Animals have played special roles in Saint Leo campus life. Over the years, a varied menagerie has roamed University Campus -- or stood sentry.
This is the seventh in a series of feature stories, profiles, and anecdotes recounting the significance of important events or programs in the history of Saint Leo University, which is currently commemorating the 125th anniversary of its founding in 1889.
By Kim Payne, University Communications
Over the years, many pets and other animals have befriended the monks of Saint Leo Abbey, the sisters of Holy Name Priory, and the Saint Leo campus administrators, faculty, students, and staff. There are stories of favorite canines of the abbots, wrestling gators by one of the fathers, construction of an aviary for our feathered friends, and even a live lion on campus.
The Lion’s Share
For several years in the early 1970s, a live lioness was kept on campus in a cage behind DeChantal Hall.
Leo, as the lion came to be called, was obtained when she got loose after jumping a local citizen’s backyard fence.
Dr. Thomas Southard, then the Saint Leo president, saw the story about the lion in the newspaper and contacted the college’s chief of security at the time, Charlie Gordon, who previously was a Pasco County sheriff’s deputy. Instead of letting the lion be euthanized, Dr. Southard asked Gordon to arrange to secure the lioness so she could be kept as the college mascot.
The live mascot was escorted on a leash by the college plumber, John Hutchinson, to home club football games. He also hosed her down on hot days and kept her fed.
The cat had a big appetite and became costly to feed.
Chief Gordon again contacted his colleagues at the sheriff’s department, asking them to call the college when a cow was hit on the highway. Employees from plant operations would retrieve the bovine in a college pickup truck and transport it to campus where the college butcher would cut it up and freeze the beef, which was used to feed the animal.
At one point, someone gave the cat a bowling ball from the lanes housed at the Bowman Activities Center at the time. She swatted at her new play toy and flung it with her paw against the concrete block wall of her cage, creating two holes in each block on the bottom row after constant activity.
After several years, when the animal had grown considerably larger in size, she was donated to a wildlife park in the Ocala area.
In 1937, a new entrance gateway to Saint Leo was constructed. The highlight of the coral and cement gateway arrived on March 11, 1939 – two 500-pound concrete lions, five feet long by three feet high. They guarded the campus for three decades until the entranceway shifted with the construction of Lewis Hall.
Father Peter Sweisgood ’44, a popular philosophy teacher and dean of students in the 1960s, was the vigilant guardian of the two lion statues, which were regularly defaced and shot up by local hoodlums. During the prep school years, these incidents were typically caused by local sports rivals. One of the preferred methods of defacement was to put tires around the lions’ necks and set them ablaze.
Father Peter and his companion clerics, who were known for their zealous defense of the concrete lions, would guard the gate at night in an effort to catch the culprits.
Who Let The Dogs Out?
Fritz was more than just a mascot. In 1890, Abbot Charles Mohr’s first canine companion, Fritz, came to Saint Leo from Maryhelp Abbey via Father Benedict Roth. Fritz was one of seven so named dogs that Abbot Mohr had during his lifetime. An 1897-1898 catalog photo shows Fritz I, the college dog and “house guard.”
Over the years, nearly a dozen of Abbot Mohr’s dogs roamed the campus, including Roxy, a white terrier; Caesar, a bulldog; Arleine, another St. Bernard; and Arlene, a Great Dane.
Abbot Francis Sadlier was also a dog fancier, and later kept in succession the German shepherds Duke and Queenie.
Strong as a Horse
Throughout Saint Leo’s history, numerous equine from the abbey and monastery have called the grounds home. They included Abbot Mohr’s beloved horse, Tom, who was killed by a lightning strike while he grazed in the pasture near the college barn.Abbot Mohr was a dramatic figure on horseback, riding through the town in the company of his St. Bernard, Fritz VI.
Other campus equine were a pony named Jerry, a carriage horse called Maudas, and a gorgeous Palomino horse, Golden Velvet, who was nicknamed Gluefoot by the students because of her thin and disheveled appearance when she arrived in the summer of 1954. However, Father Peter doted on her and got her to eat and eventually fill out.
Birds of Paradise
Father Jerome Wisniewski, Saint Leo’s most celebrated historian of Florida’s past, was also known as “The Birdman.” In 1922, he introduced the first canary birds to Saint Leo, and the following year a South American “Polly-want-a-Cracker” bird was donated.
The principal bird, however, was actually a Brazilian macaw named Lordell, who came to be a school favorite.
In the tradition of Father Jerome, Father Damian DuQuesnay considered building an aviary. After obtaining some free parakeets at a local pet shop in 1956, Father Damian, with assistance from brother-novice Joseph St. Pierre, built some makeshift cages, and Father Damian arranged for the construction of a larger aviary. By 1957, a black and yellow toucan was the star of the bird collection.
See You Later, Alligator
In the spring of 1958, ground was broken for a new, three-story, 70-room wing for the abbey. The construction caused a disruption of the home of some unusual pets, two alligators that lived in an enclosed pen near the lakeside entrance. The gators were unique campus creatures that were visited frequently by the students who marveled at their roar.
During the abbey extension project, Father Peter became a champion of the alligators’ cause and assumed the responsibility to construct a new home for them in front of the citrus packing plant. He became known as the “Curator of Reptiles.”
The Elephant in the Room
A favorite student hangout was the Pink Elephant canteen and candy store located in a room on the second floor of Saint Edward Hall near Hogan’s Alley and Prefect Drive. It was named for a song popular in 1933 and sported a namesake statuette on the counter. In 1938, profits from the Pink Elephant canteen were used to help support the purchase of a 30-seat bus in which Saint Leo’s sports teams traveled to away contests.
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Kim Payne joined Saint Leo’s University Communications office in 2013 as the staff writer and media coordinator. A 30-year professional communicator, he has worked in environments ranging from corporate to health care to advertising agencies and non-profits. Outside the office, he and his wife, Sue, enjoy playing golf and are huge hockey fans. You can reach Kim in UC at 352-588-7233 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sources: Information excerpted from Pioneer College: The Centennial History of Saint Leo College, Saint Leo Abbey, and Holy Name Priory by James Horgan (Saint Leo College Press, 1989). Additional information provided by Thomas (Tim) Crosby ’67, Saint Leo College, former associate professor of physical education, assistant baseball coach, and head men’s and women’s tennis coach.
Next Issue: A “Peaceful Demonstration” Nearly Cancels the 1969 Commencement Ceremony