Fins Up! JU's Official Mascot Celebrates Historical Milestone
Dunk'n the Dolphin roams the sidelines of JU home games delighting children and inspiring team spirit. Yet, no matter how popular the porpoise-costumed cheerleader becomes, there's one honor he lacks - Jacksonville University's official mascot.
That title belongs to an aging, but playful marine mammal who has entertained crowds for half a century at Marineland of Florida. Nellie the Dolphin, who turned 60 years old on Feb. 27, 2013, was awarded that distinction and made an honorary JU Dolphin more than three decades ago by then president Dr. Robert Spiro.
Spiro and JU Student Government Association President Nancy Sanford made the trip to the oceanarium park just south of St. Augustine in the fall of 1970 to officially "adopt" Nellie as JU's mascot. Spiro fondly remembers the day Nellie was made an honorary JU Dolphin and awarded an unofficial JU diploma.
"We had good fun that day down in St. Augustine," Spiro said. "Nellie swam over and I handed her some books and then we conferred upon her a diploma." The ceremony, part of a publicity blitz the University was undertaking that year, included a certificate from the president that proclaimed:
"Whereas Nellie the porpoise has brought high distinction to herself, to her species, and to her human associates at Marineland of Florida through the skillful mastery of an impressive repertoire of aquatic antics; and whereas Nellie has made a significant contribution to man's knowledge of marine life; and whereas Nellie has unselfishly given many happy hours in the entertainment of children of all ages and from all parts of the world; the faculty and students of Jacksonville University hereby proclaim Nellie an honorary Jacksonville University Dolphin."
Spiro - who later created JU's Order of the Dolphin benefactors' society - said the Nellie promotion was very successful in helping raise JU's visibility at a time when the University was beginning to face stiff competition from the University of North Florida.
"We needed publicity to get JU in the public eye as much as possible," Spiro said. "We just went all out to do interesting things and to let people know that Jacksonville University was an important part of the city and state. Nellie ended up helping us very much with that."
Now the world's oldest living captive dolphin, Nellie was born at Marineland in 1953 and was one of the park's featured entertainers for decades. These days Nellie is considered retired from show business and her duties include mostly working with disabled visitors who come to Marineland for Dolphin-Assisted Therapy - an interactive experience between patient and porpoise.
"She's just chugging along," said Marineland trainer Bill Upson, who has worked with and trained Nellie for decades. "She's a very special dolphin."
Nellie, an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin, has already lived 20 years longer than most dolphins are expected to live. She's outlived one of her two calves, said Joy Hammp, operations director at Marineland.
"We have people in here all the time who came in here as kids and saw Nellie perform," Hammp said. "They come back with their own children and can't believe that Nellie is still here."
Nellie has long maintained her JU icon status. While years of staff and faculty turnover on campus have diminished the number of those who still remember, many JU faculty and alums still remember the dolphin who inspired the name for the student cafe in Williams Hall.
One of those who remembers is 1971 graduate Ann Duncan. Duncan has taken her family, including 2002 graduate Joshua Duncan, back to Marineland to visit Nellie many times.
"She is a beautiful dolphin who, from all accounts, has amazed so many by living this long and having babies way past the age she should have them," Duncan wrote in the summer of 2002 in a letter to then JU President David L. Harlow. "I feel she has special significance to JU. I know she always has to me as a student and graduate."
But Nellie has been significant to more than just JU alums and students. Florida Leader magazine in 1995 named Nellie as the state's "Best Mascot" saying, "Jacksonville University athletes and sports fans don't have to settle for seeing their school mascot just on T-shirts - they can visit the real thing."
Marineland of Florida, the world's first oceanarium, is located on A1A, 15 minutes south of St. Augustine. The park offers dolphin, sea lion and penguin exhibits as well as special interactive programs during which visitors can snorkle in a 450,000-gallon oceanarium or swim with dolphins.