History of a name change

AD calls sacrifice of Siwash 'philosophically correct'

Sunday, September 25, 2005

GALESBURG - While many alumni of a college give money to a school in order to have their name honored on a building, George Fitch gave his school a nickname instead.

Fitch, a writer for the Saturday Evening Post in the 1910s and 1920s and an 1897 graduate of Knox College, created a fictional school called Siwash College for his stories.

He denied that Siwash College was based on Knox, saying he had taken parts of many different colleges to create the stories, but many students at Knox began to call the small liberal arts college "Old Siwash" as early as 1917.

The name became popular on campus and Siwash officially became Knox's athletic nickname in 1924, replacing "Purple and Gold."

Knox also began calling itself "Old Siwash" in publications and correspondence, but chose to stop that practice in the 1960s in order to strengthen the Knox brand name.

When Fitch was writing the stories for the Saturday Evening Post, many people thought he invented the nickname, but evidence has since shown otherwise.

Hermann Muelder, a former Knox administrator, chronicled the first 100 years of Knox College in his book "Missionaries and Muckrakers."

He wrote that the term Siwash replaced "Freshwater" as a term that meant backwoods or simple.

Muelder wrote that Siwash came from the French word sauvage, or savage, which explorers used to mean Indians, particularly in a derogatory way.

In the Pacific Northwest, Siwash meant "no good," and, according to the American Thesaurus of Slang, it is a synonym for a "person of unclean habits."

This information became more prominent in the Midwest in 1993, when Knox College Director of College Communications David Amor found a letter in CASE Currents, a trade publication for college public relations professionals. It said the term was used derogatorily in the Pacific Northwest, and said Knox College used the term as its nickname.

Amor wrote a memo to Knox College President John McCall saying he believed this would be an issue. After further researching the meaning of the word, McCall decided to change the school's nickname.

Support for the decision came from the athletic department immediately. In 1993, before McCall announced he would drop the nickname, the athletic department unanimously voted to support dropping the nickname, former Athletic Director Harley Knosher said.

Knosher said there was an emotional response to the decision but called the name change a fact of life.

"It wasn't a matter of being politically correct," he said. "It was a matter of being philosophically correct."

He said he made speeches in the community about the decision two or three times with limited success, and found that it had little or no impact on the undergraduates of Knox.

In picking a new nickname, the selection committee had two specific criteria in mind. They felt the new name should be unique and that it should reflect some part of the history of the college.

Knosher said he felt the new nickname Prairie Fire was a great choice for the college for the same reasons Siwash was.

Prairie Fire was selected, he said, because no one else had it and because of the traditional prairie burn the school conducts at the Green Oaks Biological Station, an event that has been happening for more than 80 years.

Amor said Knox's 16th President, Rick Nahm, did revisit the decision in 1994 and 1995, and despite outrage from the Fifty Year Club, a group of alumni who graduated from Knox or Lombard colleges more than fifty years ago, Nahm found that it was not in the best interest to change the name back.

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