University of Pittsburgh

commons room

Panthers, Pride, and Politics

Written by Ezra Christopher

Daylight streams onto the shapes of several unfinished statues in a room of the William Pitt Union. The tarpaulin-covered floor is scattered with paint cans, brushes, and torn pages from Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and Dante’s The Divine Comedy. In one corner, a group of loud-talking, politically minded students has gathered around one of the statues—a panther that’s squatting on its hind legs with one paw in the air.

Junior Ian Lauer pulls a package of mint-flavored dental floss from his bag and tosses it to a friend, Pitt senior Erin Schaefer. She wraps a length of floss around her fingers and stretches it from the panther’s nose to its tail, dividing the statue in half—the right side for Republicans and the left for Democrats. It’s October—a few months before the nation’s political parties will unite under a new presidential administration—and members of Pitt’s College Democrats and College Republicans are already working together. Through the Paint-the-Panther program, a new tradition at Pitt initiated by the Student Government Board, they’re encouraging young people to get involved in politics, as well as showing some campus pride.

Without any handy adhesive, the floss slides out of place on the six-foot statue, so someone finds masking tape and runs it along the panther’s back. “Quick everyone, grab a can of paint and start shaking,” says Schaefer, a political science major and the political steering chair of the College Democrats. When a student picks up a can of blue paint, Lauer shouts: “I want to name it Joe Biden Blue!” Soon, the students are painting the panther with Joe Biden Blue and Lipstick Red to showcase, with humor, the vice presidential candidates. Lauer—majoring in anthropology, political science, and sociology—is particularly enthusiastic and jokes about the campaign while pulling his brush along the statue.

The Democrats outnumber the Republicans, so Schaefer dips her brush into the can of Lipstick Red and paints the panther’s right side along with junior Patrick Graham, president of the College Republicans and a double major in actuarial mathematics and economics. “This is party unity right here and a show of American nationalism,” she boasts. After several hours of painting, the students take a break and admire the panther that is not only half-red and half-blue but now covered with stars, stripes, donkeys, elephants, and “Vote ’08.”

On the other side of the room, students from ONE—an antipoverty advocacy group—are painting a multicolored map of Africa on another panther statue. Nearby, a third panther statue is clothed in a suit, monocle, and necktie, created from the torn pages of the favorite books of the University Honors College reading groups.

All of the custom-decorated panther statues were unveiled during Homecoming week and are now guarding the hallways of the William Pitt Union until next fall, when other student clubs will decorate the mascots with new designs that represent their passions.