Jon Mark Beilue: Oh Give Him a New Home

August 23, 2019

'Oh Give Him a New Home...'

Iconic statue may not roam, but the white buffalo is moving

Breakout: The White Buffalo Reveal and Buffalo Stadium Ribbon Cutting is scheduled from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday, Sept. 6., the day prior to the first game against Azusa Pacific. The event is free and open to the public. Parking is available at the Virgil Henson Activities Center.

By JON MARK BEILUE

White Buffalo

More than 50 years ago, when vehicles would race past then-Buffalo Bowl, just north of Canyon, people would see a barren hill in front of the backside of a press box when they glanced to the east.

Jack King Hill was the only one who saw something else.

“He would drive by the hill many, many times when we were in our old station wagon, and he’d stop and pull over and turn to my mom and say, ‘That hill needs a buffalo,’” said King Hill, his son.

“That’s the mascot of the football team. The buffalo is a sacred animal. And not only does it need a buffalo, it needs a heroic buffalo and it needs to be white because that’s sacred to the Native American.”

And not only that, but Jack Hill, a sculptor with a specialty in Native American culture, had the perfect artist to do it.

Him.

From the ah-ha moment in 1967 came one of the most enduring and recognizable man-made landmarks in the Texas Panhandle – the white, 9-feet tall, 12-feet long, 1,800-pound white buffalo statue.

“Everyone feels like they own it, and, in a sense, they do,” King Hill said. “It’s very important even in people’s lives. I don’t want to compare it to Rushmore, but it has an iconic meaning in the Panhandle. It far surpasses a statue on a hill.”

Since 1967, it has had that prominent place on the hill on I-27, where thousands pass by daily. But in the spirit of give me a home where the buffalo roam, this buffalo is getting a new home, though he won’t be roaming too far once there.

The nearly one-ton buffalo will spend his golden years on the south entrance to the new on-campus Buffalo Stadium, where a dedication of the cherry on top of the new sundae is scheduled for 11 a.m. Friday, Sept. 6, one day before the first game against Azusa Pacific.

Artist Jack Hill“I’m very grateful that it’s going to be saved and preserved there – eternally grateful,” said Hill, whose dad died at age 80 in 2003.

Fifty-two years ago, after getting the vision, Hill went home and got out his scratch pad and began to draw and draw.  There was no Internet, and not a lot of buffalo around.

He went to the library for photos and wrote the Smithsonian for more photos. A room in the Hill home had photos with masking tape on them all over the walls.

“He’d seclude himself, and begin to create,” Hill said. “My mom would bring dinner to the door and knock. He’d get it when he wanted it.”

When it came time to construct the buffalo, Hill did so over four months in his backyard at 3404 Sunlite in Amarillo. He welded a frame, and then hand-carved the buffalo out of polystyrene pontoon floats, mounted that on that metal frame and then covered the buffalo in plaster.

That was Phase I.

‘Create it and it will be displayed’

“Then he got a hoist and a truck from Southwest Machinery – and you talk about a neighborhood sensation – but this huge crane goes over the top of the house, makes a sling under the belly of the buffalo, is lifted up over the house, put on the truck and transported to Canyon Plastics,” said Hill, who as a 15-year-old, got a daily view of the creation.

At Canyon Plastics, a portion of the roof was removed where the buffalo was lowered. There, with the help of Jesse Jones, countless hours went into putting fiberglass on the outer shell.

It should be said that it was well along in the process before then-West Texas State University gave the approval and the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity went about raising the funds for the commission.

Hill did that with an eagle for Canyon High School, and a statue of Margaret Harper, the founder of “Texas,” for the Palo Duro Canyon amphitheater.

“It was like the axiom of ‘Build it, and they will come,’” Hill said, “well, for my dad, it was ‘Create it, and it will be displayed.’”

Lambda Chi spearheaded several fundraising projects, including dribbling a basketball from Lubbock to Canyon. The Lambda Chis also helped hoist the buffalo to its original site and secured the feet to the metal plates.

The buffalo was unveiled on a flatbed truck on the field during the homecoming game in 1967 and was formally presented to Dr. James Cornette, then WT President.. According to one written account: “Immediately following the presentation, massed bands on the field broke into the Buffalo fight song as the thousands cheered their approval.”

A few weeks later, it was anchored to the perch where it has remained into its sixth decade before it was removed earlier this summer. With its prominence, the buffalo also has become a target for vandals and the like.

“Some have tagged it. I’ve got pictures of it spotted like a cow once,” Hill said. “The Lambda Chis would go back and repaint it. When WT took it off the hill for refurbishing, I was told they removed 100 pounds of paint that had accumulated over the 52 years.”

Hill was a machinist for Southwestern Public Service and later a safety coordinator at the Nichols Station, but at his core, he was an artist, visionary and innovator.

Hill was the unofficial artist for local Comanche and Kiowa tribes, so much so that the Hill family were made ceremonial members of the Comanches in the 1960s. His bust of Quanah Parker resides in the National Hall of Fame of Famous American Indians in Anadarko, Okla.

The WT buffalo was one of his favorites because it was visible, so shared with others.

“That was one of his favorite works,” said his son, “because he could drive by and see it. People were always commenting about it. He took great pride in it. I said one time, ‘Dad, your name’s not on it?’

“But it wasn’t about recognition. It was about creating the work. But it was one of his favorites because it was so monumental, so huge. He always said that if you’re going to do something, do it big, do it right.”

 Do you know of a student, faculty member, project, an alumnus or any other story idea for “WT: The Heart and Soul of the Texas Panhandle?” If so, email Jon Mark Beilue at jbeilue@wtamu.edu.

 

—WTAMU—


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