JEEP! JEEP! JEEP!March 7, 2015
Story by Joe Jasinski
Photos by Rachel Mummey
Jade Hoffman can’t get the monkey off her back.
Well, technically it’s hanging on her stomach. Well, Eugene’s stomach.
Eugene the Jeep.
It’s been Hoffman’s alter-ego of sorts since she assumed the role of Northeast Dubois High School’s mascot as a sophomore. When students think of Jade, the connection to the large, furry comic strip character is almost automatic. Heck, Jade even took one of her senior photos proudly holding the mascot’s head under her arm.
Jade stands in the doorway of room C101B, a walk-in closet tucked inside a classroom near an entrance to the Northeast Dubois gym. The student section has chosen a “jungle” theme for this Tuesday-evening boys basketball skirmish in late February. Hence the stuffed monkey with gangly arms attached via Velcro to Eugene’s neck, its body lying limply on the Jeep’s protruding belly. Jade has morphed into Eugene — the colossal feet, plump body, balloon-like blue paws and oversized head with the maniacal eyes, sneering smile, bristly whiskers and elongated nose — ready to be the darling of Dubois.
“She has transformed it into something kind of iconic,” says Tara Rasche, the Northeast Dubois teacher who helps Jade with planning themes and a mix of other Eugene-related tasks.
The towering tub turns toward the classroom door and starts plodding. For an icon, it’s not the majestic march you might expect. It’s a waddle. It’s goofy. And as soon as Eugene walks out that door, it’s on.
Inside the suit, Jade is sweating.
You would, too.
Despite the ensemble costing a couple thousand dollars, there’s no state-of-the-art ventilation system or interior cooling gadget to control temperatures when Jade is jumping and running and dancing around the gym.
That’s perhaps one of the reasons the school’s never seen much interest from students to wear the get-up at Jeep sporting events. Before Jade, that is. Prior to Hoffman snatching the role, “we would kind of have to beg people,” says Rasche, who’s taught at the school for 11 years. “Then when they would, they’d just kind of be standing there (hunched over) looking like, ‘I don’t want to be here.’”
Jade changed that.
At games, she’s animated. She’s on the court clapping with cheerleaders to the Northeast Dubois fight song. She provides base support when the cheerleaders hoist each other in the air. She mingles with children, who first look curiously at the abnormal being before sensing its harmlessness and proceeding to pull at its tail, bop it in the nose and administer whatever other tortures they see fit. Before this season, in addition to the outfit’s usual full-body dry cleaning, the Jeep’s tail and nose needed to be resewn.
Away from games, Jade stays just as invested. She makes trips to the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store in Jasper for costume and prop acquisitions, fashions each game’s garments at the Hoffman’s home in the hills of Celestine and even spends downtime in study periods to scour the Internet for important matters, like fastening a toga around a hefty mass.
For Jade, it’s not a chore. It’s a passion.
Part of it is her creative side — the thriftiness of a veteran of 4-H fair projects. Another sector stems from her knack for simply getting things done. It’s a skill destined to develop from being president of the high school’s Future Farmers of America chapter while also holding down a job at Libby’s Gourmet Ice Cream in Jasper.
She deals with the entrapped heat within Eugene’s body, which comes insulated with 2 inches of interior foam padding beneath its gray, carpeted skin. She wears shorts and a T-shirt under the bulky body, lays down beside the court periodically for a quick break and sometimes retreats back into the agriculture classroom from which she originally came, on through the adjacent shop garage and finally out the door leading to the school’s back parking lot. Outside, away from any kids, she removes Eugene’s head and basks in the winter chill.
The tools of the trade, she’s learned along the way. To arrive there, of course, required the occasional slip, fumble or flop. It didn’t take long to learn lesson No. 1.
Pep rally. Sophomore year. Teachers vs. students dodgeball. Jade’s first time in the suit.
