IOWA Magazine | 05-01-2024

Mascot Masterpieces: Herky on Parade Returns to Iowa City

8 minute read
Iowa City pays a creative tribute to Herky and the Hawkeye spirit.
Herky on Parade team with blank statues PHOTO COURTESY THINK IOWA CITY Members of the Herky on Parade team pose with the blank statues before they were distributed to local artists. The finished statues were unveiled May 1 in Iowa City and the surrounding communities.

It’s 9:58 a.m. on Wednesday, May 1, and across Johnson County city workers, artists, and community leaders stand next to 6-foot-tall statues wrapped in plastic. In two minutes, the tornado sirens will sound—but this is no ordinary drill.

As soon as the test is announced, 99 versions of Herky, reimagined and vibrant in color, will be unveiled to mark the beginning of Herky on Parade III.

VIDEO: JASON SMITH Behind the scenes with Herky on Parade.

Herky statues getting a coat of protective lacquer PHOTO COURTESY THINK IOWA CITY Each Herky statue is coated in automotive lacquer at Kahler Collision Center in Coralville.

From Vision to Tradition

Just four months ago, these fiberglass statues were blank canvases—paperwhite and uniform, awaiting their transformation. Now, they’re adorned with glitter and PVC pipe, papier-mâché photographs of Iowa athletics legends, black and gold wildflowers. They stand reinvented, a creative ode to the university mascot and dozens of local artists in the Hawkeye community.

Herky on Parade began two decades ago in an effort to bring the university and Iowa City together with a town-and-gown initiative. It was the early aughts, and the university wanted to celebrate Kinnick Stadium’s 75th anniversary. Josh Schamberger—president of the local conventions and visitors bureau, which is known today as Think Iowa City—had an idea, but it would require permission to take liberties with the presentation of a college mascot.

“Josh came to me with this idea, and his tone was like, ‘Hear me out,’” says Dale Arens, head of licensing and trademarks at the University of Iowa. Typically, brands don’t allow trademarks to be altered in any way, and Schamberger’s pitch would mean not just one, but 25 different takes on Herky.

The idea was an iteration on the wildly popular Cows on Parade installation that debuted in 1998 on the streets of Zürich, Switzerland, and again the following year in Chicago. Schamberger had experience in this realm, having worked on the 2001 Overalls All Over public art display in Cedar Rapids that featured 30 statues paying tribute to artist and former UI professor Grant Wood’s American Gothic.

Herky on Parade would take the UI’s most iconic figure and transform him into a universal symbol of Iowa. This would signal the beginning of Herky’s move beyond athletics to represent all Hawkeyes.

“Herky on Parade became the proverbial ‘front porch’ of the Hawkeye community,” says Arens. Dozens of Herkys across the greater Iowa City area provided accessible entry points for people to connect with the university. It might be difficult for someone without athletic interest to connect with a Hayden Fry Herky, but a Knee High by the Fourth of July Herky? That’s something all Midwesterners understand.

The team learned a lot during the first two parades—held in 2004 and 2014—and perfected the process for 2024. Herky’s fighting pose in 2004, for example, looked fierce but sometimes scared kids and was awkward to move. Organizers tweaked the mold for the 2014 installation to give Herky a Superman pose, which not only made it easier to carry, but was a more welcoming posture. This year, Herky stands in a fist-pump pose—ready for action.

Schamberger and UI trademark licensing director Dale Arens remember being at a warehouse in 2014, with all 75 Herky statues standing proudly before them, which brought to mind a scene from Toy Story. “I don’t remember who said it," says Schamberger, "but one of us asked, ‘So, who do you think is in charge here after we leave?’”

Artists April and Jim Kelly PHOTO: JASON SMITH Artists April and Jim Kelly have created more than 15 statues for Herky on Parade over the years.

The Joy of Creation

Jim and April Kelly (01BA) converted a room in their basement to an art studio, with a collage of pages from old art textbooks plastered on the back wall.

The Kellys have been part of Herky on Parade since the beginning, creating over 15 statues to date. “Our kids have gotten pretty used to a life-sized Herky hanging around the house,” April says with a laugh.

They’ve already completed five figures in the last year, including the special 75th Herky unveiled at the 2023 FryFest to mark the mascot’s milestone birthday. That figure required 135 hours of work to set over 150,000 rhinestones by hand.

Jim and April agree it was a labor of love.

Their dedication to community art is undeniable. As an art teacher at Liberty High School in North Liberty, April saw Herky on Parade as an opportunity to give her students real-life mixed media experience. Together, her class created Thunder Hawk, an ode to collaborative creativity, now on display near the school.

“They’re learning to use materials beyond what’s generally used in a high school sculpture class,” says April, who noted that as the project progressed, and a very real deadline loomed, the class learned the importance of compromise and teamwork.

Artist Kelsi Lynch and family working on Herky PHOTO COURTESY THINK IOWA CITY Artist Kelsi Lynch gets a helping hand to put the finishing touches on Scratch Art Glass Herky.

