Guest Column

A Corny Sort of Mascot Controversy

by Joseph Graves

When I first accepted the job as superintendent in Mitchell, S.D., the faculty of my former district in northwestern Iowa was not particularly kind. Their taunting started with a dawning realization of Mitchell’s most prominent feature, “the World’s Only Corn Palace,” a century-old structure sporting beautiful corn mosaics drawing tens of thousands of tourists every year.


Then came the jokes. “So what are you called, the Fighting Corn? Snicker, snicker.” (I assure you they were better teachers than comedians.)

“No,” I’d respond, “We’re the Kernels.”

To hoots of laughter, they would then ask, “So is your mascot a big ear of corn? Hee, hee.”

The fact of the matter is that our school district’s mascot is indeed a big ear of corn—a big, dancing, wildly gesticulating ear of corn named Cornelius who rallies the fans on the sidelines at our many athletic events. Even before I became superintendent of Mitchell, I took their jokes as something of an affront and would respond, “The name’s Cornelius to you. And we’re all pretty proud of him (her?).”

Usually, though, that would just lead to even more laughter. It never ceased to amaze me that Iowans could make fun of corn. (I suspect it was due to the fact that Iowa’s Hog Palace never drew any tourists.)

But now that I’ve been on the job for a few months, my former faculty members are the least of Cornelius' problems. I received in my office recently a scathing letter from the president of the National Corn Board, Sheldon Cobb. I’ll share with you a few excerpts from that letter:

“Cornelius, we must point out, is actively creating a stereotypical image of corn in the public eye and one too often not favorable with the general consumer. …

“Much like the ‘Jolly Green Giant,’ of commercial fame, which associates vegetables with giants, a mythical race known to be vicious and bloodthirsty, your big ear of corn has taken a highly aggressive stance against many other school districts and their athletic teams. If this continues, people may begin to fear corn even though throughout its history, it has been mostly a gentle and beneficent vegetable. …

“Having attended football games in Mitchell to ascertain the extent of the potential problem, representatives of the National Corn Board, traveling incognito, have more than once noticed your Cornelius striking fear in the hearts of children, even frightening small dogs at times. …

“Unfortunately, we do not believe that this image can be changed by simply making Cornelius more friendly. Such an attempt, if successful, could actually lead to such sympathy toward corn that consumer demand could decline. It is conceivable that youngsters would be unwilling to use corn holders or skewers on the summer favorite, corn-on-the-cob, for fear that they might cause pain to the hapless vegetable. …

“For these and a cornucopia of other reasons, by unanimous vote of the National Corn Board, supported by its sister organizations, the Sons of Soybeans and the American Congress of Wheat Fanciers, I hereby request—no, insist—that you immediately cease using Cornelius as your school’s official mascot.”

In case it has thus far escaped you, I didn’t really receive a letter of this sort from anyone. I have noticed, however, in recent months many schools in South Dakota have come under scrutiny for their mascots. Usually this has been the case because they use mascots or team names derived from Native American tribes or terms.

At times, these names could actually be viewed as complimentary. I’d certainly find it flattering if a school team called itself the “Fighting Graves.” Then again, I might change my mind if their sideline-slumping mascot was a homely looking fellow, 40 pounds overweight, in a rumpled dark suit whose rallying cry to the crowds was “Well, I’m not sure. I’ll look into it and get back to you on that.”

In other words, a wonderful tradition of a team name and mascot is at stake in so many schools, frequently because of the abuses individuals engage in that turn a proud name into a mocking stereotype. And it is a problem that my school, Mitchell, simply does not have.

That’s because we have Cornelius, a big ear of corn and the butt of jokes of insensitive Neanderthals in other communities and other states. He’s just about the unlikeliest school mascot imaginable. Because of Cornelius, I get to sit on the sidelines on the issue of team names and mascots. Sit on the sidelines and watch the antics of my favorite ear of corn.

Long live Cornelius!

Joe Graves is superintendent of the Mitchell School District, 117 E. 4th St., Mitchell, SD 57301. E-mail: