Investigating the disappearance of Harriet the Osprey

Nathan Turoff, Features Editor

Ozzie the Osprey. Any student at the University of North Florida (UNF) should be familiar with that name. Ozzie is the school mascot. The large costumed osprey is a school staple and can be found attending sporting events, university events and is the namesake behind the convenience store in Fountains and Athletic’s awards ceremony

While almost everyone knows who Ozzie is, many don’t know there was a time when he wasn’t UNF’s only feathered mascot. Not Howard the Duck, the unofficial mascot in the hearts of many, I’m referring to Harriet the Osprey. She was Ozzie’s female counterpart who mysteriously disappeared from UNF almost 15 years ago.

To know Harriet’s story, we must first review Ozzie’s story. Then, the investigation of why Harriet vanished from the UNF scene, where she is now and if she will ever return, can begin. 

 

UNF opened for its first classes in 1972 but there was no mascot just yet. It wasn’t until 1979 when a campus-wide vote was held to determine which animal would serve as UNF’s school mascot. After several joke options and a tight race, the osprey came out on top with a large write-in vote.

Ozzie didn’t just show up the next day and UNF’s mascot was a simple bird. It wasn’t until Jan. 1988 when the first iteration of the costumed Osprey appeared. It was still nameless, however, and another vote was held to determine the mascot’s name. Among many other names starting with “O,” in the end, “Ozzie” was chosen. In March 1988, Ozzie the Osprey became UNF’s official mascot. 

The original Ozzie greets children one month after his introduction, in April of 1988. Photo Courtesy of UNF Digital Commons.

The original costume at the time was reported to have cost over $800 which, adjusting for inflation, translates to approximately $2,000 today. The original costume, pictured above, featured a tall, lanky neck, yellow feet and a black beak. It featured mostly white feathers, with black feathers on its wings and eyes as accents. Obviously, this original costume is no longer used and is currently stored in the safe hands of the Special Collections and University Archives in the Thomas G. Carpenter Library.

This brings us to when Harriet enters the picture. In 1994, the idea of a female mascot came around, and the name “Harriet” was chosen as a reference to the popular 50’s sitcom, which was the longest running live-action television sitcom until Dec. 2021. On Sep. 20, 1995, Harriet first met UNF students alongside Ozzie, who got a new costume to match. 

Harriet (left) and Ozzie (right) pose for a picture in 1995. When combined, their jersey numbers are 1972, the year UNF opened. Photo courtesy of UNF Digital Commons.

These costumes featured shorter heads, more detailed wing feathers and matching jerseys. Now, the beaks were yellow, and the eye accents were brown. The eyes were different between Ozzie and Harriet, but they still looked similar. Harriet had eyelashes, which Ozzie lacked. Ozzie, on the other hand, had a different set of eyebrows. Fortunately, this particular costume for Harriet is currently in the hands of the Special Collections and University Archives. 

Harriet’s Head, which is faded, but still in well-preserved condition, photo by Nathan Turoff
The body of Harriet’s costume gracefully unfolded from its box, photo by Nathan Turoff

Ozzie’s matching costume is currently unaccounted for, with no indication of its whereabouts. These costumes were used for the characters for seven years, until 2002. The mascots then received new costumes which were even more detailed and colorful than their predecessors. 

These costumes, pictured below, kept the matching jerseys but reverted to a black beak like Ozzie’s first costume. The beak was now open and noticeably more triangular. The entire wings were now brown feathers, and the eyes of Harriet and Ozzie were even more distinct, with very different designs for their eye accents. The white feathers on their heads were far fluffier and more distinguished.

Ozzie (left) and Harriet (right) pose with Founding President Thomas Carpenter (center) in 2002. Photo courtesy of UNF Public Relations.

This would be the last costume Harriet would ever have, so our investigation into her disappearance begins here. 

Five years after the introduction of new suits brings us to the era of Matt Biegun, recognized as the most iconic Ozzie Osprey in university history. Getting the position after nobody else wanted it in 2007, Biegun would eventually make Ozzie a cornerstone of UNF spirit. After nearly a decade, he retired from the role in 2016, spending the most time in the role of any performer since Ozzie’s naming back in 1988.

When Biegun first started, school spirit was at its lowest point. Spinnaker reached out to former UNF Athletic Director Lee Moon, who was with UNF from Spring of 2009 until last year. He further elaborated on the rough state of athletic spirit at the time he started. He described it as a “mess,” with lackluster attendance, atrocious cheerleading team, and no band. One of his early goals was to completely revamp the disaster he had inherited.

“Enthusiasm is taught, not caught,” Moon said. 

Moon spent the first few years of his tenure fixing everything. He invested in athletics in many ways, which soon paid off, as sports exploded in popularity. Ozzie’s costume was being redesigned when Moon was hired, and that redesign continued. With Biegun’s involvement, Ozzie’s current costume premiered in the Fall of 2009.

“Matt was all in,” Moon shared.

Biegun’s association and dedication to Ozzie as a whole cannot be understated. Biegun wasn’t a UNF student when he got the role in 2007, being preoccupied with a family and other jobs. He initially planned to only play the role for a few years, but, despite being a father, he kept coming back because he loved it so much. This love for the character shows in his work as he redefined his character and single handedly made Ozzie a fixture at UNF. It’s no surprise Biegun is still associated with Ozzie over five years after his retirement from the role, even by his own children.