Select Design

From the first submitted designs to the final reveal, Herky on Parade’s artist committee played a vital role in connecting the statues’ designers with local sponsors. Artists submitted their designs as DIY projects, or they could be sponsored by businesses across the corridor. For the 2014 parade, Jim Kelly, who co-owns a dog daycare, submitted a design for “Herk-Dog” with his business, Lucky Paws, as the sponsor. Still today, Herk-Dog sits outside the business’ Iowa City location.

The committee worked to select a variety of Herkys to reach as many people as possible in the community. Over 300 designs were submitted this cycle from artists across the Midwest, and while designs like Taylor Swift or Barbie were popular proposals, the arduous process of reaching a licensing official made some ideas nearly impossible to bring to life. Plenty of inspired designs did make the cut, though, like Herky in the Wildflowers, which aligned an artist with the local indigenous community and took over 170 hours to draw and paint.

When looking through designs, the committee considered the impact of additions to the figure and how they would hold up in the elements. Upon completion, the statues go to a car repair shop in Coralville to receive a few rounds of automotive lacquer for protection from humid Iowa summers. But additions to Herky’s form require more thought. During the creation of the new Heartlander Herky—inspired by the Iowa Heartlanders minor-league hockey team—the Kellys thought about adding a hockey stick but decided it would be too tempting for kids to hang on and hurt themselves. This isn’t a new issue.

“Back in 2004, we had a Herky holding the world, but we were really worried the world was going to fall off and hurt someone’s kid,” Schamberger says.

Thankfully, the team doesn’t have much to worry about this year, with the two most “dangerous” designs featuring a soup ladle and a toothbrush. Having fewer additions to the statue also helps keep vandalism to a minimum.

There’s always going to be people who want to damage public art no matter the effort to dissuade them, Schamberger explains, but there’s also people in the community who want to protect the Herkys. In a more formal effort to prevent vandalism, the committee hires contracted artists to fix whatever damage may occur.

2014 Herky statue PHOTO COURTESY THINK IOWA CITY A 2014 Herky greets shoppers and fans at Iowa River Landing.

Herky Hunt

It’s hard to name a better symbol for the Iowa City community than Herky. And seeing him presented as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle or a fairy with stained-glass wings or Where’s Waldo will delight different groups of people.

Everyone will have their favorite Herky, and for some, the goal is to visit or collect photos of every statue. “It’s just neat seeing all the different variations and different styles that artists create,” says Jim Kelly. “And my favorite part of the project is watching everyone go and taking pictures with them.”

The statues are placed throughout Johnson County, and a map with their locations is available at Think Iowa City or online at Herky on Parade becomes like a Pokémon Go game for the community and a destination for summer adventures. “For this next generation of families going to each Herky this year, they remember doing this 10 years ago, maybe even 20 years ago with their parents,” Schamberger says.

Families have even created scrapbooks to document their quest to see every version of Herky, and people like Arens are excited to experience the display through another set of eyes. “Families will gather and make it a summer activity to visit every one of these Herkys,” he says, “and even just seeing them in previous parades brought so much joy.” This year, he expects to have a similar experience—through the eyes of his grandkids.

To add to the interactive experience, a 100th Herky will stay behind the curtain for a later unveiling the first week of June. Golden Herky’s arrival will be announced with clues to his whereabouts on the Herky on Parade social media pages, and the first person to find him will win a prize pack.

Moving a Herky statue PHOTO COURTESY THINK IOWA CITY The Herky statues are moved at least seven times before being placed on parade for the summer.

A Community Effort

From the streets committee that places the 1,000-pound concrete stands on city sidewalks to the collaboration with local businesses and the UI, pulling off the summerlong program is a herculean feat involving multiple community organizations.

Herky on Parade will be up until August 26, the Monday before the first home Hawkeye football game this fall against Illinois State. Afterward, the unsponsored statues will be put up for auction, with all proceeds benefiting kids camps and art education programs through local school district foundations.

In this way, Herky on Parade comes full circle: a program built, from start to finish, by and for the Iowa City community.

Join our email list
Get the latest news and information for alumni, fans, and friends of the University of Iowa.

Share your favorite photos and stories of Herky on Parade, past and present.

Enter to win a Herky prize pack.

Learn more about Herky on Parade.

Herky Statues by Year

2004 Pose 2004 Fighting Pose

2014 Pose 2014 Superman Pose

2024 Pose 2024 Fist-Pump Pose

Share your favorite photos and stories of Herky on Parade, past and present.

Enter to win a Herky prize pack.

Learn more about Herky on Parade.

Herky Statues by Year

2004 Pose 2004 Fighting Pose

2014 Pose 2014 Superman Pose

2024 Pose 2024 Fist-Pump Pose

Join our email list
Get the latest news and information for alumni, fans, and friends of the University of Iowa.
Related Articles

We use cookies to understand how you use our site and to improve your experience. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies in accordance with our Privacy Statement unless you have disabled them in your browser.