Fans raising money for statue of beloved NIU mascot Diesel

DeKALB – After the Northern Illinois University’s football team won its game at Purdue in 2009, it took Huskies fans Bob Smith and Tom Bonnevier about an hour to get back to their car.

It came with the territory traveling with Diesel, the beloved Northern Illinois live mascot. Diesel, a Siberian husky, frequently drew attention from fans and requests for pictures before retiring in 2013 and passing away last September after losing a battle with lymphoma.

Now, Smith and Bonnevier are a part of a small group raising money to put up a statue outside Huskie Stadium of Diesel’s most iconic moment. They’re hoping to reach the goal of $25,000 in time to commission the statue and unveil it at the 2017 football home opener against Boston College.

“Tom took [Diesel] anywhere they let him in,” Smith said of Bonnevier, who was Diesel’s owner. “We traveled all over the place, and everybody loved Diesel.”

Donations can be made by searching for the project, called “The Diesel Memorial Project,” on the website gofundme.com.

If the goal is met – almost $5,000 of the $25,000 needed has been raised as of Monday – the statue will be of Diesel sitting with his left paw up, a pose that became famous when ESPN showed the real-life Siberian husky give a high-five to a Northern Illinois cheerleader after a touchdown in a game against Ball State in 2013.

The idea originated with a group of friends on a Northern Illinois message board. Renee Bemis, who has more than three decades of experience as a sculptor, will create the statue – which she said could take about a year to complete, including the creation of the mold and the bronzing process, before it is handed over to a foundry.

The statue also will be on a pedestal, allowing it to be moved to other special events involving Northern Illinois.

Smith, 66, said it was a long process to get the idea approved by all the necessary parties at the university, which included university President Doug Baker. Northern Illinois Athletic Director Sean Frazier would not comment on the matter, saying he was not involved in the project.

It is believed that the statue would be placed between the west grandstand of Huskie Stadium and the Chessick Center, allowing any passers-by the opportunity to high-five the bronze Diesel.

Smith, who graduated from Northern Illinois before starting an almost 40-year career as a locomotive engineer and currently is retired in West Melbourne, Florida, said he hopes the statue especially will be a hit with the younger Huskies fans at games. He also praised Bemis and Alberta Solfisburg of the NIU Foundation for helping push the idea through.

While the project has had several people make donations up to $100, Smith said he knows the project also will need some bigger supporter.

“We’re realistic about it, and we’ll need some donors to write some big checks,” Smith said. “But we’re fully confident we can do it.”

Smith also said the project is in good hands with Bemis doing the sculpting. She created the pack of three running Huskies on the east side of the Chessick Center.

Bemis said she’s already created a miniature version – around 6 to 8 inches tall – of the statue that turned out well. She expects the finished version to be about 3 feet, 4 inches tall from him sitting to the top of his extended paw.

Although her previous work for NIU, the pack of three Huskies, was more general in nature, she said the distinctness of having it be Diesel in his iconic pose will help.

“It’s pretty clear what I need to do – where he put his feet, how his head was tilted, what he looks like – so it makes it slightly easier,” she said.

Diesel was NIU’s mascot for nine years before retiring with the title of mascot emeritus after the 2013 season. He still attended games – including the Huskies’ season-opening win over UNLV in 2015 – right before his death, but a new husky, Mission, took over the duties as the new living mascot.

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