DU Athletic Alum Shares Impassioned Pioneer Story

DU alum and former varsity golfer Shawn Willis was nice enough to share his personal story with us of what it is like to be a Denver Pioneer. It’s obvious he shares our passion for the University of Denver and what it is like to be a Denver ‘Pioneer’ (noun & verb) in his letter to the University of Denver Board of Trustees. We thank Shawn for allowing us to share his thoughts with you, our readers:

To the Board of Trustees of The University of Denver,

 I write this to you from the perspective of a 6th generation Colorado native and a student athlete alum from the University of Denver’s class of 2003.  Outside of my family, these are two of the things in which I take a great deal of pride. During my time at DU I had the opportunity to represent the University all over the country as a student athlete, and served my fellow student athletes on the Advisory Committee my senior year.  This experience introduced me to individuals from all over the world and has provided some of the deepest friendships I have as I move into the middle years of life.  It is from this perspective that I wish to address the recent ban of masks at athletic events, and by way of correlation, the continued mascot “controversy” and the rumor that endlessly swirls through the community that there is an aim to change the name Pioneer itself.

In a 2009 letter to students and alumni, Chancellor Coombe wrote “Boone was a polarizing figure that did not reflect the growing diversity of the DU community, but rather was an image that many women, persons of color, international students and faculty members found difficult to relate to as defining the pioneering spirit.”  I would make the argument that Boone the Pioneer exactly represents a pioneering spirit and that individuals who feel somehow oppressed by this image or name have a deep lack of understanding of who and what pioneers actually were.  This mascot is representative of the brave men and women who settled the West, which at the time was a very hostile place with settlers being attacked openly and often by different nations of Native Americans.  

Walt Whitman wrote, “Colorado men are we, From the peaks gigantic, from the great sierras and the high plateaus, From the mine and from the gully, from the hunting trail we come, Pioneers! O pioneers!  O you daughters of the West! O you young and elder daughters!  O you mothers and you wives! Never must you be divided, in our ranks you move united, Pioneers! O pioneers!”  He captured the spirit in Leaves of Grass of what being a pioneer actually meant and stood for, what my family believed when they came here generations ago and homesteaded north of Denver, worked in the mines of Clear Creek, and to this day grows the grain that makes the bread in the St. Vrain Bakery.  Have you ever eaten a Quizno’s sub?  You’re eating the bread produced by generations of pioneers of this great state.   

 I know there is consternation that some feel because of the tragedy of Sand Creek.  This is a blight, as there are many, in our state and country’s history as there is with any nation.  The fact that one of the founders of this esteemed institution played a direct role in it as the Governor of our state should cause anyone to give pause, to study why, and take measure to ensure that this history does not repeat itself.  But to scapegoat a mascot and a name as the cause, to retroactively institute the blame on things that galvanize students, community, athletes, and alumni and donors is to act with a short sightedness and in a reactionary manner that is alarming.  I would encourage those that find the Boone mascot or the name Pioneer offensive, or find it, “difficult to relate to as defining the pioneering spirit,” to read Whitman, to sit down with an individual who has Pioneer Colorado license plates and learn why they have them.  Learn what distinction one’s family must have to qualify for those plates.  Learn the history of the families that came here in the 1800’s, the progressive nature of those people who tamed the frontier of the West and made Colorado one of the first states to give both women and people of color the right to vote, to have a say in their government, to own and work land and produce things by their own sweat and labor. 

I hope you can tell that I don’t write and send this lightly but rather out of a great love that I have for both my school and my state and the history of both.  It is with profound respect that I pen this and my hope that you will read it with the same respect.  

 My identity will always be Pioneers, O Pioneers!


Shawn Wills, Class of 2003


We kindly ask that you share your stories today with the DU boardofdirectors@du.edu and copy alumni@du.edu. Many of our University leaders are not University of Denver graduates so it is critical that we let them know how much we treasure and value university traditions.

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