The sight of the grave cheered me.
We had been in Illinois mere hours and had just begun a dusk circuit of my alma mater’s campus, but in addition to being sick sick, I was also already homesick. Though excited about the trip (my partner and I had not spent a single night away from the dogs in our three-plus years together and had not had a proper getaway in more than two years), parting with Reese and Miles was particularly hard; their advanced ages of 14 and 13 respectively are accompanied by the nagging fear that one of them is going to drop dead on the dogsitter.
As the Gothic, beturreted form of Eastern Illinois University’s Old Main rose from the rolling countryside, I felt touched with the warmth of home. But the full nostalgia rush didn’t hit until I saw the long-forgotten final resting place of Napoleon.
Nearly every institution of higher learning worth your parents’ money or your crippling, long-term debt has its Old Main and haunted dorm and storied stacks and quad of unsurpassable charm. But not every university has a Napoleon the dog.
Napoleon was a golden retriever mix who wandered onto campus as a pup in 1945. According to the book Eastern Illinois University Centennial, “‘Nap’ led a fascinating and honored life at Eastern. … He attended classes… he slept on the stage while Count Basie rocked Lantz Gym; he wore a cap and gown while riding in a convertible during the 1953 homecoming parade.”
The cover of a 1953 issue of Eastern Alumnus magazine depicts Napoleon front-row at graduation, and the 1959 edition of the Warbler, the school’s yearbook, bears an embossed image of Napoleon. A photo of Napoleon atop a bench before Old Main, near the very spot he would later be interred and memorialized, graces an official EIU postcard from the late 1950s. “A favorite mascot of nearly three generations of students, he seldom misses a concert, play, sports contest, or other important event,” the card notes. “According to campus folklore, he once received an honorary Doctor of Pet-a-doggy at Commencement.”
When Napoleon died in 1960, the student-run newspaper whose 100th anniversary I had returned to campus to celebrate, lamented, “Army can replace its mule, Navy its goat and Southern Illinois its Saluki, but Eastern will never be able to replace the one and only Napoleon.”
As friends, faculty and former coworkers caught up at the century mark commemoration for what became The Daily Eastern News (The DEN, as it is affectionately and appropriately known), I caught snippets of conversations between fellow alumi, most of whom arrived deep into the post-Napoleonic era.
“…toured the campus, stopped by Napoleon’s marker…”
“Did you see the Napoleon memorial?”
“Napoleon is still here…”
Where else could he want to be?
I couldn’t help but feel melancholy as Old Main faded into the background. Too little time with friends too little seen. But I was as grateful for the brief visit as I was for the welcome-home mauling and howling session (by all three dogs) that greeted us when we walked through the door.
Even the cantankerous Napoleon Bonaparte recognized the inherent and symbolic nobility of dogs. He related that he was moved by the loyalty of a dog who remained near the body of its fallen master, a soldier who died in battle: “Tearless, I had given orders which brought death to thousands. Yet here I was stirred, profoundly stirred, stirred to tears. And by what? By the grief of one dog.” The Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena relates the following tale:
“As we were walking about, Madame de Montholon drove away a dog that had come near her.—’You do not like dogs, Madam?’ said the Emperor.—’No, Sire’—’If you do not like dogs, you do not like fidelity; you do not like those who are attached to you; and, therefore, you are not faithful.’—’But …. but ….’ said she—’But …. but ….’”
“…repeated the Emperor, ‘where is the error of my logic? Refute my arguments if you can!’”