TAMPA — Without ever taking a class at the University of Florida, a Tampa man became the football team's biggest cheerleader and most honored fan.
George Edmondson, better known as Mr. Two Bits, died Tuesday. He was 97. In August, a celebration of life will be held in Tampa where all Gators fans are invited, according to an athletic association spokesman.
For 60 years, Mr. Edmondson opened each Gators home game in his signature yellow button-down and orange-and-blue tie. With palms face down, he'd hush the crowd before calling out his signature chant:
"Two bits! Four bits! Six bits! A dollar! All for the Gators, stand up and holler!"
It began at a Gators game against The Citadel in 1949, in Row 83, when Mr. Edmondson said he felt upset seeing fans boo the inexperienced players. He stood up and did the chant, and kept doing it game after game.
"I can still see him across the field with that little sign that said 'Two Bits.' And there he'd go," said Steve Spurrier, the legendary Gators football coach, who also was a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback at UF.
Mr. Edmondson was a Navy pilot during World War II and attended The Citadel, but he adopted UF as his school. He and his wife, Jane, were made honorary alumni.
"The Gator Nation has always meant so much to us, and George and I have loved being a part of it," Jane Edmondson said Thursday in a statement.
In Tampa, he was an insurance salesman who for years made the two-hour drive to be in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on game days.
Mr. Edmondson's image and cheer became iconic. In 1970, he was named an honorary cheerleader and Mr. Edmondson started sponsoring a cheerleading scholarship in 1982. His whistle is a symbol on the cheer team's megaphones.
"His energy was incredible," said former Athletic Director Jeremy Foley. "I don't know what was in his DNA. No matter the score, no mater the temperature, no matter the season, George would never stop. He was the energizer bunny. He just kept going."
Leonard Levy, a Tampa businessman and Gators booster, knew Mr. Edmondson for 50 years.
"When he first started doing it, he was in the stands, he'd run to different sections of the stands. I'd kid him, I'd say, 'George, aren't you getting tired?' " Levy said Thursday. "Finally, they brought him down on the field. He never got tired. He took the whole crowd with him."
Hugh Culverhouse offered to pay him to cheer for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but Mr. Edmondson turned the offer down.
"You do this for the love of the game, the love of your school," he said in 2007. "It's from the heart."
In 1998, Mr. Edmondson briefly retired but was coaxed back by fans who missed him. He retired for good in 2008, the same year the Gators won their third national championship. The university threw him a block party to celebrate.
Foley said for generations of fans, the Two Bits cheer was part of the fabric of a Gators game. He said it's traditions like those that make college sports different than the NFL.
"George is the definition of tradition," Foley said. "No one else had George."
On social media Thursday, fans fondly recalled memories of cheering along with Mr. Edmondson in the stadium as kids, students and adults. Some shared pictures of their signed caps, T-shirts inspired by his cheer and even a customized "TWOBTS" Gators license plate. A handful suggested wearing yellow dress shirts in his honor.
Since 2013, celebrities and UF students have adorned the yellow button-down at each home game and led the stadium of nearly 90,000 in a cheer fans know well — Spurrier, Dara Torres, Danny Wuerffel, the 2006 and 2007 champion basketball teams and others. Before celebrity Gators took up the whistle, Albert and Alberta, the mascots, would wear the same yellow button-down and tie that have come to symbolize Mr. Two Bits to Gators fans.
UF President Kent Fuchs said no football game is complete without the cheer Mr. Edmondson brought.
"The way he lived his life is a testament to the power of loyalty, dedication, teamwork and not giving up when the chips are down, and that is a wonderful legacy," Fuchs said.
Edmondson is survived by his wife Jane, three children, three grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Times staff writers Martin Fennelly and Matt Baker contributed to this report, which also uses information from Times archives. Contact Romy Ellenbogen at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @Romyellenbogen.