As sophomore Simms Hicks took center court during halftime of a basketball game to present a special framed American flag to Western Carolina University on behalf of her father, she had no idea her dad was standing right beside her. That’s because her father, Major Jimmy Hicks of the U.S. Marine Corps, was dressed as Paws, the Catamounts’ costumed mascot.
The elder Hicks, stationed in Afghanistan since July 12, had not seen his daughter in more than six months when he hatched a plan to surprise her upon his return to the country in mid-January. “Simms has always loved watching military returns and family reunions, and I have never thought about doing anything such as this until now,” he said prior to the event. Hicks contacted WCU officials, who quickly agreed to help him surprise his daughter.
The initial scheme was set in motion in early December when Major Hicks contacted Beth Tyson Lofquist ’78 MAEd ’79 EdS ’88, then interim provost, who funneled the request along to Susan Fouts ’78 MBA ’90, interim director of educational outreach, who also oversees WCU’s military student services unit. Hicks knew that he would like for the father/daughter reunion to occur during the Catamounts’ home men’s basketball date with Davidson on Jan. 23, and he suggested that he be allowed to don the mascot costume, at least for a portion of the game. But the trick was, how could the co-conspirators be sure that his daughter would be in attendance that night?
Working with Chad Gerrety, WCU’s associate athletics director for external affairs, Hicks concocted a plan in which he would ask his daughter to represent him in presenting to university officials a flag that had flown on Thanksgiving Day 2013 at Camp Leatherneck, which is located in Helmand Province in southwestern Afghanistan. Hicks’ wife, Dawn, was in on the surprise, and traveled to Cullowhee from the family home in Jacksonville to watch the presentation – and the unexpected plot twist.
Hicks hid out in the catacombs of the Liston B. Ramsey Regional Activity Center for the first half of the basketball game, while Paws, wearing a special oversized WCU 125th anniversary T-shirt, roamed courtside to help fire up the crowd. Those in attendance that night might have noticed a short period of time toward the end of the first half when Paws was nowhere to be seen. He had ventured into the athletic department’s media room to enable Hicks to quickly change into the mascot costume. A local television station there to cover the story attached a wireless microphone to Hicks’ shirt to capture audio from Paws’ perspective.
As the first half came to a close, Paws joined Chancellor David O. Belcher and Randy Eaton, director of athletics, on court for the presentation from Simms Hicks. After the presentation and requisite photographs of the ceremony, public address broadcaster Jeff Bryson announced that there was one more special surprise. The daughter’s eyes widened and she began looking around the Ramsey Center, when Bryson said, “Simms, if you would, please direct your attention to our lovable WCU mascot, Paws.” At that point, the major removed the headgear of the mascot costume, the daughter wrapped her arms around her father in a giant hug, and the crowd roared its approval, breaking into a spontaneous chant of “USA! USA! USA!” Even some of the biggest, burliest men in the arena were spotted dabbing their eyes after the emotional ceremony.
“My initial reaction was complete surprise,” Simms Hicks said afterward. “It’s something that every little girl hopes for when your dad is deployed is to be surprised by him when he gets back, but I never thought it would be something that would happen to me or to get that kind of reaction from the people I go to school with. It was definitely a great feeling, and it’s good to see him after six very, very long months.”
While it is unusual for Paws to remove his headgear to reveal the person beneath the costume, WCU officials say they were willing to make this rare exception as a military-friendly university wanting to celebrate military families and their contributions. “It was great to see Simms’ reaction when she saw her dad remove the mascot head,” said Gerrety. “The response of the Catamount fans in attendance was fantastic. It was a special night for the Hicks family, and the athletic department was excited to be a part of it.”
News coverage of the surprise reunion was picked up by media across the nation, and video of the event went viral.