SALEM — At the recent dedication of the $15 million Gassett Fitness Center at Salem State University, an 8-foot bronze statue was unveiled of a powerful and imposing Viking standing on a rock.
Chris Williams’ impressive statue seemed a perfect embodiment of the school’s mascot and nickname — the Viking. And it stood in the perfect spot — outside the O’Keefe Sports Center and the new fitness complex.
But it raised a question: Why are Salem State’s athletic teams called the Vikings?
Everybody knows that Notre Dame is the Fighting Irish and Nebraska the Cornhuskers. Those make sense. But why is a college in Salem, Mass., called the Vikings?
We went to the Viking statue yesterday and raised that conundrum with students as they walked past.
“That’s a good question,” said Rebecca Krigman, a sophomore softball player, who admitted to yelling “Go Vikings!” during games without really knowing why she and her teammates are Vikings.
Junior Tariq Tate was asked the same question. “I have no idea,” he said.
The students can take comfort in the fact that nobody else at the college seemed to know, either.
“We were the Clippers until the mid-’60s,” offered Karen Cady, a university spokeswoman.
The Clippers, at least, made some sense. Salem, after all, was the nautical capital of the country two centuries ago. And Salem State’s student newspaper is called The Log, as in ship’s log.
To her credit, Cady, just like those ancient Viking explorers, set off in search of an answer. She contacted the athletic department, but they only scratched their heads. Then she went to the college archivist, who dug up a copy of The Log from June 1961.
Not thrilled to be Clippers, three sportswriters at the student newspaper conducted a poll back then in search of a new nickname. When nobody responded, they decided Vikings sounded good. They even floated a historical rationale.
“Must we be witches, or clippers or even pumpkins in season?” wrote Robert Griffin. “Not so, because the legend of Leif Ericson’s voyage to Massachusetts, and very probably to Salem Harbor, dates back somewhat before the witch-clipper ship era.”
There you have it.
Leif Ericson, not Roger Conant, settled Salem.
Of course, most historians don’t believe the great Norse explorer came to Salem, or Massachusetts or anywhere near here, despite the fact there is a Leif Erikson (i.e. different spelling) statue on the Commonwealth Mall in Boston.
There is speculation, however, that Leif’s father, Erik the Red, may have stopped in Salem. How else to explain Red’s Sandwich Shop?
Tom Dalton can be reached at email@example.com.