Man’s Best Friend
By Kim Clarke
I retain his photograph and I never look at it without experiencing in my heart a gush of tenderness.– President Henry Philip Tappan
Chapter 1 Big Man on Campus
He was the first to live in the President’s House and was known for his daily strolls across the young University of Michigan campus, stopping in classrooms, visiting the chapel and always taking time for students.
Some paused as he passed and admired his powerful gait. He projected “a lordly tread and bossed the campus.” Still others simply moved out of his way because of his quiet but imposing nature.
This was Leo, a huge, yellow-coated bullmastiff. His owner, Henry P. Tappan, was the University’s inaugural president and guided the institution starting in late 1852. But it was the giant dog who commanded Michigan.
“On the campus,” the Michigan Alumnus once wrote, “Leo was king of beasts.”
He also ruled his master’s heart.
Chapter 2 “We Understood Each Other”
Henry Tappan was a university president, a philosopher, a Congregational minister, a father, an oenophile, and an animal lover.
From the giant Leo to a tiny pug, Tappan had a soft spot for dogs. They were a constant in his life. “To me,” he wrote, “the relations between us and the domestic animals is a subject of deep interest and a home seems hardly complete without them.”
Leo was just one of several dogs Tappan owned, although letters and recollections make it clear the mastiff was a favorite. During his presidency, and in addition to Leo, Tappan kept another large dog, Buff, and could be seen walking the farm-like grounds of the campus with both creatures at his side. A student recalled, however, “this second canine companion of the president never enjoyed the favor in student circles” that Leo did.
When he wrote about the creatures in his life, Tappan did so as if he understood an animal’s inner soul. He said of one family dog: “He had most beautiful and expressive eyes and was very intelligent and had a great deal of human feeling.”
The love of animals went beyond dogs. Tappan said he hated to have chickens and pigs slaughtered for food. While living in Berlin after leaving the Michigan presidency, he became a frequent visitor to the local zoo and felt a connection with the inhabitants.
“There is a huge old elephant here in the Zoological garden whom I became very fond of after a short acquaintance,” he wrote in 1865. “I fancied we understood each other. He certainly gave me many knowing nods.”
Those same knowing nods had been common on the U-M campus, with students acknowledging Tappan’s special connection with Leo as the pair made their rounds.
Chapter 3 Leo at Large
Leo was everywhere. When Tappan left the President’s House for any of the handful of buildings on campus, he did so with a walking stick in one hand and Leo at his side. He was an aristocrat and carried himself that way – upright, head held high, his broad shoulders bearing what his grandson called a “vigorous and commanding air.” One imagines Leo striding alongside with a similar air of confidence. One alum recalled the dog “trotting along like a four-legged lord, his tail aloft like the spar of a ship, his Leonine head erect, crowning a mien conscious of a right there were none to dispute.”
When the president taught his philosophy course, Leo joined him in the classroom, sleeping on the teaching platform. He ventured far from the center of campus to the grounds of the University’s new observatory. There, in one of the earliest photos of the University, a dog believed to be Leo is seen next to Professor Franz Brunnow, the Observatory’s first director and Tappan’s son-in-law.
Back on campus, at mandatory morning chapel services, the big dog was made to stay outside while Tappan went through the daily devotionals with students. But sometimes the separation was too much.
“As a rule the dogs, Buff and Leo, were kept out of the chapel service; but occasionally, in their devotion to their master, especially if there was much cheering on the part of the students, they invaded the chapel room,” wrote Tappan’s biographer, Charles M. Perry. “Sometimes, after they thus made entrance, they became so restless that services had to be interrupted to put them out.”
The mastiff is known both for its size – a male can reach 230 pounds – and its gentle nature. The breed is particularly loyal to, and protective, of its human family.
And so it was Henry Tappan to whom Leo turned one day in the classroom after an anonymous student had tied the dog’s front paw to his head as a prank. Crippled and humiliated, Leo limped toward his master, and Tappan obliged him by quietly untying the animal and soothing him with gentle words. Leo licked his master’s face. For the next half hour, with a hand on Leo’s giant head, Tappan held forth on the nature of the canine soul. He spoke to Leo and only Leo.
“There was more than one member of the class who entertained the belief that Leo understood it all much better than himself,” wrote alumnus Watson Ambruster.
Recalled Isaac H. Elliott, a member of the class of 1861: “[Tappan] had no patience with pretense and hypocrisy, and scorned unmanly acts. It was a liberal education even for the stupid to be slightly acquainted with him.”
Chapter 4 Leo and Fido
Leo had one nemesis on campus, and it was a four-legged bundle of yap known as Fido. Anyone who has owned or encountered a tiny terror with a Napoleon complex would understand the description of Fido: “He was a spirited observer, full of protest if anything went wrong in the field of his vision.”
