Board approves Legends as new name

Student choose new mascot to replace Rebels

The Godfrey-Lee School Board unanimously approved a new name of Legends at Monday’s meeting. The current name, Rebels, will officially be replaced in the 2020-21 school year

After years of debate, and most recently an exploration of the history of the word Rebels, the Godfrey-Lee Board of Education unanimously approved a new name at Monday night’s meeting.

Drumroll, please…

The new name is Legends, effective in the 2020-21 school year. Legends defeated Raptors, in the students’ May vote of top two mascot names. Eighth- through 11th-graders pared a list of 10 monikers into the final two, ultimately choosing Legends by a large margin, according to board members.

“I’m so proud of this board for not just naming equity as a value, but actually acting upon it,” said Superintendent Kevin Polston. “Everyone that calls Godfrey-Lee home will feel welcome, safe and comfortable so they can learn at high levels here.”

School Board President Eric Mockerman

Changing Times and Perceptions

The board tackled the matter amid decades-old concerns that “Lee Rebels,” with its perceived connections to Confederate symbolism, did not adequately represent the diverse district, which is home to many immigrant families and a large percentage of Hispanics.

Former Superintendent David Britten, now  district historian, narrated a video history of the Lee Rebel mascot. While the “Lee” in Godfrey-Lee is derived from Lee Street and not the Confederate General Robert E. Lee, students historically made that association, evidenced by Confederate imagery in old high school yearbooks and pictures of majorettes twirling Confederate battle flags. As late as 1992, the Confederate flag was on display in the high school library.

Much of the obvious Confederate symbolism has faded from school grounds, but the association remains, especially for those outside the district.

The process to make the change began in November 2018 after the board agreed to form a subcommittee to explore the use of the Rebel name and mascot. The subcommittee consisted of school board members, administrators, staff, parents, students and community members.

“It was not an easy process to go through,” said Board President Eric Mockerman. “We couldn’t deny the history; it’s something we needed to step away from. We don’t want to throw away the past, but we felt we needed to move away from some of the things we’ve been connected with that did not promote equity; a central tenet of what we want to do.

Rebbie the Lee High School mascot is going away. The Board unanimously approved a new name, Legends, at its meeting Tuesday night, effective in the 2020-21 school year

He said he wasn’t 100 percent on board at first “But the more we saw the history, we (board members) all saw that we needed to make a change. We want to distance ourselves from the confederacy. In the past, it’s been a symbol of ‘you are not welcome here’ and we don’t want that. We want the message that everyone is welcome here and that we’re going to be successful here.”

Mockerman said the question predates his 17 years in the district. When an alumnus brought it up to the board last fall, members felt it was the right time to have a conversation, having adopted a new strategic design for the district in June 2018.

“It has been brought up by groups long before I was here,” Mockerman continued. “It got pushed away and most recently it was brought up again after the shootings in Charleston.”

He said “quite a few” people who weren’t happy about the change attended last month’s board meeting.

“I understand where people are coming from,  not wanting to change, but I hope eventually they can see the bigger picture. As we moved through the process, we didn’t see a compromise possible. The compromise would have been our values.”

As a 1996 graduate of Ottawa Hills, Mockerman was an Indian under the school’s former mascot. He said though he  bled orange and black, he understood the terminology was offensive to some. Ottawa Hills has since changed its mascot to the Bengals.

As for the new name, Legends, Mockerman said it has a ton of possibilities.

“Ultimately, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for our kids. They are legends and they will be legends. It fits with everything else we’ve come up with through our strategic plan: ‘be you, be connected, be brilliant,’ and now adding, ‘be legendary.’ It’s about their legacy they’re going to leave.”

Board member Tammy Schafer said listening to a student detail a negative encounter with the Rebels name at one of the forums helped her better understand the need for change.

“Until I saw it through a student’s eyes, I didn’t quite understand the reason to change it,” she explained. “That was a huge reason for me to start looking at it differently. If one person is offended or scared to be a Rebel, we need to listen.”

Change Comes at a Price

At an estimated cost of $250,000, Mockerman said changes will take place over time, and with the help of corporations and partners.

“Some of the changes are going to be naturally occurring,” Mockerman explained. “Uniforms are on a schedule for replacement and not all have Rebels on them. We have some partners in the works that will be stepping up and helping us with the changes that won’t impact our general budget.

“Our goal is to have as little impact on our general fund as possible.”

A  graphic designer will use  concepts drawn by students and community members, and expand and develop some ideas that define Godfrey-Lee.

Assistant Superintendent Carol Lautenbach, who co-chaired the committee with Mark Provost, director of finance and human resources, said they wanted something that reflected the school’s identity and the spirit of the community.

“We wanted to move toward a different identity, and not just something that sounded cool,” she explained.

Lautenbach said they received over 170 name submissions before the committee narrowed it down to 10 they thought reflected the values of the district.

Different Names in Hall of Fame

Mockerman said the Rebels Hall of Fame will stay intact for people who were Rebels during their tenure, and those not here during the Rebels era will be in the Legends Hall of Fame.

“This is one way of preserving that history. It’s not a history we want to erase, but it’s not necessarily one we want to completely celebrate.”

Board Vice President David Blok said he appreciates how the name Legends speaks positively of the students.

“It’s about legendary people accomplishing legendary feats.”

Cris Greer
For more than three decades, Cris Greer has been a wordsmith, working in the fields of journalism, advertising and marketing. Much of the past decade, he helped grow the MLive Statewide High School Sports desk as a supervisor, editor and reporter, which included eight newspapers in Michigan and mlive.com. Cris also was a freelancer for The Grand Rapids Press, The Advance and On the Town magazine for many years. A good portion of his early career was spent building and managing the copywriting team in the advertising department at Meijer, Inc., where he oversaw copywriting for print ads, mailers, brochures, signage, several dozen in-house magazines per year and much more. Read Cris's full bio

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