How to make the penguin ‘official?’

The answer’s not always black and white, but the ‘mascot’ may be home to roost

Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2006

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Gazette file photo
The Montgomery County Thanksgiving Parade just wouldn’t be the same without a visit by Silver Spring’s unofficial mascot, this time in a giant, inflatable form.

Silver Spring had the penguin craze down long before ‘‘Happy Feet” came along.

While penguins have become quite popular following the release of a movie about the flightless birds who find their soul mate through song — and for one little guy who can’t sing and dance — Silver Spring’s ‘‘unofficial mascot” has been two-stepping through the downtown for years.

So long, in fact, that the black-and-white bird can be seen on street corners, in the library, in Borders Books and Music, and by the Metro station, and no one really questions its presence.

No one has ever tried to make the penguin an official mascot, said Gary Stith, director of the Silver Spring Regional Services Center. To his knowledge, he said, no area of Montgomery County has tried to make a creature its own, and he said he wasn’t quite sure what it would take to make the penguin an official mascot.

‘‘If there’s anything we need to work on making official, it’s incorporating Silver Spring,” said Jerry McCoy, president of the Silver Spring Historical Society. ‘‘Since that’s not going to happen, maybe we should be focusing on making the penguin an official mascot.”

Town and city mascots may not run rampant in Montgomery County, but that’s not the case for some other parts of the United States. Hutto, Texas, boasts the hippo as its official mascot. Sea Isle City, N.J.’s mascot is the diamondback turtle.

But official or not, the tuxedoed birds are here to stay. In 2004, some of Silver Spring’s penguins were saved on a wing and a prayer. Residents and business owners donated $30,000 to refurbish ‘‘Penguin Rush Hour,” the aging penguin mural located by the Silver Spring Metro station on Colesville Road. The mural depicts penguins running for the Metro, buying tickets, riding the train and reading newspapers.

The Antarctic bird’s presence gives the community a sense of pride and place, McCoy said.

Mascots from around the world
Utsonomia City, Japan: Fried dumpling
Hutto, Texas: Hippo
Sea Isle City, N.J.: Diamondback turtle
Leicester City, United Kingdom: Fox
Council Bluffs, Iowa: Black squirrel
‘‘People see the penguin on pedestrian crossing signs, on murals. It just seems like the penguin pops up everywhere. People say, ‘Oh, that’s our penguin,’” McCoy said.

The penguin and the acorn are known symbols of Silver Spring. And from time to time, they even appear together, McCoy said. (The acorn is another longtime symbol of the community, associated with Silver Spring’s ‘‘father,” Francis Preston Blair.)

The penguins have had a home in the downtown since 1990, when Bethesda artist Sally Callmer’s mural was put up next to the Metro station. And that mural was the catalyst for a boom in the local penguin population. As she said in a 2004 interview during the mural’s refurbishing, ‘‘What’s not to like about a penguin?”

That mural is still being refurbished, Stith said. It may not be put back up until after construction on the Paul S. Sarbanes Transit Center is completed.

‘‘It started with [Callmer’s] mural,” McCoy said. ‘‘A penguin would never have entered anyone’s mind otherwise. Then it worked its way into the social fabric.”

Over the years, the birds inspired the Silver Spring Library to create a penguin mascot named Pepé — an inflatable version of Pepé sometimes rears his head at the library — and led to pedestrian safety signs featuring a penguin crossing the street to be scattered throughout the downtown.

The Silver Spring Regional Services Center has used Pepé’s buddy, Monty, as a marketing tool. During the downtown’s redevelopment, signs depicting penguins in hard hats warned people away from construction areas, Stith said.

A penguin that had lived in front of the regional services center was moved to the corner of Ellsworth Drive and Spring Street when the plaza in front of the center was revamped, Stith said.

‘‘Is there a penguin protection act in Silver Spring?” Stith joked.

Whole Foods also used the penguin during a recent celebration. He appeared on T-shirts as Elvis, complete with pompadour, jacket and guitar, McCoy said.

‘‘I’m all for anything that makes people stop and think about their community,” McCoy said. ‘‘If it’s a penguin that’s got to do it, so be it.”