On a hilltop north of Manhattan, the creator of one of Kansas’ most symbolic logos lives in a cabin with his wife, Jane, and a personable 16-year-old calico cat named Lola.
Tom Bookwalter is the Powercat guy – the man who designed Kansas State University’s most popular logo.
Go anywhere in Kansas and the distinctive three-lined splash of feline purple is on mailboxes, license plates, T-shirts, caps, pens and yard art. For nearly three decades, K-Staters have worn and proudly displayed their Powercats. Last year, the university received $1.4 million in royalties that help pay for cheerleading, band and university/athletic student scholarships.
Fans and K-State alumni have carried the Powercat to the Great Wall of China and to Switzerland’s Alps as well as to the Coliseum in Rome, says Linda Cook, assistant vice president for communications with the K-State alumni association.
At the end of June, 8,729 Kansans sported Powercat license plates on their cars; 420 K-Staters do so in Texas and 57 in Maryland.
The Powercat has been put on toilet seats, coffins, jelly and lampshades.
In 2005, the Powercat traveled around the world on the side of Virgin Atlantic’s Global Flyer in which Steve Fossett flew a solo nonstop airplane flight around the world in two days and 19 hours.
It all started with K-State football coach Bill Snyder and Bookwalter, a Kansan who loved to draw.
Bookwalter, 73, grew up on his family’s Marshall County farm, hunting and fishing every day.
He discovered early on he’d been gifted with talent.
“He is one of the most outstanding creative people — and one of the top in the nation — he proved that with the Powercat,” said Fred Menefee, who hired Bookwalter more than four decades ago to work in design illustration at Wichita’s McCormick Armstrong. “His ability is above most illustrators. He is at the top level when it comes to designing and executing art for the customer. He is top drawer.”
Bookwalter moved to Wichita in 1971 after he was impressed by a promotional piece by McCormick Armstrong illustrated by Bill Nye. “I thought, ‘Man, this guy is good and I want to work where he works,’” he said.
He eventually left to get a degree from the Art Center in Los Angeles, then worked at Hellman Advertising in Waterloo, Iowa, before becoming a freelance artist.
He did artwork the old-fashioned way – by hand and inspiration.
He drew for Fortune 500 clients including Rockwell International, DuPont, Frito Lay, Miller Brewing, Toyota and others.
“I worked for the National Football League and even did their game day handouts,” Bookwalter said.
“I realized I could live wherever I wanted to,” Bookwalter said. “I remembered I used to go fishing at Milford Lake and thought it was pretty country. I moved back to Kansas and called K-State’s art department and said I want to teach part time.”
He moved at about the same time Coach Bill Snyder was beginning to revamp the university’s football program.
“He (Snyder) called over to the art department and said ‘I need a new logo who would you suggest?’ That’s how it got started,” Bookwalter said.
Designing the cat
In the 1980s, there were rumors among fans that K-State football was so bad it might be dropped by the Big Eight. A Wichita Eagle article from November 2005 indicates that “the school would have dropped football had Snyder failed to improve the program.”
Snyder had arrived at K-State in 1988. As his teams started winning, K-State went from barely profiting from its licensing to ranking among the top 15 nationally.
Bookwalter recalls that Snyder wanted a design something like the simple star that has become synonymous with the Dallas Cowboys franchise.
He also wanted to change the color of the uniforms.
“The uniforms were this garish bright purple and he wanted a more deep, eggplant color,” Bookwalter said.
Bookwalter thought the logo needed to be really, really simple.
“I told them we should use something which could stand by itself,” he said, “something people would recognize without the words ‘Kansas State University,” or ‘KSU’ or even a ‘K.’ In merchandising, a simple design means everything.”
Bookwalter took two weeks and created about 20 sketches or so.
Nothing caught his eye until he drew out a simple collection of lines.
Snyder, who did not comment for this story, wanted more, Bookwalter said. “He wanted whiskers on the cat and hair on the back of the cat’s head.”
But Bookwalter kept it simple.
“He then wanted to see the sketches on a helmet,” Bookwalter said. “I went and painted by hand the logo on a helmet. When I finished it, I took it back to see the coach. As I got out of my car and was carrying the helmet under my arm like a football, here comes these two big grizzly guys and they want to know what I’ve got. I said this was the new design for the helmet. I handed it to them and they said they liked it.
“I knew then it would be a go. The coach always said it wouldn’t be his decision. He wanted the players to like it. If they liked it, it would be okay.”
The cabin at the top of a hill
Twenty-eight years of the Powercat helped finance Bookwalter’s career.
According to a May 2, 2006 article from the Kansas State Collegian:
“The Powercat will remain Bookwalter’s property until 70 years after his death. He assigned the copyright to K-State, and is paid about 7 percent of all money K-State gets from its use.”
He has seen his design grace everything from jelly to carved wooden eggs.
He told the Eagle in 2005: “A guy selling K-State stuff told me once, ‘We could put that thing on a cow chip and it would sell.’”
Truth is, Bookwalter said, it wasn’t that big of a deal.
“The only thing I ever wanted to do was illustrate for Fortune 500 companies, corporate illustrations,” he said. “That’s what I was doing when the coach wanted me to do something for the helmets.
“I didn’t think that much about it. It is more than I ever thought it would be. But people say, ‘I bet you are proud of seeing that everywhere’ – which I am, but it also allowed a lot of mom and pop people to make some money. I did it for the football team and then when the university saw how it was going to sell on merchandise, they started putting it on everything.”
These days, Bookwalter fills his days doing exactly what he wants to do at his secluded acreage. He paints for charitable organizations and builds intricate model airplanes. He bow hunts. When his grandchildren come to visit, he takes them out on the property and shows them deer tracks.
Everywhere you look – in his house, on his vehicles and in his front yard – there is the Powercat logo.
It is the perfect habitat for wildcats to grow.
“It will probably be around for a long time,” he says of the logo. “I think it is a lasting mark because of the simplicity.”