When Randall Johnson was a student at Washington State College, he would occasionally stop and visit Butch. This was the 1930s, when Butch was a real cougar and lived in a cage near Martin Stadium.
“He could care less,” wrote Johnson ’38 in a short reminiscence, “but it was a great opportunity for an artist to make a close up study of a great subject.”
Johnson, who was born and raised in Whitman County, came to Washington State College to study fine arts. His teachers included Worth Griffin and Clyfford Still. He paid his way through college producing “window displays, signs, showcards, and illustrations for books, bulletins and whatever.”
In the summer of 1936, Johnson was hired as a sign painter by Fred Rounds, director of Buildings and Grounds. He was kept busy painting door numbers and names on buildings around campus. On the newly rebuilt stand in the football stadium, he painted “No Parking,” “Men,” “Women,” and other fundamentals.
Then one day, Rounds pulled him aside. The Agricultural Experiment Station had bought a new Dodge pickup, which needed identification painted on the door. Problem was, federal, state, and departmental entities needed to be listed.
“I groaned,” writes Johnson, “and told Fred it would be easier to inscribe the New Testament on the head of a pin.”
Rounds was sympathetic. “What this place needs is some kind of trademark,” he said.
So with the studied image of Butch in his head and the intention to build a design around the letters “W,” “S,” and “C,” Johnson, as he put it, did a lot of mental doodling as he went about his other work. Finally, after a couple of nights at the drawing board, he came up with a design.
“I came up with an arrangement shaped like a cougar head with an open-mouthed snarling C. Fitting the other letters together effectively wasn’t easy, but finally, Eureka!”
After refining it some more, he took his creation to show Rounds.
Rounds said, “I like it,” and at his suggestion they marched up the hill to the administration to show it to acting president Herbert Kimbrough (President Holland was on sabbatical).
Kimbrough looked it over and said, “Go ahead. We’ll make it official.” Campus decisions seemed to move more quickly in those days.
In spite of his efforts, however, Johnson learned that he had to bow to bureaucratic wishes and include all the entities on the pickup door.
But he had just created the logo Cougars have held dear and identified with for the past 75 years.
The cougar head logo caught on fast, appearing first in parking lots around campus and above the new entrance gates of the stadium. Then it started popping up on stationery, spare tire covers, and Chamber of Commerce banners.
Today, that logo appears on tens of thousands of pieces of merchandise. Although it’s impossible to assign a value to the cougar head, over the past 25 years WSU has collected nearly $10 million in royalties from all of its logos and marks.
Having painted his way through Washington State College, Johnson went on to work for Washington Water Power, mostly as its advertising manager, for 38 years.
He married Jeanne Brown, a home economics major.
“When I left Pullman for the new job in Spokane, I couldn’t stand the thought of leaving her there with all of those college men,” he said in an interview, “so I asked her if she would marry me.”
In 1940, soon after Johnson started with Washington Water Power and married, World War II intervened. Johnson started out in infantry, helping to train combat medics. Later, he was sent to the Instructional Aids department at the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth. Johnson led a staff of photographers, interpreters, artists, chart-makers, terrain model-builders, and so forth. Their job was to provide training aids and other information for morning briefings for the colonels attending the school training to be generals.
While in the military, Johnson was surprised and pleased to see his cougar head painted on a Corsair fighter and an A-20 Havoc bomber.
“Of course there was no way I could find out who had chosen those talismans, though I’ve wished I could. I still believe I might have known those guys.”
When Washington State College became a university in 1959, Johnson’s design suddenly required a re-design. President French called him to talk it over. Johnson came up with a sketch and presented it, neatly shifting the C of the cougar’s mouth to a U.
Johnson died in 2007. His cougar head logo is now 75 years old.