Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The circus connection to a Massachusetts university May 23, 2017

A sculpture of Jumbo the elephant (in the background) looms over attendees at the Tufts University 2016 commencement. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2016.


WHEN RINGLING BROS & Barnum & Bailey Circus performed its last “Greatest Show on Earth” in New York state this past Sunday, my thoughts immediately shifted to Tufts University in neighboring Massachusetts.



On graduation day 2016, students and others gather at a recently installed new Jumbo sculpture on campus. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2016.


Because an elephant is the mascot at Tufts University in Somerville/Medford.

So what?

Well, there’s a connection to the circus. P.T. Barnum and Jumbo the elephant hold historic importance at this elite private research university. Barnum was an early Tufts trustee and benefactor who donated the stuffed hide of Jumbo to the college. For nearly 90 years, Jumbo was on exhibit at Barnum Hall until a fire destroyed both in 1975. Now the famous elephant’s ashes are kept in a peanut butter jar in the athletic director’s office.


Posted on an athletic field fence at Tufts University. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2016.


Despite the loss of the original Jumbo and changing attitudes toward circuses and the treatment of elephants, this mighty mammal remains Tufts’ adored mascot. I’m good with that because this university has established the Tufts Elephant Conservation Alliance to save elephants and to educate on the topic.


The commencement ceremony begins at The School of Engineering, Tufts University in May 2016. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2016.


So why do I, as a Minnesotan, take any interest in this when I’ve never been to the circus or, up until a few years ago, had never heard of Tufts? Well, my son graduated from Tufts last May with a computer science degree and now continues to live and work in the Boston area.


Picnic lunches served after the 2016 commencement were bagged in Jumbo stamped bags. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2016.


During his three years as a transfer student into Tufts, I fell hard for the Jumbo mascot, although not hard enough to purchase a spendy Tufts Mom t-shirt or sweatshirt. But when my husband and I attended Caleb’s college graduation at this time a year ago, I got my Jumbo fix on campus.


Caleb poses in front of the Tufts’ sculpture of Jumbo. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2016.


I couldn’t help but consider that on Sunday, the date the circus closed out its 146-year history at that final show in New York, a new group of Jumbos was graduating from Tufts University and posing next to the iconic elephant sculpture on campus.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


10 Responses to “The circus connection to a Massachusetts university”

  1. Beth Ann Says:

    My niece and her husband took our sweet Harper (great niece) to the second to the last show and i thought that was such a cool thing to be able to do. Love all the elephant info about Tufts. I did not realize that is where the mascot came from so I learned something new today. Thanks!

  2. Great mascot.
    Super photos.
    I’d NEVER go to the circus and I’m happy the elephants are FREeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeE.
    Perhaps that ‘s a metaphor for several things…
    Including the students at Tuft! xx

  3. Kathleen Cassen Mickelson Says:

    I had no idea the Tufts mascot was an elephant! Interesting background story. I did laugh out loud when I read that Jumbo’s ashes are in a peanutbutter jar in the athletic director’s office, though.

  4. valeriebollinger Says:

    Fun connection Audrey.

  5. While the elephant may be gone.. There are still a whole bunch of clowns left here in Boston..lol

  6. Jackie Says:

    An elephant is a very unique mascot for a school of any kind. I like the historic information as to why Jumbo the elephant came to be the Mascot of Tuft’s university. Way to get that picture of Caleb and the mascot. 🙂

  7. The peanut butter jar. That’s the best part.

  8. Very interesting post thank you for sharing. Elephants are such interesting creatures

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