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Golden West College students look at moving on from ‘Rustler Sam’

Marcus Schlabitz, a safety for the Golden West College football team, straps on his helmet during practice on Thursday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

A group of Golden West College students may soon seek to send the school’s mascot, Rustler Sam, riding off into the sunset once and for all.

In September, the Associated Students of Golden West College (ASGWC) student council created a Mascot Change Task Force to begin finding replacements for the current school mascot.

“Our student government has decided that they want to evaluate the mascot,” Golden West director of marketing and public relations Pam Brashear said.

“They’re talking amongst themselves, and we’re having this discussion across a lot of different platforms with the students to see what the feedback is. Once they come up with a consensus, they could make a recommendation to the administration, but that hasn’t happened yet. No decisions have been made about anything, but it’s become a hot topic on our campus.”

A “rustler” is a person who rounds up and steals cattle, horses or sheep. Tom Ryan, creator of the cartoon strip “Tumbleweeds,” created a cartoonish figure called Rustler Sam for the college in 1968, three years after it was established.

At the time, TV westerns were popular and cowboys were seen as heroic. But the figure, holding a smoking “GW” branding iron, wearing a 10-gallon hat and smoking a cigarette, was softened over the years. In the 1990s, a redesign gave Rustler Sam a clean shave and removed the cigarette.

Golden West College football features the school's mascot Rustler Sam on the helmets.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

The school stopped using the cartoonish figure altogether in 2005. But Golden West’s athletic teams are still called the Rustlers, and Rustler Sam is still listed as the official mascot.

Golden West’s athletic programs now feature a more menacing silhouette-styled logo of a cowboy with a bandana covering his mouth.

Brashear said the college is officially neutral about the mascot, but that the discussion is part of the college process. There have not yet been any mascot replacements officially endorsed by the students.

The executive council has been getting updates from the Mascot Change Task Force at weekly student council meetings, though none was given at Friday morning’s Zoom meeting.

“Not everybody is aware of who Rustler Sam is, or what he looks like, what he represents,” said Jovani Figueroa, a sophomore at Golden West who is the executive council’s vice president of student life. “What the task force is trying to do, I believe, is just bring awareness and ask questions regarding who he is, and if they feel they are being represented or they feel connected to that mascot.”

Though he is not on the task force, Figueroa is open to the idea of examining the mascot. He noted that the school’s seal includes the phrase, “Let Change Be The Tradition.”

The original Rustler Sam mascot was designed for the college in 1968 by a popular cartoonist named Tom J. Ryan.
The original Rustler Sam mascot was designed for the college in 1968 by a popular cartoonist named Tom J. Ryan.
(Courtesy of Golden West College)

“I love history, but I do believe that the past is a good foundation for the future,” Figueroa said.

“I believe there’s always room for change ... there’s no harm in reviewing the mascot. Even the word ‘rustler,’ you don’t hear it nowadays. If you Google a rustler, you’re very limited to what Google provides. So even the word itself seems out of touch and out of date.”

Golden West alumna Brandee Lara Barnaby, class of 1979, would disagree. Barnaby was an adjunct professor at the college for about 15 years, and gave the Golden West graduation keynote address in 2012.

She has started a Facebook group called “Save Rustler Sam.” Currently an arts professor at Chapman University and Cal State Fullerton, Barnaby has been on social media this week, encouraging local residents to email college administrators in protest of a possible change.

“They’re trying to make this make-believe character, this drawing, into a human that represents everything that’s bad in the world,” said Barnaby, who lives in Long Beach.

“It’s just sad ... For the people to whom Rustler Sam means something, let them celebrate it and remain the Rustlers. Honestly, this is a college in a city where there was just a pretty big oil spill. I’m thinking, aren’t there more important things than Rustler Sam, a cartoon character?

“For those of us who went there, being a Rustler is something that we’re proud of. It made me who I am.”

Golden West vice president of student services Claudia Lee said the student task force is undergoing a very preliminary review of the mascot, and trying to gauge whether there is enough interest to move forward.

If it does, the next step could be conducting a survey of the entire student body, while also giving alumni and the community a chance to voice their opinions.

“I think at this point, there’s not a strong consensus either way if we’re talking about the Rustler Sam character or the Rustlers in general,” Lee said. “I think that’s an important distinction to make. I’ve been here almost 10 years, and it’s extremely rare for me to see Rustler Sam.

“That’s the exploratory phase at this point, I think. Maybe at the end of their conversations, they all say, ‘We’re fine with the athletics version of Rustler, so let’s go with that.’ I don’t know.”

A sign posted at the Golden West College football field features Rustler Sam, the school's mascot.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

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