Creator of the Chesty Lion remembered by Lawrence High, community

By Tessa Collar, Reporter

There is only one Chesty Lion. And for that, Lawrence High has Paul Coker to thank. 

“The fact that [Coker] drew the Chesty Lion as an homage to Liberty Memorial High School and what he saw the students becoming and being is really a phenomenal gift,” history teacher Valerie Schrag said. 

Paul Coker died on July 23, 2022, at the age of 93. Coker graduated from Lawrence High in 1946 and went on to become a famous cartoonist. Coker worked for Mad magazine for several decades and created the Chesty Lion, Frosty the Snowman, and other beloved characters.

While Coker went on to create cartoons known to children and adults across the nation, he maintains a strong connection to Lawrence High through his creation of the school’s long standing mascot. 

Teachers, LHS alum and students remembered Paul Coker following his death. Schrag displayed Coker’s New York Times obituary outside her classroom to help inform students. 

Lawrence High drawing teacher and 1989 LHS graduate, Todd Poteet, discussed the significance of knowing who designed LHS’s mascot. 

“I think so often so many mascots get lost in who originally designed them to begin with,” Poteet said. “The fact that we can trace Paul Coker and that he created Frosty the Snowman and other characters is pretty amazing that we have that as a history.” 

Hank Booth, 1964 LHS graduate and longtime Lawrence radio host, met Paul Coker because his father, Arden Booth, was friends with Coker and interviewed him several times on the radio. Hank Booth emphasized Coker’s inviting, easy-going nature. 

“He had the kind of personality that didn’t make any difference if you were 20 years younger or 40 years younger [than him],” Booth said. “He made you feel comfortable and he loved to laugh at what he was doing.” 

While Coker lived in notable cities including New York City and Santa Fe, Booth noted Coker’s attachment to Lawrence. 

“The thing about him was that he really did love Lawrence,” Hank Booth said. “This was a prized town for Paul.” 

Coker designed Chesty in 1946, while on The Budget staff at Lawrence High. However, the symbol of the lion was first used by LHS in 1930. 

“Lawrence High School has long needed a mascot,” The Budget printed in 1929. “The suggestion, growing out of the recent pep rally, to call ourselves the Lions, has been wholeheartedly accepted. A mascot should symbolize the characteristics of the school and no other animal expresses our strength of purpose better than the lion, the king of the beasts, his strength, bravery, and aggressiveness which our competitors find we also have.”

Carrying forward the design of Chesty for decades exemplifies LHS pride, senior Milo Bitters said. 

“It shows how proud we are of what we do here,” Bitters said. “Some other schools could have had a beautiful original design like us, but choose to rebrand with a modern ‘sleek’ design. LHS is different in the fact that we stuck with Chesty and still [have].” 

It is rare for a school mascot to be designed by a student, something that sets Chesty apart from other mascots. 

“Lawrence High is all about community,” Schrag said. “ Lawrence High is all about honoring the accomplishments of our own. Both when they are students and beyond. And so the fact that Chesty was organically drawn by one of us makes it part of that family too. It’s not something imposed upon us, it is created from within.”

LHS alum and longtime resident, Marsha Goff, interviewed Coker for her book, The High Schools of Lawrence.

Goff remembered that Coker said he “used every cliché in the book in drawing the lion: the thumb cocked at his chest, the wink, the smile.”

But Goff said she felt “it was enough,” and many others who love Chesty agree.

“He’s chesty because he’s proud of Lawrence High School,” Schrag said. “He’s not aggressive. He’s just chesty. And I love that about him. He is in some ways a more inclusive mascot, because everybody can be proud of this school.” 

Coker had a unique art style that was, at least in part, fostered in Lawrence. The beginnings of Coker’s creative style can be seen in illustrations printed in past editions of The Red and Black yearbook. 

 “Paul was capable of whimsical but beautiful artwork that always had a bit of subversion to it,” former Mad Magazine editor, John Ficarra, said in a New York Times article published following Coker’s death. 

Schrag said she feels Coker’s personality comes through in his cartoons. One series Coker became famous for that lets his personality shine was titled “Horrifying Political Cliches,” depicting humorous illustrations of statements such as “twisting a fact” and “digging up a scandal.” 

“I know through his cartoons he had a very wry sense of humor and kind of criticizing and taking on traditional ways of thinking,” Schrag said. “That’s something that Lawrence cultivates. That’s something that we hear at Lawrence High School; we question things.”

The LHS class of 1955 worked to bring the Chesty Lion statue, that still stands proud outside the main entrance of the school, to life. 

“The students of my day loved [Chesty] so much that my class wanted to take it to the 3-dimensional level by collaborating with Elden Tefft, KU sculpture professor/artist, to make it happen,” 1955 graduate Eugenia Bryan said. “We conceived the idea, figured out how to pay for it, convinced the faculty and administration that we could do it, and then we did it! To this day, all living members of this class [are] proud (Lions are proud) of what we accomplished and gave to the heritage of LHS that lives on.”

Despite a lack of awareness among LHS students of the artist behind the mascot, Paul Coker will continue to live on through the Chesty Lion: through the statue that greets students each day, through emblems on every item of LHS gear, and through new animations of Chesty in “The Lion’s Roar” video announcements. 

“Most people don’t know [Coker’s] name, but we all know what he drew,” Schrag said. “And that’s the power of image, in unifying us together.” 

Lawrence High has a long-standing reputation of producing notable alumni. Coker, among others, inspires current students and reminds them of what is possible, thanks to experience gained at Lawrence High. 

“To me, Coker’s legacy represents what heights LHS students can reach,” Bitters said.  “It’s this kind of hidden lesson that shows what you do at LHS can really get you started on your life’s track.”