SALEM, Ohio — There’s this cow skull that is painted red, white and blue with two white stars — and, oh, the life it has led.
In the 1960s, young Joe Citro found the skull in a northeastern Ohio woods, with a perfectly centered .22-caliber bullet hole in the forehead, a sign the cow had been butchered. He brought it home, painted it and hung it on his wall. Then his older sister, Sandy, went to college in 1969, toting the skull, a parting gift from her young brothers.
Thus began a tradition that has become part of Citro family lore.
Over the decades, the skull has been passed from one Citro to another. It has graced dorm rooms and apartment walls in college towns all over the Midwest and even in Europe.
It has been in the background — as much as a big, red, white and blue cow skull can be — as Citro family members have piled up undergraduate degrees, master’s, Ph.D.s and other assorted educational achievements along the way.
It would be a stretch to say the family talks of the skull in hushed and reverent tones. But, over the years, it has come to mean something to each of them.
“It started out as a dead animal head,” Joe Citro said. Now, “if you want to be successful in school, take it with you.”
Talk with family members for any amount of time, and you start to hear themes: namely, the importance of family. The skull? It’s become an intrinsic part of their story, a talisman of sorts. How it came to be in the Citro family started with a family tradition. Joe remembers weekends spent exploring the outdoors around their Bainbridge Township home, hunting, fishing and mushroom picking. His father loved the outdoors and took his sons out often. It was on one of those trips that Joe found the skull.
Scroll down to see where the skull has been.
“It’s a symbol,” said Christopher, Joe’s youngest brother. “We’re all sentimental to varying degrees.”
His brother, Timothy, had the skull after Sandy. He studied at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio; Kent State University, in Kent, Ohio; Ohio State University, in Columbus; two schools in the Netherlands: Leiden University and University of Amsterdam; and Marycrest International University and Palmer College of Chiropractic, both in Davenport, Iowa. According to Joe, the skull traveled with Timothy during that time, who is now a chiropractor in Arizona.
Then, it was Christopher’s turn. More than a decade younger, he had watched his older siblings go to college, and he wanted to follow in their footsteps.
A self-described “professional college student,” Christopher’s most recent degree was a master of fine arts from Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, awarded in 2013. He started as an undergraduate in 1991 at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, skull in tow. His partner also graduated with a law degree along the way — no doubt aided by the skull.
The legend begins
A resident of upstate New York, Christopher published a book of poetry this spring. His take on the skull’s meaning has a decidedly literary flair: “It is part of our narrative of ourselves.”
Sandy, whose married name is O’Brien, is honest. “To tell you the truth, if I’d found it myself, I probably wouldn’t have taken it,” she said.
But it was a going-away gift from her young brothers.
“At first, I guess I was a little taken aback,” she admitted. But for her young brothers, the skull was a significant gift.
“It became special to me,” she laughs as she remembers. She hung the skull up for everyone to see when she got to Bowling Green. A resident of Ashtabula County, she recently retired from teaching.
“It sort of became a … unique thing in my dorm room.”
It almost didn’t though. There was a time when tiny spiders started appearing in her room. They were coming from inside the skull.
“When I realized where they were coming from, I thought, ‘Ew’, but then you just suck it up and clean it out,” she said. “Good thing I didn’t pitch it.”
The skull was on display for Joe’s youngest son, Luke, during his undergraduate years, starting in 2005 at Kent State, and, later, during his graduate work at Ohio State. He earned his Ph.D. in biophysics in 2013 and is now working for NASA at Johnson Space Center in Houston. He valued the skull because of the positive memories, the “good energy” — “not to sound hippyish” — and what it represents to his family.
“It was more like a tradition,” he said.
A “good portion” of his friends in college were Indian, but Luke said the skull was mostly just a conversation starter. (The Hindu religion considers cows to be sacred.)
Importance of education
If you dig a little, it seems to be about more than the skull of a dead cow.
Joe is self-taught. Although he never went to college, he had a construction business that specialized in large-scale projects in Florida, including some college buildings, he said. He and his wife, Diane, moved their family back to Ohio in the 1990s, settling in Scio. They have a farm and raise Labrador Retrievers and Cocker Spaniels.
The family emphasized learning, especially Diane, who was an educator. They home-schooled for a portion of their four children’s schooling, a time Luke remembers fondly. His parents taught that “everything is a learning opportunity,” Luke said. “I owe everything to them, there’s no doubt.”
‘Put a flag on it’
The Citros haven’t named the skull. The origin of the patriotic painted theme differs, depending on who you talk to. Joe said it might have been inspired by the 1969 film Easy Rider, about men who go on a cross-country motorcycle trip. Their father was a veteran of World War II and the Korean War. It might have just been a combination of that, the late 1960s and early 1970s vibe, hot rod cars and “put a flag on it or something,” Christopher theorized.
“It’s kind of a neat story,” Joe laughs. “I don’t know what it means.”
There’s still time to figure it out. For now, the skull hangs on Joe’s wall, waiting for the next college-bound Citro to continue the family tradition.
* * *
The skull’s travels:
- Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio
- Kent State University, Kent, Ohio
- Ohio State University, Columbus
- Ohio University, Athens, Ohio
- Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana
- University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas
- Marycrest International University, Davenport, Iowa
- Palmer College of Chiropractic, Davenport, Iowa
- Leiden University, Leiden, Netherlands
- University of Amsterdam, Netherlands
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