Inside the head of Pistol Pete

Pistol Kevin

Kevin Osborn first dreamed about hoisting the 30-plus-pound Pistol Pete head atop his shoulders when he was a kid feasting on ice cream.

“We’d go to Ag Hall with Paw, and he’d give us each a dollar to go across to the Dairy Bar, which is now a parking lot,” Osborn said. “There was a big mural of Pistol Pete, and we’d get ice cream there. I saw this mural, and I thought, ‘Man, that’s the coolest thing ever!’ Just looking up at it every weekend like clockwork.”

The tradition of Oklahoma State’s mascot is as iconic as the man it’s based on. Frank Eaton, the original Pistol Pete, was a cowboy of legend. A quick drawing, hardworking man of the Old West with a story of vengeance that plays out like a classic western film, Eaton embodied the cowboy spirit that is held dearly by the students, faculty and alumni of OSU.

The connection between Eaton and OSU came in 1958, when the university named Pistol Pete as the official school mascot. Sixty-one years later, after numerous redesigns and a list of more than 80 former Pistol Petes, the mascot is as much an integral part of the university as ever.

The Pete head, a more than 30-pound fiberglass caricature of Frank Eaton designed by the Walt Disney props department, has been passed down from class to class of worthy successors. With two identical heads, the duty of being Pistol Pete is split between two people. This year’s duo is senior Osborn and junior Hunter Thomas.

Osborn is the 89th Pistol Pete and has been doing this for a year and a half. With a family history of attending Oklahoma State, he grew up idolizing the iconic figurehead of the Cowboys. Osborn said his earliest memories of Pistol Pete were visiting his grandfather, the former department head of agricultural economics at OSU, every week to get “supper and ice cream.”

That childhood fascination with Pistol Pete stuck with Kevin. He said he remembers Pistol Pete coming to his hometown for a parade and being awestruck by the proximity to the mascot. However, it was a specific moment after the parade that stuck with him most, when he went up to talk to Pete.

“He took the head off and was like, ‘Oh, man, you can’t see me do this,’ and I told him 'It’s OK, I understand,'” said Osborn. “So, we were talking about that, and he said, ‘We have tryouts if you want to come up whenever you’re in college if you go to Oklahoma State,’ and I said, ‘I’m going, that’s a fact.’”

Kevin didn’t wait until he came to Oklahoma State. His first tryout was his senior year of high school. While he wasn’t chosen then, he came back and tried out every year after that. He finally got the position and earned his place among the Pistol Pete alumni at the end of his junior year at OSU. Beki Jackson, the spirit coordinator responsible for handling everything Pistol Pete does, said tryouts are the worst part of her job.

“It’s really hard on the guys, some of them are trying out for their fourth time, or their second time or sometimes their fifth time,” Jackson said. “That’s happened too, and they weren’t chosen. It’s a really tough, tough thing because most of these people have wanted to be Pistol Pete their whole life. It’s hard on me; it’s the worst time of my life.”

The tryout process, which plays out as an interview in front of a panel of former Pistol Petes who make up the Pistol Pete Alumni Association and Jackson, gives prospects about 10 minutes to answer questions, give judges a feel for them and try on the Pete head. Osborn said he still remembers trying it on at his first tryout.

“The first time I put it on, I didn’t realize it weighed that much,” he said. “I put it on just five minutes before tryouts just to put it on, and I remember I put it on and just stood there, just doing nothing, because it’s something I’ve wanted to do for 20 years. It’s been a childhood dream to be Pistol Pete.”

Kevin said one of the judges pointed out how rigid he was the first time wearing the head, to which he responded by “giving the worst O-S-U they’d ever seen." Although he didn’t land the role that time, he said he took that as motivation to learn and improve.

“I realized it’s a year to grow,” Osborn said. “I’ve got a year to watch Pistol Pete at basketball games, at football games, at wrestling matches and wherever else I can see him. Just to watch how he reacts and interacts with people. Then I just worked on that every year to try to get better than I was the previous year.”

His ability to turn a loss into a lesson and improve his craft is just one of the ways Osborn embodies the spirit of Pistol Pete. The passion and care he puts into being Pistol Pete is undeniable. Before he wears the Pete head at OSU events, he is careful about hiding his face from the camera, saying he “feels like Santa Claus to the kids” who see Pete as more than a mascot. When he finally puts the Pete head on, it’s like a switch flips. Osborn disappears, and Pete emerges, both in appearance and behavior.

Thomas, who landed the role at his first tryout, is a first year Pete. Osborn spoke highly of Thomas, saying Thomas is a fantastic Pete and that there is a strong friendship between the two. Although most could never tell them apart in costume, Osborn said he wears an orange bandana in his back pocket to distinguish the two.

With more than 650 appearances in a year, the role of Pistol Pete is a busy one. Osborn and Thomas split the schedule, attending everything from sporting events, weddings, funerals, birthdays and more. Kevin said there is a specific thing he’s gotten to be a part of as Pistol Pete that is the most special to him.

“I’ve done two Make-A-Wish’s,” he said. “I got the guardian angel coin from both of them. I’m not saying that in a bragging way, but I’m the guy behind the head that gets to do that, and I was awarded the honor of representing the university as the guy that gets to do that. Just being able to do that and just seeing those kids light up when you see them.”

With Pistol Pete terms typically lasting only two years and graduation coming up, Osborn’s time as Pete is likely coming to an end next semester. He said he would like to either teach agricultural business or work on the farm with his brother, another testament to the cowboy spirit he has. Above all else, he said he is ready to “see how far I bounce down the hill with an avalanche following me.”

With passion for what he does, love for the university and the cowboy spirit within him, Osborn upholds the standard and legacy that Eaton left behind. It’s good to know what’s inside Pete’s head is as Cowboy as the rest of him.

news.ed@ocolly.com