From the start it was an unusual event on the graduation program at Baylor University. Mrs. Rildia Bee Cliburn, pianist Van Cliburn’s 75-year-old mother, was scheduled to become the Waco, Texas school’s first “honorary alumna.” (In her youth, her higher education had consisted entirely of music training.) The award was in recognition of her achievement as a piano teacher (her prize pupil was her son) and generous benefactor of Baylor’s music scholarship program.
The only problem was that celebrated son. As Mrs. Cliburn was being fitted with cap and gown for the afternoon ceremony, Van was still snoozing in his hotel room nearby. Since spring is the silly season on college campuses, thoughts of how to get him moving soon ran to the unorthodox. A grisly idea was suggested by Cliburn’s cousin, Prof. Robert Reid, a popular Baylor history teacher for whom the school’s 4-month-old bear mascot is named. Shortly before graduation began, Professor Reid turned his namesake loose in Cliburn’s room. The cub pounced on the bed, and within seconds the son was dressed and on his way to watch Mother receive her sheepskin. “The bear seemed too playful to be mean,” Cliburn explained bravely afterward. “And since he had my cousin’s name, I knew he couldn’t be all bad.”