Fido’s owner was Professor Louis Fasquelle, a native of France who taught German and French. Just as Leo accompanied Tappan to class, Fido could be found in Fasquelle’s classroom, resting nearby as his master lectured. When he wasn’t napping, he was barking, with Fasquelle always shushing him: “Fido, Fido, hush.”
Nothing stirred Fido more than the sight of the giant mastiff who sauntered about the campus as if he owned it. “He was always at war with Leo and always got whipped,” recalled alumnus Roswell B. Taylor, “yet anywhere and at all times he was the attacking party.” (It didn’t help that Tappan and Fasquelle did not care for each other.)
One day Fido was in Fasquelle’s room on the second floor of Mason Hall, one of U-M’s first two classroom buildings. From Fasquelle’s platform, Fido had a view overlooking what would become known as the Diag. Below him, walking in his usual lordly manner, came Leo. Instinct overtook common sense and Fido flung himself out the open window, determined to finally crush his archenemy.
“Fido sailing out into mid air, suspended between earth and heaven, saw his mistake, his wrath changed to fright, and he commenced ti-yi-ing for dear life. His tail would certainly have been between his legs had he known where they were,” recalled Taylor. “The proud Leo stood for an instant rooted for a fight, but as Fido came nearer, both courage and philosophy failed him, and wheeling, with a complementary trail of ti-yi’s, he made a brown streak for the Tappan domicile.”
Fido was not physically hurt. Leo’s spirit, though, was nicked; after that day, a bird swooping overhead would cause him to cower. And he avoided parading past the east side of Mason Hall.
Chapter 5 “Love is Indestructible”
Leo died in the summer of 1863, and Tappan buried his beloved friend in the garden of the President’s House. It was a terrible time in general. The Civil War was raging, with tens of thousands killed at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. And Tappan’s career at Michigan was over, crushed by a Board of Regents that had lost patience with what they saw as his pomposity and insistent embracing of German universities – a model of higher education he tried to implement at Michigan.
In the months that followed his firing, Tappan said he felt the spirit of Leo with him. He “often comes up before me when I sit alone and he seems to lay his head on my knee again and to look up into my face with his gentle knowing eyes, and I feel as one feels when he recalls the tender memory of a departed friend.”
Nearly two decades later, Tappan still had Leo on his mind. He was living in Switzerland, where he and his wife Julia had spent most of their days after leaving Michigan and the United States in the fall of 1863. And they owned a dog, a young St. Bernard named Porthos that stayed close to Tappan. “He is my constant companion, lies under my table, goes with me everywhere, and would sleep with me if I would let. He is very affectionate and intelligent. He is very companionable and I talk to him a great deal, and he seems to understand me.”
It was September 1881 and Tappan had two months to live. He was taking a moment to write a letter to Ann Arbor and Henry Simmons Frieze, a Latin professor then serving as U-M’s acting president while James B. Angell was in China as a U.S. diplomat. Frieze’s wife, Anna, had mailed Tappan dried leaves taken from the ground covering Leo’s grave at the President’s House.
“I feel much touched by the tender care of Mrs. Frieze in planting foliage and flowers over my old dog’s grave,” Tappan wrote. “I retain his photograph and I never look at it without experiencing in my heart a gush of tenderness that strengthens my faith that ‘love is indestructible’ whether to man or beast.”
* * *
In 1912, graduates from an earlier era put out a call to honor U-M’s first president. They were known as Tappan’s Boys, alumni who learned under the first president and held him in the highest regard. (“What a man: He had that indefinable thing called presence,” one of them explained.)
With Alumni Memorial Hall newly opened at the northeast corner of State Street and South University Avenue, Tappan’s Boys wanted a bronze relief of their mentor to display in the new building. The alumni would hire Austrian-born sculptor Karl Bitter to create a life-sized image of the president. And he would not be alone.
“It is proposed to make a low relief of Dr. Tappan standing, as if about to take a walk with his old dog Leo at his side. Possibly in no other form would the monument so vividly bring back to mind the majestic presence of the great Chancellor.”
Today, the Tappan Memorial – the president in full stride, with Leo alongside him – is on display in the foyer of Tappan Hall. Next door is the President’s House, and the yard where Leo is forever at home.
Sources: Henry Philip Tappan, philosopher and university president, by Charles Milton Perry; A Creation of His Own: Tappan’s Detroit Observatory, by Patricia Whitesell; “One Reminiscence,” by R.B. Taylor, Michigan Alumnus, March 1895; “Reminiscences of Dr. Tappan,” by Watson Ambruster, Michign Alumnus, October 1901; “The Humiliation of Leo,” Michigan Alumnus, November 1901