The return of the black panther

By: Lynda Hollenbeck
A significant event is coming up Tuesday. That's the day the new Panther sculpture will be unveiled at Benton High School.
I've already seen the big black cat and, no two ways about it, he is impressive. Students, faculty, alumni, everyone should be proud of the edifice. Particularly those who worked so hard to bring it about.
One of the factors taken into consideration in undertaking the project was to protect it from vandals. Without revealing any trade secrets, I was informed that the sculptor took pains to create the statue with a finish that isn't likely to be damaged by any "blue" culprits. Enough said about that.
It seems appropriate at this juncture to repeat a significant bit of history about the much-loved Benton High School mascot.
According to self-proclaimed school historian Donnie Burks, this started as an act of vandalism in 1974.
As the story goes, during the week leading up to the first game played between the Bryant Hornets and the Benton Panthers, several Bryant High School students devised a plot intended to intimidate the students at Benton High.
The goal reportedly was to demoralize the team by painting the black Panther statue in front of the high school a bright shade of pink. In keeping with that mission, late one night during the game week, these students are believed to have sneaked onto campus and painted the statue from nose to tail in a bright shade of pink.
Everyone who saw it the next morning was appalled โ€” coaches, teachers, players, cheerleaders, Pep Steppers, the whole student body.
When Friday night arrived, an angry Panther football team, coached by the late Max Graham, prepared to enter the stadium. And what a mighty entrance it was. As the players stormed the field prior to kickoff, the Panther Band, for the first time, rang out with the Pink Panther theme.
(This is known as a form of taking lemons and making lemonade.)
Apparently band director John Conrad had had his musicians secretly rehearse the tune in the days following the painting of the statue.
According to Burks โ€” who never would allow historical accuracy to interfere with a good story โ€” Benton punished Bryant that night, both literally and figuratively. The Panthers reeled off four unanswered touchdowns before the final whistle blew that signified a 28-0 victory. And after every touchdown and each extra point, the band would belt out the Pink Panther theme.
So on Sept. 20, 1974, an intense rivalry was born and the Pink Panther theme became the BHS fight song and unofficial mascot of the Benton Panther faithful. Soon the magic was to spread to other elements of the student body.
The Pep Steppers began waving pink pom-poms during the games; a Pink Panther silhouette was erected on a pole near the end zone; and Benton became known as the adopted home of the famous cool cat.
Pink Panther mania remained strong for many years in Benton and during that time the Panthers won their first and only state football title, in 1977, and several conference championships.
Burks said there is no doubt that the pink panther played an integral part of the rich history in Benton. For those alumni that attended Benton between the years 1974 and 1998, the affection is particularly strong, he says.
For them and many others, it was one thing that distinguished the Panther program in Benton from Cabot, Magnolia, Greenbrier and the 18 other Panther schools in Arkansas.
That is the "official" unofficial account of what happened, Burks said.
But there's actually another chapter that some people apparently have forgotten. Before that first game between Benton and Bryant was played, a mysterious "drop" was made onto the football field at Bryant High School.
This was the delivery of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of marshmallows delivered by an unidentified pilot of a helicopter.
Instead of being white, however, you can probably guess the color of the marshmallows: a bright, bright pink.
"No one ever acknowledged doing it, but we did have our suspicions," Burks said.
And that's all he'll say.
I once asked the most widely credited suspect about it, but the only response I got was a broad grin.
I've been told that some secrets are best taken to the grave.
Whether pink or black, the Panther spirit is alive at Benton High School and will get a major shot in the arm Tuesday when the big reveal takes place.
It's a special moment in time.

Lynda Hollenbeck is senior editor of The Saline Courier.