Norfolk attorney Peter G. Decker Jr. and his wife, Bess, were in Chicago in the summer of 1999 when they ventured across the city's annual "Cows on Parade" celebration.
The event consisted of hundreds of life-sized fiberglass cows painted by local artists and displayed in public spaces. The Windy City was once known for its extensive cattle stockyards.
"We should do this in Norfolk," Bess said to her husband. "With mermaids."
In the two decades since Decker proposed his wife's idea to local leaders, the mermaid has become the iconic symbol of Norfolk. Kevin Gallup, an Old Dominion University graduate, produced the initial 130 fiberglass mermaid castings that were auctioned and displayed throughout the city.
On Oct. 28, one finally went up at Decker's beloved alma mater. It was unveiled during a virtual webinar dedication.
"We can sometimes underestimate the impact a single idea, a single moment or a single day can have. This is one of those days," said Don Stansberry, interim vice president of Student Engagement and Enrollment Services (SEES). "It will go down in Old Dominion history as a day that started a new tradition."
The mermaid is located at Brock Commons, at West 47th Street and Monarch Way. It is named "Reign," as selected by students, to mirror the University's new chants of "Reign On" and "Monarchs Reign."
"Brock Commons has increasingly become a gathering place for students and others for concerts and community events," Stansberry said. "The water backdrop and ODU's Arts in the Village is the perfect location for 'Reign' to be seen by large numbers of people. 'Reign' will attract mermaid hunters from around the region as well as tourists from all over the world who are on the hunt for Norfolk's iconic mermaids."
Following the virtual dedication, the Student Government Association hosted a "Meet Reign the Mermaid - Claim Your Crown" event with giveaways including mermaid T-shirts, keychains and cookies. Big Blue and members of ODU's cheer and dance teams were a part of this celebratory event.
The mermaid will give students and visitors on campus another iconic place to take selfies and use #ODUmermaid on social media.
"We expect the mermaid to join the lion fountain as a campus gathering place," Stansberry said.
Peter G. Decker III, an ODU graduate who serves on the University's Board of Visitors, thanked President John R. Broderick, Stansberry and the SGA "for their tireless commitment to help bring Old Dominion University closer with the city of Norfolk."
"I know how proud and thrilled my father would be to see this beautiful mermaid," added Decker, whose dad, one of the most influential persons in the region, died in 2012. "It represents the city he loved, and now proudly stands at the alma mater he loved so much."
This project was a student initiative funded by the SGA.
The idea sprung from a conversation Giovanna Genard and Lisa Jones of ODU's Strategic Communication & Marketing Department had with Ellen Neufeldt, then-vice president for SEES.
Why, they wanted to know, doesn't the University have a mermaid?
Neufeldt didn't know but asked the student government leaders what they thought of the idea.
Then-SGA President Isaiah Lucas and others took over the project and played a major role in planning for the new mermaid.
"How can we as a campus grow in our connection and our relationship with the city of Norfolk?" Lucas said during the dedication. "And what better way to build that relationship, strengthen that relationship and connection, than taking the city's icon and the city's symbol and putting it on our campus? It allows our students, our faculty, our staff, our alumni to feel connected not only to the University but the surrounding community of Norfolk."
Art student Brooke Benham designed ODU's mermaid based on suggestions from other students. Lucas, Shelton Chapman Jr., Jasmine English, Alexander Evans, Markell Hill, Kayla Hill-Jones, Mariah Johnson and Alyssa Shepherd served on the SGA mermaid committee.
Artist Georgia Mason, who attended ODU and specializes in mermaid sculptures, fashioned the mermaid in the studio at her Norfolk home.
"Believe it or not, I've had people over the years ask me if there was an ODU mermaid," she said. "And now I can tell them, 'Yes there is.'"
Learn more about "Reign" the mermaid at www.odu.edu/mermaid.