, "Jacksonville University athletes and sports fans don't have to settle for seeing their school mascot just on T-shirts - they can visit the real thing."

Indeed, we can. And this year when we did, we wished her a happy 50th birthday!

Marineland of Florida, the world's first oceanarium, is located on A1A, 15 minutes south of St. Augustine. The park offers dolphin, sea lion and penguin exhibits as well as special interactive programs during which visitors can snorkle in a 450,000-gallon oceanarium or swim with dolphins. For more information, contact the park at 1 (877) 326-7539 or visit its website at www.marineland.net.

How JU Became "The Dolphins"

Before Nellie was given the title, JU went more than 30 years without an official mascot. In 1947, years before Jacksonville Junior College became Jacksonville University, a contest was held to stimulate school spirit and to choose a nickname for the College's newly-organized basketball team. Numerous names were suggested, including Green Raiders, Buccaneers, Juggernauts and Green Dragons, but on Dec. 12, 1947, the winner, Green Dolphins, was announced. It was later shortened to Dolphins.

It was said that the name Dolphins seemed particularly appropriate for JU because of the University's proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and because dolphins actually swim in the St. Johns River, which traverses along the JU campus. Further, the dolphin (usually called porpoise to distinguish it from the popular sport fish) is a highly intelligent mammal that is noted for its speed and sleek appearance.

To date, JU is one of only three colleges or universities to sport the Dolphin moniker, while the only professional organization with the Dolphins nickname is the Miami Dolphins. However, JU is the first of all the teams to select Dolphins as its official nickname and mascot.

Although the University's archives contain no official report of the contest, the name Green Dolphins was apparently submitted by several people and must have been equally popular with the contest judges and student body. Succeeding generations of students have retained the name Dolphins for 55 years.

Nellie Sits Atop Other NCAA Mascots

The University of Georgia's bulldog mascot is one of the best-known in college athletics. Uga has appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated and in Clint Eastwood's movie, Midnight in the Garden of good and Evil.

LSU's tiger is one of the most feared. With each growl from his cage near the visitors' locker room, Mike dictates how many touchdowns the Tigers will score.

The University of Texas' steer is one of the most respected. Bevo was requested for President Bush's inauguration ceremony.

But whoa, Nellie.

JU's official mascot, Nellie the Dolphin, is the oldest of the 36 live animal mascots at the 241 schools in the NCAA's Division I and I-AA ranks, having turned 50 in February of 2003. "She's been a world record for many years," said Bill Upson, who oversees animal training at Marineland, just south of St. Augustine, where Nellie has lived since being born in the park on Feb. 27, 1953.

While Nellie is the only Dolphin to have represented JU, there have been six Ugas, five Mikes and 13 Bevos. Navy has the oldest mascot tradition, with 31 Billy the Goats. Two more are in waiting. Colorado State has carried on the lineage of 18 rams named Cam. And Washington has had the same family provide huskies since 1958.

Nellie has never appeared at a JU competition or event. However, she performed five-minute sports routines throughout the day in front of Marineland crowds for decades before she was retired in the mid-1980's.

Nellie lives with 10 other Dolphins in Marineland tanks, which have running water from the nearby Atlantic Ocean.