Few dogs influence as many lives as the bulldogs fortunate enough to serve as Yale’s mascot, Handsome Dan. Sherman, an English bulldog who held the position until his passing a month ago, understood this opportunity quite well.
“I knew Sherman as a house pet, who was an expert on hugging your leg and stealing food and slobbering all over you and giving you sloppy kisses,” said Eileen Jennings MED ’73, who knew Sherman since he became Handsome Dan in 2007. “But when he represented Yale, he was a very different dog.”
Sherman became Handsome Dan XVII almost a decade ago, taking over for Mugsy, a local dog from Hamden who abdicated after nearly two years. Chris Getman ’64, who has been the caretaker of every Handsome Dan save for Mugsy since 1983, said that the fit was not right, as both Mugsy and his owner had a hard time adapting to the expectations set for the mascot. Mugsy’s owner was not affiliated with Yale, and Mugsy himself did not like crowds.
Getman resumed care of Handsome Dan when he adopted 6-week-old Sherman from Tennessee. The dog was named for Roger Sherman, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and treasurer for Yale, and M4 Sherman, a tank commonly used in World War II.
After becoming the face of Yale, Sherman took on roles from fundraiser — raising thousands of dollars for various charities — to cheerleader, supporting Eli athletes from numerous teams on the sidelines of games.
Quite the philanthropist, he was a regular at the United Way’s chili-tasting contest and Yale athletics’ bone marrow drive. For home football games, local charities auctioned off the right to walk Sherman into the stadium.
A particular highlight came when the dog sat for a portrait by former President George W. Bush ’68, who kept the original and made two copies: one that now hangs in Mory’s and another that raised $30,000 at a fundraising event in New York.
Sherman also featured extensively in calls for alumni donations. A video of him rolling around on the ground was sent to all Yale alumni older than 70-and-a-half years because the Internal Revenue Agency allows those seniors to give up to $100,000 a year to charity without paying tax. At Getman’s 50th reunion in 2014, his class alone raised over $500,000, and Getman estimates that total donations because of the video were well over $1 million.
The creativity did not stop there. Sherman once posed in front of the varsity captain’s fence, where Yale captains traditionally pose for pictures each year, to help during a campaign that asked donors who were “on the fence” to get their donations in.
“Dogs are wired to provide service, to give us what we need,” Jennings said. “And for Sherman, that was giving Yale what we needed.”
The dog’s other contributions to the Athletic Department included prominent attendance at all home football games; Getman said that there was hardly a game filmed that did not have a shot of Sherman trying to bite the camera as he attacked the cameraman. Unfortunately, he did not get to witness the Yale men’s basketball team make history in the NCAA Tournament this past March, as he was not allowed inside the arena.
“Meeting Handsome Dan is one of the signature experiences of visiting Yale,” said Steve Conn, Yale director of sports publicity, who said his office fielded many requests for a Handsome Dan appearance during Sherman’s life.
Getman and Sherman have also been present for some of Yale’s academic milestones. When the Canine Cognition Center opened in 2013, Sherman was there for the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
“When [Sherman] finally arrived, it was like Beyoncé had shown up,” said Silliman College Head Laurie Santos, who directs the Canine Cognition Center. “Students literally started screaming, ‘It’s Handsome Dan!’ and a couple of people rushed over to take selfies with him, but [Sherman] was used to all the attention and posed happily.”
Among his more personal accomplishments, Sherman was appointed a midshipman captain in Yale’s Naval ROTC. When the announcer at the ceremony asked if he had anything he would like to say, Sherman summed up his gratitude with a gleeful bark.
He also was appointed chairman of the board of canine ambassadors at the Center for Canine Behavior Studies. In that role, Sherman helped educate dog owners about which breeds they should own to reduce the number of canine euthanizations.
Sherman’s last event for Yale was this year’s Commencement ceremonies, where he made annual appearances. Though Sherman had a seizure in April, Getman said that the dog was in excellent health even on the day he died, up and about as usual.
“I think what was so special about Sherman was that you never saw anybody touch that dog and not smile,” Jennings said. “Because in touching him, you touched Yale … He stood for hundreds of years and hundreds of thousands of people, for ideas, for loyalty, for all these symbolic values that are so important to humans.”