The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

January 14, 2009

Mike Pound: Percy plans a low-key birthday

By Mike Pound

Globe columnist

He had heard the story before, so he sort of nodded off while his spokesman talked.

Besides, he’s never really been one to toot his own horn. He’s never been a big talker, and he always seems a little ill at ease to be the focus of attention. Really, he’s happiest when he’s allowed to stay above the fray and watch other people, as opposed to them watching him.

But today is his birthday so, like it or not, Percy Katz is going to have to put up with a little publicity, which is why I was sitting in Brad Belk’s office Wednesday afternoon asking him questions while Percy slept in a chair next to Brad.

“Normally he’s down in the lobby,” Brad said. “The only reason he’s up here is because there is a draft down by the door.”

Percy — the mascot, marketing symbol and cat in residence at the Joplin Museum Complex — is celebrating his ninth birthday today. Brad, the executive director of the museum, said that in light of the tough economic times, Percy’s birthday party will be a low-key deal. In the past, the museum has thrown small parties and invited folks to stop by the museum, but Brad said no big celebration is planned this year. Although, if folks would like to drop off a donation on Percy’s behalf to the Joplin Humane Society or perhaps to Crosslines in Joplin, the museum staff would be glad to pass along the gift. Or, better yet, if you want to eliminate the middle man, you could just drop off the donation yourself. Either way, Percy would appreciate the thought.

Percy’s story began in December 1999, when museum staff members noticed the scrappy kitten holed up underneath the large, wooden mining tool that sits directly in front of the building’s entrance. Brad said there was just enough space at the bottom of the mining tool — known as a hand jig — for him to slide a plate of food for the kitten.

“I had just enough room to get a finger onto his forehead, but that was it,” he said.

Brad said other museum staffers fed Percy for a week or so until they got word of an impending snowstorm. Knowing that the storm could mean the end of the stray kitten, Brad managed to grab Percy and pull him out from under the hand jig. He took Percy into the museum, and the rest is pretty much history.

Of course, when Brad took Percy into the museum, he had no idea he was adopting a mascot. He had no idea he had found an animal that would become the face of the Joplin Museum Complex.

“We were just trying to rescue a kitten,” he said.

But after a few weeks of hiding Percy in the museum, Brad discovered that there was something special about him. First of all, Percy was incredibly agile. Look, most museums have a lot of valuable stuff lying around, and the Joplin museum is no exception. It wouldn’t do to have a frisky cat knocking over priceless artifacts. But from the beginning, Percy possessed an innate ability to navigate the museum without knocking things over. The other thing Brad noticed was that Percy had a knack for public relations. He’s the sort of cat who loves to meet people but who also knows how not to overstay his welcome. He’s the sort of PR cat who knows how to do the meet-and-greets required of him but also knows when it’s time to back off.

You might remember that a couple of years ago, Percy was in the news, through no fault of his own. First, Percy was diagnosed with cancer and went through two major surgeries under the hands of his personal physician, Joplin veterinarian Steve Walstad. When the cancer returned after the surgery, Percy was sent to Overland Park, Kan., for a third operation and then to the University of Missouri for radiation treatment. If that wasn’t enough, in 2006 Percy disappeared from the museum for 47 hours. The catnapping received about as much attention locally as did the Lindbergh Baby kidnapping. Thankfully, whoever nabbed Percy had a change of heart and returned him to his home.

Since then, Percy has wisely kept a low profile. Sure, he’s featured in local artist Linda Lindquist Baldwin’s new Belsnickle piece, but, really, that’s for a good cause. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the Belsnickle piece, which also features Linda’s dog, Snickles, is being donated to the Joplin Humane Society. See, that’s the kind of cat Percy is: low key, modest, quiet and always willing to lend a paw to help others.

But when he’s not posing for artists — there also is a portrait of him in the museum lobby — Percy can be found hanging around the museum greeting visitors and taking the occasional catnap.

Happy birthday, Percy.