Dogs and My Academic Life

Kevin P. Reilly describes how, over his career, his three different dogs have each had the appropriate personality to help him get through that specific phase of his life.

October 28, 2021
The author’s dog Bridie

Although Harry Truman evidently never said it, this quote often attributed to him can be useful for college and university presidents: “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” If you want a friend in these jobs, get a dog.

I’ve had three over the course of my academic life: two Labrador retrievers and a Bernese mountain dog. All good friends indeed, all different characters, they each seemed to have the appropriate personality to help me get through the specific phase of my life and work they shared with me.

Fergus

The first dog to come into my life was Fergus, a black Lab. My wife, Kate, and I adopted him from the Saratoga County dog shelter in New York. Staff there estimated he was about 2 years old. He had been picked up wandering on a county road. They asked us if we wanted a “boy dog.” We said yes and bestowed upon him the name of a great warrior in Irish mythology. The meaning of the name “Fergus” in Irish and Scottish Gaelic derives from words for “man” and “force” or “vigor.”

Our naming turned out to be prescient. Gloriously unneutered, Fergus turned out to be a New Yorker who liked a fight. He especially enjoyed a good set-to with our neighbor dog across the street, Lucas, a mutt with a lean and hungry look. Their encounters frequently resulted in bloody ears and tails.

At the time, I was a squeaky new Ph.D. working for the New York State Board of Regents in Albany, N.Y. To make one’s way up the greased ladder of the New York State Education Department involved regular bureaucratic dogfights, some bloodier than others. My Fergus-like Irish warrior instinct, bolstered by my undergraduate degree from the University of Notre Dame, home of the Fighting Irish, served me well. In the course of 17 years and five different jobs with the New York regents and then the State University of New York system -- in a knock-heads mix of higher education, government and Empire State politics -- I learned the value of dogged persistence and the occasional bump and run.

Fergus was teaching me about such things along the way. He lived to the extraordinary age of 18, despite a brutal collision with a car that broke his right front leg clean in two. He never did die on his own. We finally put him down when we, not he, decided the pain was too much.

Fergus was our first adoptee, with us before we adopted any of our three children. After much intense sniffing, he welcomed our second adoptee, our oldest child, Liam, with warmth and attentiveness and a bit of sibling rivalry. When Liam was barely toddling, he would run to greet me at the front door when I came home each day from the academic wars. Fergus would always manage to get there first, having applied a gentle but firm hip bump to Liam that knocked him over and slowed him to a crawl, as they say about New York traffic.

Dudley

Our next dog was Dudley, an adoptee from the Madison Humane Society. The family, which now included our daughter, Adriana, and son Darvin, had moved to Wisconsin by then, where Kate and I worked at the UW. We had gone to the Humane Society’s dog shelter with the three kids to find another adult dog to bring home, with fond memories of the luck we had in finding Fergus in a similar place. But a female at the shelter had given birth to a large litter, and once the kids saw the puppies, I knew we would not wind up with another adult canine.

Dudley was his given name when we adopted him, a softer one than Fergus, to be sure. It refers to the type of yellow Labrador that has a pinkish nose. Dudley was less of a fighter, more of a “can’t we all get along” type than Fergus. He loved nothing better than trotting his way into a motley group of circling dogs at the dog park, nosing around until he got them stirred up and then leading them on a dash around the park.

Dudley was easier-going than Fergus -- calmer, more measured and thoughtful. He was our middle-age dog. He seemed comfortable with his place in the world, and at the same time, he was energetic and focused. In my roles as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin Extension and then president of the University of Wisconsin system, I had to be comfortable and stay calm working with every big-dog, medium-dog and small-dog character in the state, no matter how distempered they might be. In the president’s job, a distinguished cadre of independent-minded, alpha-dog chancellors of institutions of different breeds across the system reported to me. I had to provoke them into thinking it would be fun to work as a pack and follow my lead as we sprinted toward the goals of our Growth Agenda for Wisconsin strategic plan.

Henry Jordan, a storied defensive tackle for the Green Bay Packers, was supposedly once asked if Coach Vince Lombardi treated players of different races and backgrounds evenhandedly. Jordan replied that Lombardi treated them all the same: like dogs. I hope none of my chancellor colleagues would say I treated them like dogs, although I did sometimes feel them nipping at my heels. Like Dudley, who was with us for the nearly 10 years I was president, I tried to stay enough ahead of the pack to keep it moving forward.

University presidents, of course, regularly host official events at their residences, including receptions and dinners; small symposia, concerts and poetry readings; football brunches; and student, faculty and staff recognitions. At Brittingham House, home of the president of the University of Wisconsin system, students often staffed such functions -- waiting tables, bartending (if they were 21 or older) and parking cars. As the last guests departed, I liked to chat with the student workers to learn more about who they were, why they had come to the university and what their aspirations were. I soon found that the best way to get those conversations started was to let Dudley escape from our second-floor bedroom, where we kept him from getting underfoot during events, so he could charge down the stairs to greet the students. Sometimes it’s easier for students to talk with the president via the intercession of his intensely student-centered, student-sniffing dog.

Bridie

Bern, Switzerland, is distant from Labrador. Bridie, our Bernese mountain dog, is distant from Dudley, and even more from Fergus. Despite having an Irish name like Fergus did (“Bridie” is a nickname for “Brigid”), she could not be a more different personality. We got her as a pup shortly after I stepped out of the Wisconsin presidency. In so many ways, she is the perfect postpresidency dog. She is no chase, chomp and bring-it-home type, but rather a come, let’s smell the roses fully (before we pee on them).

The Bernese breed was used as cow herders and cart pullers in the Swiss Alps. Bridie wants to keep all the animals, including the humans, together and move things along at a slow, steady pace. Although a burly dog who can sometimes forget her own strength, she could not be kinder or gentler with our young grandkids. She gets truly riled up only in winter when they pile on a snowy sled and suddenly all slide away from her at ice speed down our side hill. She’s generally a nonchalant girl who takes the long view, perhaps with that next valley over the Alps in mind.

Bridie has plenty of energy that she summons quickly if the spirit moves her, but she is not nearly so eager to please as were the Labs. Pondering everything thoroughly before responding to commands or pressures of the environment is her style. “Don’t bother me with the small stuff,” she seems to be saying. As president emeritus, one has the luxury of focusing on the big stuff -- the gift of more time to reflect, teach and write rather than being pulled in a hundred different directions seven days a week. “Don’t react to every dog whistle” is good counsel you can give yourself and actually take, once your presidential ears no longer need to be perennially perked up.

So the dogs in my life -- Fergus, Dudley and Bridie -- have charmingly occupied my home and my head. Perhaps one of the hazards of the academic life is to be looking constantly to the past to mine meaning and project the future, missing too much of the texture of the moment. Smart as we college and university folks know we are, we sometimes need dogs to remind us that is not wise. As Mark Doty’s poem “Golden Retrievals” puts it, with his dog addressing him:

Either you’re sunk in the past, half our walk,
thinking of what you can never bring back,

 

or else you’re off in some fog concerning
------ tomorrow, is that what you call it? My work:
to unsnare time’s warp (and woof!), retrieving,
my haze-headed friend, you.

Now I have to stop this writing because Bridie wants to take me for a walk.

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Kevin P. Reilly is president emeritus and Regent Professor at the University of Wisconsin system.

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