From Musketeer to Marine: Local Catholic is Xavier's first mascot

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Before he carried an M16 rifle and grenades as a U.S. Marine lieutenant in the jungles of Vietnam, Bill Peters wielded a fencing foil as a musketeer in the heart of the Midwest.

About 50 years ago, Peters became the first-ever mascot for the athletic teams at Xavier University in Cincinnati, nicknamed the "Musketeers."

In one role he fought for his country, in the other he elicited smiles and school spirit; to both he brought a sense of dedication.

"I'm very much for representing anything I'm with very well," said Peters, who has a short but strong stature and a gruff voice that's offset by frequent jokes.

The stint as mascot was more than just a chance to represent his school, however. "It kept me in college," said the parishioner of Holy Family Church in Dale City.

Peters, a native of Long Island, N.Y., arrived at the Jesuit-run Xavier in the fall of 1964, the midway point of the Vietnam War. His grades were decent his freshmen year, but he kept feeling the itch to leave.

"I was thinking there's got to be more to life than carrying books and sitting in class and taking notes," he said. "I thought maybe I should drop out, mature a little bit and possibly fight as a Marine in Vietnam." At the same time he remembers thinking, "Am I tough enough to be a Marine?"

While Peters toyed with leaving, he attended a meeting of the university's freshman advisory board, which was deciding on a class gift.

Xavier had been the "Musketeers" since 1925, but had never had a mascot. "The University of Kentucky has a wildcat, Louisville has a cardinal; why don't we have a real-life mascot?" Peters recalled a student saying. "Everybody shouts, 'Oh yeah, that's great. But who would do it?'"

Sitting in the back of the room, Peters thought it sounded like a pretty good gig and volunteered. "I figured girls would like it," he said, laughing.

That summer, a student at a nearby women's college researched and crafted a musketeer uniform, creating a blouse, brown vest and blue trousers. The shirt had royal blue pleats and French cuffs, and his look was accented by a brown sash and a cape. A fencing foil, cloth boots and tights completed the ensemble.

On Halloween 1965, the mascot made its debut. Peters never again considered dropping out; instead he joined the Marines while remaining a student.

In his role as university mascot, Peters interacted with fans in the stands, rang the school victory bell after winning games and initiated cheers. He eventually led the sports teams onto the field or court and stood at attention for the "Star-Spangled Banner."

For away games, Peters hitched a ride with fellow students, chipping in for gas. Between competitions, he took meticulous care of the costume - as he later would his Marine uniform - cleaning it and ensuring it was stored precisely.

After graduating in 1968, Peters served in Vietnam for a year, then traveled the world as a Marine - to the Arctic Circle, Caribbean and the Far East. He indeed was "tough enough," earning a Bronze Star with a combat "V," for valor, among other awards.

Peters went on to marry and have two children and retired from the Marine Corps as a major in 1989. For the next 27 years, he worked as a private contractor supporting the military, retiring about a year and a half ago.

In early February, Xavier flew Peters out to the university to be honored during halftime of a Marquette-Xavier basketball game.

Now dubbed "D'Artagnan the Musketeer" and recognized officially by the university, the mascot has undergone a number of costume revisions over the years. Three or four students take turns assuming the persona - and the costume's large cloth head.

It gives Peters great pride that such a fun and unifying tradition has endured.

"I'm proud of the education and my time at Xavier just like I am about my time in the Marines," he said. Be it donning a sash and sword as the Musketeer or representing the U.S. Marines, Peters always has brought sincerity and commitment to his duties.

"If you represent something well, even if a person sees you only once, they have a sense that what you are part of is something special."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016