"River Rats"

Dear Islanders,

We were almost “Rats”

Last year at the dedication of the Grand Island Central School District’s H. David Meyers Athletic Complex, I spoke with people influential to the formation of Grand Island’s athletics. Now this may be a semi-apocryphal story—but there were several people who were part of our chat, and my research of old Dispatch articles partially backs it up. What I was told was that Grand Island’s school mascot was nearly the “River Rats” and not the “Vikings.”

The nickname was apparently chosen in the early ‘60s. Only a few choices were presented to the student body at the newly built High School: two of which were Captains or Vikings. But the student body repeatedly wrote in “River Rats,” to acknowledge the amount of leisure time Islanders spent at the river, and undoubtedly to annoy their teachers. It could have been worse.  California State University-Long Beach’s nickname is the “Dirtbags” (no joke). And UC Santa Cruz’s nickname is the “Banana Slugs” (again, no joke).

Thankfully (or unfortunately, depending on how you feel about rats) the powers that be said, “enough” and chose Vikings. I think it’s no coincidence that the Grand Island Vikings logo looks almost identical to the NFL Minnesota Viking’s “Norseman” logo, which was created when the Vikings joined the NFL in 1960, just a few years before the River Rats debate. The NFL is usually pretty forgiving of that type of IP infringement by schools.

Our debates, and decisions, have consequences long after we are gone.

I’m not saying our Scandinavian mascot isn’t great — but I’m probably one of a few people on the Island who actually has a drop of Scandinavian blood. Our ancestors come from everywhere, but are mostly German and Italian. But as you can see, this since-forgotten debate helped shape our community and how we see ourselves today.

The freedom to choose is a major benefit of living in America. Want to spend Sunday morning worshipping in a church? Go ahead. Prefer to observe Shabbat on Saturday? No one will stop you. Do you like to work out with heavy metal blasting from your headphones? Or classical? Go for it. You can eat vegan, or you can stuff yourself with burgers every day. In America we have the right to believe, listen to, or eat nearly anything we want at any time. And this right leads to debate.

But debate is not bad. Being nasty and heckling each other is, and we need to stop that. But I’ve spoken before about how I’m happy that this very American behavior of openly discussing issues is now an established part of Grand Island public life. I’m glad we are talking—and deciding—together. The more ideas the better, but eventually we need to choose. Someone has to say whether we will be Captains, Vikings, or Rats.

Let’s think for a minute about the proposed community center on Grand Island.

Do we need a community center? I think so. But I won’t try and force anything upon you. That’s why I believe that a feasibility study is a good idea, since it will tell us if the project is viable—or even desirable. In other words, we need to ask, “what do we really want and how much do we really want it?” That’s what a feasibility study does. We ask all the questions, and we assess the options—and costs!

The West Seneca community center will have a library, a business incubator, community rooms, office space, recreation space, and a cafe. Others have theaters, pools, classrooms, kitchens, local history museums, art studio, and gardens. I’ve visited some on the Native American reservations locally. Wow. They are nice. But do we really need all that? Well, that’s a question we all need to answer—together.

There is much work to be done.

One thing I might add is that when we have these debates, which are healthy, we need to know when to move on. The temporary sign at the roundabout, for example, has achieved its purpose. It generated a great deal of discussion, and I received all sorts of ideas. Some say we should build a replica bridge. Others say we should build a giant blue heron. Still others say we should just plant a huge oak tree. There have been a multitude of suggestions. But eventually we will need to make a choice, and that choice will, unfortunately, disappoint someone.

If that someone is you, let me make a suggestion. Move on to the next battle. Good ideas are like manure. They are only help the field if we spread them out. Thus, if you don’t like what the community decides to put at the roundabout, take your idea (and your passion for it) somewhere else. The Island is full of places that need to be built up and beautified. There are many important battles to fight, and many important areas to improve; good should never be the obstacle of perfect.

So if someday you, the sixth councilman, choose to have a giant green fluorescent modern-art version of a “river rat” at the roundabout (or a community center that looks like a Best Buy with a batting cage in it), I will cringe and curse it every time I drive by. But I will also move on to fixing something else, somewhere else. There’s a lot of Island, folks. There is so much work to be done.

With highest regards,