50 years later, Panther creator appreciates his legacy

Jim Cheski, who drew the first Panther image adopted as UWM's mascot, addresses the crowd during the dedication of the Panther statue on Nov. 10, 2015 outside Golda Meir Library. (UWM Photo/Derek Rickert)

You probably don’t know Jim Cheski, but you see his work everywhere at UWM.

Cheski designed UWM’s original Panther logo, which has appeared on everything from coffee mugs to sweatshirts and stadiums since its adoption in 1965.

Its humble creator only grasped the significance of his accomplishment recently, when he was invited back to campus for the unveiling of a bronze panther statue created by three other alumni. The statue was a gift to campus from the UWM Alumni Association, Student Association and Student Housing Administrative Council.

“When Adrienne Bass called me from Alumni Services and invited me back for the celebration, I thought, ‘Are you kidding me?’” Cheski said. “I’ve been in Milwaukee on and off for many years. But the significance didn’t hit me until I came to dinner that Friday night of Homecoming.”

The April 29, 1965, edition of the UWM Post reports that Jim Cheski had won a contest to design the university's new Panther mascot. Winning the contest earned Cheski $100.
The April 29, 1965, edition of the UWM Post reports that Jim Cheski won a contest to design the university’s new Panther mascot. Winning earned Cheski $100.

Seeing all the proud Panthers on campus wearing his design, Cheski thought to himself, “You know, you might have done something here. You’ve made a mark in Milwaukee.”

Cheski was a graduate student in art when the student body voted in 1965 to change the university’s mascot from a cardinal to a panther.

“We wanted something that would show strength, be powerful, be a presence,” Cheski remembered. His art instructors encouraged him to enter the contest to design the new mascot’s image. A $100 prize for winning lent additional motivation.

“That was a lot of money then,” Cheski noted.

Scouring the stacks of National Geographic and outdoor magazines in his parents’ Bay View home, Cheski “looked at panthers until I was green in the face.” He pulled two all-nighters to meet the contest deadline, sketching at the mahogany table in his family’s cramped dining room with only the light of a small chandelier. In the end, the University adopted both of his designs, a head and a lunging panther, which are still used today.

A second reminder of Cheski’s contributions to UWM stands atop Sandburg Hall. He worked in the instructional media department in the early 1970s, ensuring that the university had access to the latest distance-education technologies. Cheski was part of the team responsible for placing a 400-foot broadcast tower onto the residence hall roof for use in such things as the “tele-classes” the College of Nursing transmitted to local hospitals. Pieces of the tower had to be hauled up by a “great, big, heavy-lift helicopter,” he recalled.

Those two UWM projects — the Panther logo and the Sandburg Hall broadcast tower — point the way of Cheski’s career path.

He left UWM in 1974 for a five-year stint with the University of Houston’s instructional media department. Then his former boss at UWM, Robert Hoye, recruited him to the University of Louisville. Kentucky turned out to be the right fit.

“Everything turned out well, so we’ve spent all of our time since ’79 here,” he said.

Cheski oversaw Louisville’s instructional technology, including its radio station, print shop, instructional television, graphic design and photography.

The highlight of his career, however, was the opportunity to build the school’s new planetarium, for which UWM’s Manfred Olson Planetarium served as an inspiration.

The Louisville project engaged his many talents, from selecting the technology and conceiving the look of programs to writing the stories that helped the university’s astronomers explain the stars to students and the public.

“As an artist, writer, and administrator I could really get in there,” Cheski said. “I was involved from Day 1. I got a chance to conceptually design it with my colleagues from the planetarium and from physics. At the time, we were one of only five planetariums in the world with immersive video technology. That was really exciting back in 2000.”

Since retiring six years ago, Cheski has returned to the preoccupation of his UWM grad school days: art. He’s working on a large female sculpture in black walnut that he hopes to finish in the coming months, as well as some smaller bronze sculptures. He also serves as the vice president of the Arts Association of Oldham County, Kentucky.

“I really signed up to get a gallery connection and now look, I’m in administration again,” he said.

Cheski made one promising arts connection during his recent UWM visit: Tom Queoff (’77 MFA), who designed the fierce, commanding and bigger-than-life statue called “Panther Prowl.”

“We’re friends now,” Cheski said. “I need a foundry to cast my bronzes, and Tom has a place in Milwaukee.”

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