When Arnold Gluck walked out of his high school basketball practice with six strangers 67 years ago, he could never have imagined the fame that would follow.
Gluck became the face (and body) of the Centralia (Ill.) Orphans that day. Now 84, Gluck helped the Orphans win USA TODAY High School Sports’ Best Mascot competition, which ended Wednesday afternoon.
Centralia – a city of 14,000 with a high school enrollment of 1,000 – went nationwide to win the contest. The Orphans registered 31,512,654 votes in the past month, including a six-day final round total of 25,392,806 votes.
Perfect timing for a city saddled with economic woes and an unemployment rate of 13 percent.
“The community we have, the best asset is our people,” Centralia Mayor Tom Ashby said. “The pride we have here is something else. We are proud of our heritage. We’re looking for some bright spots. This shows even with the downturn that we can have something to look forward to and have some brightness. It’s a shot in the arm.”
"Amazing," added Centralia High principal Reid Shipley, "just how widespread our community has become. We've always said, 'Once an Orphan, always an Or-Fan. That's most appropriate right now."
There are varying accounts of how Centralia was given the Orphans nickname. A Chicago sportswriter once wrote that "they looked like a bunch of orphans but they sure could play basketball ... ". During the Great Depression, Centralia High School and the community were hit hard, and the team wore raggedy uniforms.
In the 1970s, Centralia introduced girls athletics to the school and named them the Orphan Annies.
However, the appearance of the actual mascot arrived in the mid-1940s. A group of “artists” came into a basketball practice and asked the coach if he could loan an athlete for them to sketch and create the Orphan mascot.
The coach said, sure, he had an actual orphan on the team and instructed Gluck to go with the group.
Gluck was indeed an orphan for much of his childhood before finding his grandfather – and eventually his mother – in Centralia. He left practice with the artists, who sketched him doing different drills, and the mascot was born.
“I never thought too much about it at an early age, but (now) I’m so proud of it,” Gluck said Wednesday.
Finishing second were the Carbon (Price, Utah) Dinos with13,089,518 votes in the final round. Overall, the Best Mascots competition drew nearly 80 million votes.