Testudo got his start back in 1932, when then football coach Dr. H. Curley Byrd recommended that the Diamondback terrapin be made the school mascot. It is also the Maryland State Reptile. The suggestion was in response to The Diamondback's (the school paper, even back then) search for a new "official" mascot. Before this search, Maryland teams were called the Old Liners. The terrapin, a turtle native to the Chesapeake Bay, seemed a great choice and a logical one coming from Byrd. His native Crisfield, Maryland, was famous for its terrapins.
While the origin of the terrapin as school mascot is well known, why the mascot was named Testudo is more mysterious. One leading contender for the name's origin is that it was derived from the scientific classification for turtle, testudines. Another theory is that the name is from testudo gigantia, a species native to the African country Seychelles and the remote island Aldabra. Finally, the derivation of the word testudo itself comes from the Latin word for a protective shelter used for Roman soldiers heads, similar to a tortoise shell.
On the suggestion of Ralph I. Williams, president of the Student Government Association, the Class of 1933 decided to give a bronze replica of the new mascot as its graduation gift. The Class raised money for the sculpture by holding its Junior Senior German (aka the Senior Prom) on campus instead of at an expensive Washington hotel. Additional funds came from the student yearbook The Reveille (renamed The Terrapin in 1935), which was managed by Harry E. Hasslinger. Once the Class of 1933 came up with the funds for the bronze terrapin, the SGA donated money for the base.
In order to make the mascot a reality, Byrd suggested contacting Edwin C. Mayo, President of Gorham Manufacturing in Providence, RI. Mayo was a former quarterback for the University and member of the Class of 1904. He agreed to produce the 300 pound bronze terrapin at cost. Sculptor Aristide Cianfrani cast the sculpture. He used a live Diamondback as a guide, brought to Rhode Island by Ralph Williams.
On May 23, 1933, Testudo was unveiled to the world. The live terrapin used as a model had a ribbon attached to it, which was in turn attached to the canvas covering the sculpture. And as the smaller terrapin struggled forward, Testudo was revealed for the first time.
At first, Testudo had his perch in front of Ritchie Coliseum. Unfortunately, this relatively open spot soon became the scene of multiple crimes against the unguarded mascot, including painting, defacing the pedestal, and kidnapping. In 1947, when Testudo was captured by Johns Hopkins students, many Maryland students rushed to Baltimore and laid siege the building where the mascot was held. Even though 200 police were called to control the riot, the "siege" quickly turned into a party.
Soon after, Testudo was again snatched from his perch. Two years later, Byrd, now president of the University, received a call from a University of Virginia fraternity telling him to please get Testudo off their lawn.
With Testudo safely recovered, he was hidden in a campus carpentry shed until 1951. It had become apparent that greater security measures were needed to protect him. George O. Weber, Director of Physical Plant at College Park, and Class President for the Class of 1933 was determined to protect the campus mascot. So Testudo was filled with 700 pounds of cement and attached to his new perch in front of Byrd Stadium with long steel rods and hooks. While this put a stop to the terrapin-napping, painting was still a problem, especially by Johns Hopkins students. During one episode, Maryland students caught some Hopkins students in the act and promptly shaved their heads.
However, Testudo was swiftly becoming much more than a symbol of Maryland's athletics. He had found his way into the hearts of the entire student body. So when McKeldin Library was constructed in the 1960's, Testudo was uprooted from his stadium pedestal and carefully carried by students to his new home overlooking McKeldin Mall.
And from this central campus perch, Testudo has continued his vigil at Maryland. In 1983, the then fifty year old Testudo was rededicated and restored to his former glory by the Class of 1933. He finally received help in his watch over campus in 1992, when a bronze twin to Testudo was created and placed outside the Football Complex locker room.
And while Testudo continues to preside over campus, myths continue to surround the 1000 pound mascot. Rubbing his nose is supposed to bring good luck (hence Testudo's unusually shiny nose).
Whatever the truth may be, it seems that one thing is for sure--Testudo
will continue to be a central figure at the University of Maryland for
quite a long time to come.