In 1906, a merchant named Phillip Miller created unofficial banners and pennants for the University of Florida. At the time, UF had no mascot or emblem, but since the alligator was native to Florida and not being used by another school, Miller decided to use the reptile on the banners.
The football team adopted the moniker “the fighting gators” in 1911, and the first live alligator was used as the school mascot in 1957. Dr. Ross Allen — the famous herpetologist who founded the Reptile Institute in Silver Springs — donated a big bull gator to UF who was nicknamed “Albert.” A chain-link pen was built on campus around Century Tower to hold the gator.
Before kickoff, Albert would be led out onto the football field, and he remained on the sidelines during each game. Between 1957 and 1970, several gators were used as the “official” Albert. Unfortunately, after several incidents where the reptiles were mistreated (one gator was killed and another was kidnapped as a prank), the school decided to stop using live gators as the mascot. In 1970, Albert V was released with great fanfare into Lake Alice to spend the rest of his retirement.
Enter Curtis Read. Born in California, the 24-year old served in the army and was sent to the Gainesville Veterans Administration Hospital to recover. After experiencing psychological difficulties following his military service, he found some solace in Gainesville’s natural surroundings. Specifically, he grew interested in alligators after watching them in Lake Alice on campus.
As Read told it, one day in Feb. 1973 he spotted a bull gator loitering in the lily pads. He befriended the gator, who he believed was the famed former mascot Albert, by feeding it pieces of meat. As the two became more comfortable around each other in the following days, Read began wading into the water to touch the gator. He grew brave enough to touch Albert on the snout with his shoe, and soon people began to remark on his unusual behavior and gather on the shore to watch. Read was quickly given the nickname “Gatorman.”
The crowds increased as Albert and Read spent more time together. Read began his eccentric habit of wearing a white Guardsman helmet emblazoned with “GATORMAN” underneath a picture of the school mascot. He could be seen at the lake’s edge, stripping down to a pair of cut-off jeans and jumping into the lake. The Gatorman earned notoriety by performing stunts like swimming with the gators, lying on Albert’s back and treading water nose-to-snout with the reptile.
He treated the gator more like a pet than a threat — he wowed onlookers as he rubbed his hands under its snout and underbelly. One of Read’s favorite tricks was pulling open Albert’s mouth with one hand while tossing a marshmallow into his toothy maw with the other.
There seemed to be more to the relationship than just stunts and tricks. Read gave interviews to newspaper reporters, describing the alligator as if he had feelings and was his best friend. He began referring to Albert as “my gator” and “my pet.” However strange, there was a bond between the two that drew more and more people to Lake Alice’s shores to watch the daily interactions between man and gator.
Gatorman and Albert became the stuff of campus legend. Many students and residents of that era remember Gatorman and his exploits.
Sadly, the owner-pet relationship came to an end one day when Albert swallowed a bottle. Read found the gator lying, lethargic, on the bank of Lake Alice. He brought the gator to a local doctor for surgery, but it was too late.
“He died in my arms during surgery,” Read said in a UF journalism college article. “People who have been close to animals know what it’s like losing a family member. I’ll miss him.”
Read moved away from Gainesville, and, since 1970, the university moved on to a costumed version of its famous reptile.