For 61 years, Norbert James has had a tiger tale by the tail.
He has shared his story at the barbershop, in the aisles of the grocery store and at the end of the hallway at Magnolia Manor. The legend of the big cat has been retold over catfish almost every Friday night at Jim Shaw’s Seafood Grill.
Norbert is 84 years old and still recites the tale with a twinkle in his eye and a chuckle in his voice. It is a cat story with 99 lives.
It began with a coon hunt and took a wild turn in a parking lot in New Orleans on the night of Dec. 1, 1950. It was there that Norbert and three of his college buddies from Tulane kidnapped a 500-pound Bengal tiger named Mike, who happened to be the mascot of the LSU Tigers.
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The “crime” got Norbert banned from LSU’s campus for more than 50 years.
The notoriety has brought a lifetime of pleasure.
And, even though the statute of limitations has run out, he won’t dare pull for LSU in Monday night’s national championship game against Alabama.
He never roots for the Tigers. Never will.
Norbert grew up in Macon and married the girl next door. Carolyn Elder was his neighbor on Boulevard. Their telephones shared the same party line. In August, they will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary.
He was a bit of a heck-raiser at Lanier High School, where he had a reputation for mischief and pulling pranks. He was born on Nov. 6, which is St. Norbert’s Day. (St. Norbert was allegedly the last person to see the Holy Grail, so the name has deep meaning.)
He never backed down with his fists, either, and some of his classmates gave him the nickname “Fight.’’ He took that fighting spirit with him into the Army after World War II. He spent three years stationed at Okinawa in post-war Japan.
When he returned, he enrolled at Tulane. His father was a native of New Orleans, and Norbert had two aunts, an uncle and a grandmother living there.
There were no dormitories at Tulane in 1950, so he joined other veterans in the wooden barracks built on campus along McAlister Drive. He became fast friends with Oscar Riess, who was from New Orleans and shared Norbert’s love of hunting and fishing.
They went “coon hunting” every Friday night in an area around the levees. Oscar always took his dogs along. Other students used to tease them that they never caught any coons. So one night Norbert and Oscar rounded up four raccoons and turned them loose in the barracks as a practical joke.
A couple of classmates, Joe Miller and Tex Powell, begged to tag along one Friday. So the four men slipped off to do some “coon hunting” on the eve of the big LSU-Tulane football game at the old Sugar Bowl stadium.
They might not have snagged any coons that night, but they didn’t go home empty-handed. On their way back to campus, they stopped at the College Inn on Carrollton Avenue for a midnight snack.
As they were leaving the restaurant, they noticed a trailer with a long cage. Inside the cage was “Mike,’’ the living, breathing, roaring mascot for LSU.
Mike was a 15-year-old Bengal tiger. He had been purchased for $750 from a zoo in Little Rock, Ark., in 1936. The money was raised by collecting 25 cents from every LSU student on campus. He had been named after Mike Chambers, the school’s athletic trainer.
The care of the tiger had been assigned to a man from the LSU veterinary school. He was responsible for transporting the tiger to the out-of-town football games. He had driven down from Baton Rouge and pulled into the restaurant for a bite to eat at about 1 a.m.
“We thought there would be some security, but the wheels were not locked,’’ Norbert said. “So I undid the trailer and hooked it up to Oscar’s car. He didn’t have a trailer hitch, so we used a chain.’’
They contacted a friend at the college. They told him they had kidnapped the tiger and were triumphantly bringing it to campus. Word spread fast as Oscar’s 1942 Plymouth drove slowly through the dark streets. At one point, the chain came loose, and the cage kept rolling, so there was nearly a runaway tiger.
On Willow Street, a police officer stopped them. But they convinced him they were escorting the tiger from the LSU campus to Tulane’s stadium. They pulled the trailer behind the barracks. A huge crowd gathered as they showed off the feline. Some students suggested painting the tiger green (Tulane’s mascot is the Green Wave), but the cat-nappers had no intentions of harming the animal.
The plan was to hold Mike captive until halftime of the game the next day. When John Stibbs, the dean of students, was summoned to see the tiger, he suggested Mike be taken to a safe location off campus.
Norbert rode with Oscar to his house. They parked the cage in the garage and went to bed. At 2 a.m., Oscar’s father woke up and asked his son to go outside and see why the dogs were barking.
“Because there is a tiger in the garage,’’ Oscar explained.
“Have you been drinking?” asked his dad.
The entire Riess family rushed out of bed to see the tiger. By morning, there were radio reports of Mike’s abduction and pleas from LSU officials for the hostage-takers not to feed the tiger because Mike was on a special diet.
The police soon showed up at Oscar’s house and took them to the station for questioning. They were not arrested, so they went to eat breakfast before the game, which ended in 14-14 tie with a somewhat exasperated Mike on the LSU sidelines.
Norbert found it amusing the band kept playing the song “I Tawt I Taw a Puddy Tat” (I Thought I Saw a Pussy Cat) over and over again. (Mike I died of pneumonia in 1956, and was his body was placed on display at the Natural Sciences Museum on the LSU campus in Baton Rouge. Mike VI has been the school’s mascot since 2007.)
In the days that followed the rivalry game, Norbert and his friends were banned from LSU’s campus. But that was OK with Norbert. He had no desire to leave his footprints there anyway.
Then, in May 2007, he received an interesting letter in the mail. Norbert and Carolyn had some friends, Maurice and Annette Maxwell, of Macon, whose daughter worked in the dean’s office at LSU.
The arranged statement was a “pardon,’’ of sorts.
“It has been called to our attention that you were involved in the famous 1950 tiger-napping crime,’’ the letter began. “We understand that, at that time, you were banned from the LSU campus. While your stunt wreaked havoc on our team, we assume by now that you have realized the seriousness of your heinous crime. In the spirit of forgiveness, we are absolving you of all guilt. We feel that your 50-year exile from the LSU campus is sufficient punishment for your bad deed. Therefore, you are welcome to visit the LSU campus.’’
There was a post-script at the bottom of the letter, directly above a series of paw prints.
“In case you get any wild hairs,’’ it said, “Mike the Tiger is closely guarded under a 24-hour per day, state-of-the-art security system.’’
Reach Gris at 744-4275 or firstname.lastname@example.org.