Gaston & Catawba

There’s a new bear on the L-R campus

Lenoir-Rhyne University is a school whose students, alumni, faculty and fans are huge supporters of 11 men’s and 11 women’s athletic teams – all known as Bears.

Bears who play football, bears who play volleyball, bears who play tennis, bears who play soccer and so on.

In other words, when a Lenoir-Rhyne athlete goes on the prowl, his or her opponent faces a bear of a challenger.

Now, Lenoir-Rhyne fans and students have a bear on campus, a 15-foot-high burly beast residing on Seventh Avenue N.E. Though he looks real enough – thanks to the skill of professional chainsaw carvers Joey Rowe of Hickory and Jason Smathers of Washington state – the creature is a transformation of the stump of a Southern red oak.

“The aging tree had died and had to be cut down,” Otis Pitts, Lenoir-Rhyne’s director of facilities management. “We thought a carving of our mascot would be a great addition to our campus and representative of our spirit here at L-R.”

With the idea of a stump carving in mind, Lenoir-Rhyne turned to Rowe, who does tree work on campus. Rowe owns Absolute Tree Care, in Hickory, and he’s a huge Lenoir-Rhyne devotee. He said he grew up near Lenoir-Rhyne and has been a Bear fan his whole life.

Rowe spends part of each week doing tree work, part creating chainsaw carvings of 1- to 6-foot tall animals, and part selling his carvings at a roadside market near Lake Toxaway, in Western North Carolina. “Bears sell the best – black bears,” Rowe pointed out. But “we can pretty much carve ... whatever.”

Rowe also does demonstrations at fairs and festivals, and five or six times per year he and Smathers get together to do a stump carving, a job with no room for error. “It’s a high pressure, no mistakes sort of thing,” explained Rowe, who met Smathers through his dad, the late Dan Smathers – known in Western North Carolina as “Mountain Dan.”

Rowe said Mountain Dan, who lived in Etowah when Rowe apprenticed under him, had traveled the U.S. as a young man, working as a professional timber feller before settling awhile in Washington state, where Jason Smathers was born.

Mountain Dan returned to North Carolina and tried his hand at landscaping, eventually giving it up when the housing market slumped. He took up chainsaw carving in 2002 after seeing men carving bears on the side of the road. He went from logger to sought-after chainsaw sculptor in a matter of a few years, selling his creations to buyers all over the world.

Jason Smathers visited his dad in North Carolina and learned to employ a chainsaw as well as his father. Smathers returned to the Pacific Northwest where he carves full time, including competing in chainsaw carving competitions. Smathers and Rowe became good friends after Mountain Dan’s death in 2012.

“Jason comes in and helps me with the stumps,” said Rowe. The pair worked on the Lenoir-Rhyne bear, a North Carolina mountain black bear, for six days. Rowe said he uses as many as eight different chainsaws to complete a job, each power tool providing a different cut. He and Smathers sanded the nose and torched it to make it black. They also torched the body.

“The bear gives the front of campus a fierce, new look,” said Joshua Holbrooks, Lenoir-Rhyne senior and offensive lineman for the Bears football team. “The statue itself is tremendous in stature and a work of art that captures the attention of everyone who passes by.”

Holbrooks’s teammate, running back James Phillips, expressed amazement at the carving’s detail. “It shows our school spirit here at L-R. I couldn’t believe how fast it was completed.”

Junior Vertrice Wilson described the bear as “gorgeous.” “It reminds me of why I came to L-R: to be part of a great campus full of good people.”

Senior Jamie Ryan, a lacrosse player, who’s double majoring in graphic design and studio art, said she “was happy to see a different type of statue. We have many bronze statues, and it was good to see a different medium used to add variety to the campus.” Ryan also appreciates the carving’s ferocity.

According to “Baseball in Catawba County” (Arcadia Publishing, 2004) by Tim Peeler and Brian MacLawhorn, “The 1924 (Lenoir-Rhyne) baseball team is responsible for the nickname that the school’s athletic teams still carry. Covering their April 9 game at Atlantic Christian College in Wilson, a Raleigh News & Observer sportswriter declared that ‘after a slow start, the Lenoir-Rhyne team came charging out of the dugout like mountain bears charging forth from their haunts in the Western North Carolina mountains.’ ”

The bear that now guards Lenoir-Rhyne’s campus is no Winnie the Pooh, Smokey Bear, or cuddly bedtime pal. It’s a mountain bear, and it’s itching for a fight, especially now that someone’s dressed him up for Christmas.

Stop by Lenoir-Rhyne University for a look.