Remembering SHSU: James Pharaon

James Pharaon is a 1998 graduate of Sam Houston State University. For three years beginning in 1995 he portrayed campus mascot, Sammy Bearkat, and was responsible for the re-imaging of the character in the late-1990s. He currently is the Senior Creative Designer for Germania Insurance where he works on advertising, graphics, and brand strategy. James still gets in freelance work on the side, including illustrations of Sammy for the university.

1. When did you first come to SHSU and what were your earliest recollections of the campus?

I first visited SHSU in January 1993. I didn’t take an official tour of the campus – I just parked my car and walked around. I had read all of the admissions literature that had been sent to me and wanted to get an “unfiltered” feel for what the campus and town felt like. The spring semester hadn’t started yet, and the campus was practically deserted and quiet. I walked around for a couple of hours, walking in and out of buildings. I loved the feel of everything at SHSU. I knew instantly that I would be right at home there. This was well before most of the renovation, and most of the buildings, and the campus in general, had a very small-town and home-like feel that I found very attractive. I stopped into a couple of local businesses (that aren’t even there anymore) and found the people in town to be very, very friendly. I could really see myself there.

2. What buildings did you spend a lot of your time in?

I lived on campus in Lawrence House, across from the Episcopal Student Center. Living in a small house was great because it really became a close-knit community of guys (the houses weren’t co-ed at the time). As an art major I spent most of my first couple of year in the art buildings before I changed my major to journalism. Then I spent most of my time in either the Dan Rather building or the LSC after I got involved in Program Council and Student Activities. Also, being Sammy Bearkat, I spent countless hours at both Bowers Stadium and the Johnson Coliseum.

3. What are some of your favorite memories of being at SHSU and in Huntsville?

Where to begin? Some of my best memories are working for Student Activities and Program Council planning events, playing intramurals, wandering the campus late at night and just generally finding things to keep myself amused. I never had to try very hard. I also met my wife at SHSU, so that’s a pretty good memory, too, and proposing to her on the 50-yard line during Homecoming is one of my all-time favorite memories.

Let’s qualify this question with “in costume?”.

This one is a bit easier. Some of my favorite moments in costume are:
  • Getting up on stage with Atticus Finch during Sam Jam and crowd surfing;
  • Competing in mascot Nationals at Walt Disney World;
  • Banging my drum and holding up huge banners during games to get the crowd pumped;
  • Introducing the new Sammy suit;
  • Performing with Clutch at a Houston Rockets game;
  • Having the old Sammy head basically dissolve around me during a rainstorm at a football game;
  • Performing at Kyle Field against Texas A&M and getting attacked by Reveille.

4. How did you get in costume the first time, and what prompted the Sammy redesign process?

I was a cheerleader in high school and my first year at SHSU, but I didn't like it - it was too limiting. In high school, the guy cheerleaders got to run around on the field and in the stands pumping up the crowd, and in college all we could do was stand in one place. I wanted to be involved in school spirit in some aspect, but I wasn't sure how. So when I saw an ad in the Houstonian for mascot try-outs, I decided to give it a shot. I tried out against several other people (including the guy who had been Sammy the previous semester) and was selected by a panel of judges. My skit consisted of George Thorogood's "Bad to the Bone" and a plastic bone toy I found at Wal-Mart. My entire skit was 2 minutes of me mistreating - or being "bad" to the bone. Frankly, I'm surprised I was selected, especially considering some of the elaborate skits and props that some people used. One guy brought in a windsurfing board complete with sail.

I originally started playing around with an update for Sammy during my freshman year following a conversation in the cafeteria about how dated an illustration of Sammy looked. When I started working for Student Activities as a graphic designer, I was able to sneak in an updated illustration of Sammy here and there (such as on the Homecoming 1996 T-shirt). But the real process didn’t really start until late October 1996 when the old “dog suit” Sammy literally fell apart around me during a rain storm that started during a football game. It was ruined, and Linda Webber Gorski, then the Director of Student Activities, gave me the job of finding a new suit. I pitched a redesign to her, and she was very receptive. We went through literally a couple hundred sketches before we finally ended up with one that both we and the administration liked. And then we found a company in Florida that would produce it (relatively) cheap. We unveiled the new Sammy on January 31, 1997 at halftime of the SHSU vs. SFA basketball game. At the time, it was the largest home crowd in more than ten years.

5. How have you answered friends, family members, or even complete strangers when they ask “what’s a bearkat?”

Let me start this one by saying, emphatically, that a Sam Houston Bearkat is neither a kinkajou or a binturong. That the school ever had a live mascot or that its mascot was ever associated with either one of those animals is the result of someone thinking too literally. The SHSU bearkat has always been a mythical creature. Although, of the two, a binturong is more ferocious than a kinkajou so I wish the school had kept a live binturong instead of a kinkajou. When people ask me, I tell them that it’s a seven-foot tall half bear, half kat that is bright orange and knows how to use a litterbox.


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