Whatever happened to: The first Chief Illiniwek


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Editor's note: Today’s look back at the first Chief Illiniwek kicks off a weeklong series that includes catch-up stories on the Solon House, Mr. Blue Hands, Irving Azoff, the Ferrill Five and more. We’ll take your ideas, too, at news@news-gazette.com. 

Robert Leutwiler still has the headdresses his father created decades ago, the costume he made for Native American dances and the intricately beaded moccasins he bought from a Sioux chief for a deerskin and $10.

His father was Lester Leutwiler — better known as the first Chief Illiniwek — the Urbana native who created the halftime performance in 1926 along with Ray Dvorak, director of the marching band.

The Chief was retired eight years ago this month after nearly two decades of controversy, and the University of Illinois put its remaining Chief regalia into storage. Former Chiefs have tried to carry on the tradition unofficially through the Council of Chiefs, which plans to choose another portrayer later this semester, even as opponents fight unauthorized uses of the former symbol.

Leutwiler, who died in 1993 after a long career as a Pet Inc. executive, held on to the costumes and headdresses he made in the 1920s and handed them down to his children.

Robert Leutwiler, 72, said his father was dismayed by the controversy over the Chief before his death and never felt it was demeaning to anyone.

"I know there are other people who felt that it is, and I think large portions of society probably do think that's true. He always felt it was misunderstood," said Leutwiler, a certified financial planner in Boulder, Colo.

Lester Leutwiler was born April 1, 1907, and grew up in Urbana, the son of Prof. Oscar Leutwiler, head of the UI's Department of Mechanical Engineering for many years. Lester also earned a degree in mechanical engineering at the UI in 1929.

"That was an interesting experience, having your father be your tough taskmaster to make sure you did perform in school," Robert Leutwiler said.

An active Eagle Scout, Lester Leutwiler was always fascinated with the West and Native American lore. As a boy, he learned Native American dances as part of a scouting project. He won numerous scouting awards and was this area's representative to an international Boy Scout jamboree in Denmark, according to records at the University Archives.

After he graduated from Urbana High School, his parents sent him to a camp near Mount Elbert, Colo., run by a man named Ralph Hubbard, who had lived with Native Americans for many years, Robert Leutwiler said. While there, he bartered with a Sioux chief for the prized moccasins, offering to trade them for a deerskin, but ended up paying $10 as well.

"That was a lot of money in those days," Robert Leutwiler said.

He also made a full headdress with eagle feathers gathered by the camp's director, which was later used in his UI halftime performances.

Dvorak, the band director, had taught at Urbana High School when Leutwiler was a student there and knew of his interest in Native Americans. Dvorak persuaded Leutwiler to wear his costume for the halftime show he created for the game against the University of Pennsylvania on Oct. 3, 1926, and another band member dressed as William Penn.

The show, complete with music written for the occasion, was meant to portray friendship and brotherhood, according to accounts of the day. The two exchanged greetings, smoked a peace pipe, and Leutwiler performed a "war dance."

Starting as far back as the mid-1970s, and escalating in the 1990s, opponents protested the Chief, saying it was culturally insensitive and racist.

Leutwiler donated his Chief costume to the university in 1983 for an exhibit in the North Main Lounge of the Illini Union. It included the headdress, moccasins and a beaded breechcloth and leggings he'd made himself, plus a shirt with beaded armbands made by Native Americans.

When objections to the Chief intensified years later, alumni officials contacted Leutwiler saying they were removing the display for fear it would be vandalized, Robert Leutwiler said. His father drove back to campus to pick up the regalia, and it's remained with the family, he said.

Robert Leutwiler grew up learning the native dances from his father, a longtime Boy Scout leader, and would sometimes wear the costume for performances at Boy Scout jamborees.

"I think he was very proud that with the band director they created what he thought was a really powerful story on the Indians' values and how proud a people they were, and so forth," Robert Leutwiler said. "He felt they really did stand for some things that we probably don't stand for now in a lot of cases."

Lester Leutwiler spent most of his career with Pet Milk Co., later Pet Inc., managing milk plants in Tennessee and Ohio before moving to company headquarters in St. Louis in the late 1940s and rising to senior vice president. He retired in 1972.

He had married a fellow UI student, Anna Louise Still, in August 1930. The couple raised Robert and his two sisters — Ann and Jean, who live in California and Idaho — in the St. Louis suburb of Webster Groves.

After his children were grown, Lester Leutwiler was active with his Presbyterian church and a charity now known as the St. Louis Society for Children and Adults with Physical Disabilities, which ran a camp for children in west St. Louis.

Leutwiler remained closely connected with the university after graduating, returning for homecoming and alumni events, serving on the Alumni Association board and taking his son to football games two or three times a year when he could get away from work. He was on hand for the 30th and 50th anniversary celebrations of Chief Illiniwek, wearing his old headdress.

He received a Distinguished Alumni Award in 1980 and was an Illini Comeback Guest in 1981. A scholarship he endowed is still awarded each year to a top student in the department.

"He loved the University of Illinois," Robert Leutwiler said.

When he died in February 1993, his family gave several pieces of his memorabilia to Steve Raquel, Chief Illiniwek at the time and now president of the Council of Chiefs. They included a stained-glass rendering of the Chief with Leutwiler's initials and the year he graduated; a photo of an old arrowhead pendant with the Chief; and a framed etched-glass Chief that now hangs in Raquel's office in Naperville.

Former Chief Tom Livingston (1988-90) met Leutwiler several times and visited his home in 1990.

"To be able to plug in and talk to the man who was there on Day 1 was priceless," he said. "He was a humble and gentle person who was pleased with the durability of the Chief tradition. He believed in a tradition to cause people to think beyond themselves."


Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is jwurth@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).