Matt Beigun was the man behind Ozzie Osprey for nearly ten years.
Photo by Jenn Mello. Illustration by Alex Balosie.

Spinnaker also reached out to Biegun, who confirmed many of the things stated by Moon. He also further elaborated on his involvement in Ozzie’s redesign. He explained how he was the primary advocate for the new suit. With an extensive history in costumed performance even before taking on the role of Ozzie, Biegun actually designed Ozzie’s suit himself. He only had a say in the decisions behind Ozzie and his suit, but not Harriet. However, this new suit wasn’t cheap. 

Library poster featuring Harriet encouraging reading, circa 2006. Image courtesy of UNF Digital Commons

For Harriet, Biegun explained how there was never a consistent performer, if one at all, like he was for Ozzie. He said that until Ozzie’s redesign, Harriet would still occasionally perform with Ozzie, but it was very sporadic. 

“I believe if someone would’ve taken on the role of Harriet the way I poured my blood, sweat and tears (literally) into Ozzie, she’d still be a fixture at games today,” Biegun said.

Moon, on the other hand, did not remember anyone ever performing as Harriet during his tenure. However, considering how long ago it was and the lack of proper recordkeeping, he fully admitted that it could’ve happened and that he just didn’t remember or wasn’t aware of it. He also did not recall any conversation regarding Harriet receiving a new costume taking place. 

Ozzie’s current costume that was designed by Matt Biegun, photo courtesy of UNF. (Jennifer Grissom)

Biegun echoed the statement that there was never a real formal discussion that arrived at a decision to continue or retire Harriet. Biegun believes that the price needed for a new costume, combined with the inability to land a consistent performer, led to Harriet essentially being unceremoniously and unofficially retired.

“I think it was 25% costume budget and 75% not ever having someone,” Biegun clarified. 

Harriet’s story doesn’t end there, however.

According to Mr. Biegun, the older Harriet costume would still see occasional use at events in 2009, even after the introduction of the newer Ozzie suit. Athletics keeps little to no records of stuff like this, so Spinnaker was unable to accurately verify this information, until the unearthing of the following video.

The video, which was uploaded three days after its purported filming date, clearly shows Harriet dancing for a crowd at some sporting event in the UNF Arena. If this video is completely accurate, it would completely verify Biegun’s claim that Harriet was used after the introduction of Ozzie’s new suit. In the video’s description, it says:

“The first 2009 try-outs for Harriet Osprey were held at the UNF/Stetson Volleyball on 9-25-09. This is one of the Harriet applicants going for the part!!!!”

Thankfully, the one thing Athletics certainly keeps records of is who its teams play against and when and where they play them. Their official game records from 2009 confirm the fact that UNF did play against Stetson in the UNF Arena on Sep. 25, 2009. This proves the authenticity of the video, which, in turn, substantiates Biegun’s claim that Harriet performed after the new Ozzie suit was introduced.

UNF Ospreys ended up winning that match against Stetson, courtesy of UNF Athletics

Spinnaker showed Mr. Biegun the video and he was able to recall how there were a few try-outs in fall of 2009 for Harriet. He explained how these try-outs would quite literally be someone putting on the suit and performing for a game. This further verifies the video’s description and confirms that someone was trying out for Harriet at that time.

He explained how the female student, seen as Harriet in the video, did win the part but that she didn’t last a month. He couldn’t remember her name but believes that she was the last person to ever try out. If true, this video, from nearly exactly 14 years after her original debut, is the latest known documented evidence of Harriet in existence. It would also mean this unidentified woman was the last person to ever perform as Harriet the Osprey.

As for the costume itself, that mystery may never be solved. Ozzie’s 2009 Biegun costume was replaced in 2020. However, unlike the previous iterations, this was not a redesign. This one was just a newer version of the 2009 version, which was old and faded. The 2009 costume is being held by Athletics, who still find occasional use with it. 

Ozzie’s faded 2009 costume, currently in storage in the UNF Arena. Photo by Nathan Turoff

While the Special Collections and Archives have the original Ozzie costume from 1988, and the first Harriet costume from 1995, those are the only costumes they possess. Those two and the 2009 Ozzie costume are the only ones currently accounted for. The other three former UNF mascot costumes, the 1995 Ozzie, the 2002 Ozzie, and the 2002 Harriet, are still missing. 

Spinnaker reached out to the Property Department and the Special Collections and Archives but neither knew of the whereabouts of the missing costumes. Athletics keeps no records of this kind of information, so nobody currently employed there knew either.

According to Moon, the costumes may have been auctioned off or thrown away, but he had no recollection of either happening, and this is just his assumption. Biegun believes that they were likely destroyed.

“I’ve seen companies destroy old ‘retired’ suits to avoid them getting stolen and used inappropriately or because it’s in really bad shape,” Biegun said. 

That fate would certainly be unfortunate but hopefully one day they will resurface. While Harriet might never return to the UNF scene, hopefully her key role in the story of Ozzie and UNF as a whole can live on for years to come.

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