She noticed some of the teacher referees kicking balls over to their peers, so she decided to interject. She snuck up on math teacher and junior varsity boys basketball coach Dwayne Knies and ripped away one of the dodgeballs he’d stolen himself. Jade, donning the Jeep suit, bolted back toward the students’ side and ... thud. Unable to pick up the giant feet fast enough, she hit the ground “and I just hear people freakin’ bust out laughing,” Jade recalls, smiling. “I didn’t even know what happened. I’m still kind of confused at the moment.”
She rolled over and tried getting up. No chance. It took three teachers to get Eugene to its feet.
Eventually, Jade learned to stand up on her own. And ...
“I learned how to walk,” she says straightforwardly, as if describing her own adolescent development.
There was also the time she eyed a seat at Forest Park High School’s Buechler Arena only to find herself sitting on a Ferdinand policeman’s lap.
Good evening, officer.
Other times, remembering she’s sporting a somewhat horrifying outfit — “Let’s be honest, the Jeep is kind of creepy,” Rasche says — escapes her conscious. Like last season when she sneaked up on Northeast Dubois school secretary Sarah Danhafer and her son, Grant, who was about 18 months old at the time.
“I walked up to him and covered my eyes and just gave a ‘Boo!’ And he starts bawling. ... I covered my face, turned around and walked away in shame,” Jade remembers.
“Literally, I think he stopped breathing,” Danhafer recalls with a laugh.
Now, Jade is more prudent. It’s a bashful, non-threatening stroll up to kids. If they teeter on the verge of tears, she remorsefully covers her face.
When it made its first appearance in a 1937 edition of the Thimble Theatre comic strip, which stars Popeye the Sailor Man, the Jeep was said to be about the size of a dog. At Northeast Dubois, one of only two schools in the country with the Jeep as its mascot (the other is South Webster High School in Ohio), it’s become much bigger.
Accordingly, Jade constantly looks to develop the mascot in other ways. She and Rasche have rummaged through the school’s attic to find hordes of collected treasures, like a grass skirt from a past Hawaiian homecoming. Tack on odds and ends — enough to occupy two large boxes stuffed in the Hoffman’s basement — and Eugene is ready for any theme, any time.
In the middle of January, she swung by the Route 162 thrift shop in Jasper with one of her two Jeep apprentices, sophomore Melanie Roberts, to pick up some accoutrements.
“Would it look bad if Tarzan had silk boxers?” Jade asked, holding a pair of velvety undergarments. In 20 minutes, they’d found an extra-large white undershirt for “Thug/Gangster Night,” leaves to make a laurel wreath for “Toga Night” and the long-armed monkey. Total damage: $5.35.
“You need to find chains,” Roberts reminds Jade about the gangster theme.
“I’ve got goat chains,” Jade offers.
There to assist are Jade’s father, Dave, mother, Susan, and sisters Rachel and Julia. Rachel even hopped into the suit at a game once for Jade.
“It was hot,” Rachel assures.
And whenever you see the Jeep cheerleaders and their coach, 2011 Northeast Dubois graduate Leann Dodd, Jade is sure to be nearby.
“She’s just the total package,” Dodd says. “I don’t know what we’ll do without her.”
That becomes the question.
Soon the dance-offs, like the one Jade’s gotten into with the Washington Catholic cardinal and Lanesville’s eagle mascot at last year’s boys basketball regional will end. What’s next?
Roberts and freshman Paige Andrews have each taken a whirl with Eugene at games this season, and Jade figures the duo working together is the best bet for continued success.
“I’ll have people come up to me and they say, ‘You’re the best mascot our school has ever had!’ Well, I’m the only mascot our school’s ever had. I love it, but it’s really not saying much,” Jade downplays. “Next year, I’m kind of scared to go to a game and be like, ‘They’re a better mascot than I was!’”
As for Hoffman, it’s off to Western Kentucky University to study sales and marketing. She’s already inquired about serving as Big Red, the furry blob mascot for a school with teams dubbed the Hilltoppers. She found out the duty is shared among six students, as the mascot typically attends more than 300 events each year. Though Jade may have a leg up.
“He’s fat like the Jeep,” she says, “so that’s nice.”
Contact Joe Jasinski at email@example.com.
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