Turtles all the way down

Beloiters throughout time are linked by their peculiar devotion to a dogged reptile. In fact, the origin of Beloit’s affinity to the turtle may go back more than 1,000 years, when Native Americans built a mysterious turtle-shaped mound on land that would become our campus.

This is excerpted from a full story written by Marlo Amelia Buzzell’10 and published in the spring 2011 edition of Beloit College Magazine. Read it here.

How many turtles does it take to climb all the way down to the beginning of Beloit’s love for this creature? It’s a long way down.

There’s Turtle Creek, flowing to the east and south of campus, nearby Turtle Township, and the famous turtle mound behind the Wright Museum of Art. There’s Chelonia, the college’s dance company and blockbuster spring concert (Chelonia is a genus within the Cheloniidae family of modern sea turtles). Back in the 1930s and ’40s, Beloit had a synchronized women’s swim team called the Terrapins. Donors who give $2,500 or more to the college are inducted into the Chapin Society and given a gold turtle-shell pin created by acclaimed jewelry designer Robert Lee Morris’69.

Historically, physically, and intellectually, turtles are everywhere in Beloit’s past and present.

The oldest connection is the turtle-shaped effigy mound that still exists behind the Wright Museum of Art (formerly Observatory Hill). The mounds were built by Native Americans and are estimated to be between 900 and 1,400 years old.

In the early 1800s, several hundred Winnebago Ho-Chunk lived where the Rock River and the Turtle Creek join, in a village they called Ke-chunk-nee-shun-nuk-ra. (“Ke-chunk” means “turtle” in the Ho-Chunk language.) Early white settlers often referred to their village as Turtle before settling on the name “Beloit.”

Making it our own

Beloit College snapped up this history by incorporating a turtle into its official coat of arms in 1930.

But long before then, students had already appropriated the turtle emblem for themselves. The Turtle Mound Society, a secret organization, gathered on the turtle mound late at night from 1901 through the mid-1970s. Society members met with the current college president to share student opinions.

In 1949, the English department’s literary magazine, The Turtle, merged with the Ka Ne Literary Society to publish The Ka Ne Turtle, an anthology of student work.

Eventually, Beloit’s fondness for turtles crawled to life at a slightly livelier pace. In the mid-1970s, students formed the Turtle Township Marching Band and Kazoo Conservatory, which featured a student mascot in a turtle costume, a small drum corps, and unabashed merriment.

The turtle legacy continued in print into the 1980s and beyond, with smatterings of turtle cartoons in issues of the Round Table over the years, including work by cartoonist Kirk O’Brien’83 and the serialized “Turtle Tales” by caricaturist David Stephens’86.

Beloiters of the 1980s through the 2000s saw the biology department’s snapping turtles as college pets. Flash and Fido were highlights of campus tours, and students often brought visitors to meet them in their enclosure on the second floor of Chamberlin Hall.

Flash died the day before the 1999 Commencement ceremony and a faculty member ordered a replacement common snapping turtle, which was named Fido in a campus-wide naming contest. Fido weighed 30 pounds, was commonly referred to as “grumpy,” and, as the informational plaque outside his enclosure reminded visitors, “In case you were wondering, Fido can and will remove fingers.” Fido died in 2008 and was memorialized in a Facebook group.

Presidential turtles

No one currently at Beloit identifies with the turtle more readily (or publicly) than President Scott Bierman, whose inaugural address began with three simple words: “I love turtles.”

Bierman first professed his affection for the reptile in middle school, when he ran for student council president and gave an allegorical speech urging his classmates to pick the steadfast and slightly nerdy turtle (himself) to be king of the forest.

In his inaugural address, Bierman described turtles and Beloiters all at once. “I love the anthropomorphic qualities that are attributed to turtles, of being survivors—winners, even, of being smart but with a wry sense of humor, of being principled nonconformists, of being responsible and resourceful, of being humble and generous … And they live for a really long time.”

The turtle in all of us

With or without real turtles to dote upon, Beloiters decorate their homes, offices, and bodies with the icon.

Seeing turtles everywhere becomes a normal part of life on campus, and the animals’ prevalence is just another facet of what makes Beloit, well, Beloit.

Bill Conover, who directed the college’s spiritual life program, said it best as he opened the 2010 baccalaureate ceremony:

“It’s the march of the turtles, down to the edge of the sea and away. Once a year each spring we gather to watch them go, carrying home on their backs and Beloit in their hearts. The poets and the radicals, the activists and the nerds, they must be on their way, along with all their classmates: the artists and teachers, writers and researchers, cynics and mystics, the questioners of authority, and the dreamers of a greener and fairer world. In four years, they have transformed this place, and it has transformed them.”

And wherever they go, chances are, Beloiters will see turtles all the way down.

Marlo Amelia Buzzell’10 studied creative writing, journalism, and Beloit geekery, and was involved with WBCR, the Round Table, Voodoo Barbie comedy improv, and Theta Pi Gamma.

Marlo Amelia Buzzell’10
August 25, 2022

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