Jerry the Bulldog
Summer normally is a quiet time on a university campus, but dozens of people fill the lobby of Brown Hall at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville late on this hot Monday afternoon. They’re here to celebrate the fourth birthday of a bulldog. He’s not just any bulldog, mind you. He’s Jerry the Bulldog, which the school’s Student Government Association has designated the official campus ambassador.
The story of Jerry goes back to the early years of Arkansas Tech, which originally was the Second District Agricultural School following the passage of an act by the Arkansas Legislature in 1909 to establish four district institutions. The other three district schools went on to become Arkansas State University at Jonesboro, Southern Arkansas University at Magnolia and the University of Arkansas at Monticello. Russellville was chosen as the site of the Second District school following a spirited competition with
Fort Smith, Morrilton and Ozark. Interested cities were required to pledge at least $40,000 and 200 acres. Russellville threw in free water and electricity for three years.
The nationwide movement for such schools was led by the Farmers Education and Cooperative Union, which was dedicated to slowing the decline of rural life in America. The school initially served high school-age students. The Second District Agricultural School opened in the fall of 1910 with 186 students, and had grown to 350 students by the fall of 1913. In February 1925, the Legislature changed the name of the Second District Agricultural School to Arkansas Polytechnic College. William O. Young served as the business manager at the school from 1917 until late 1941. In the mid-1930s, he had a bulldog named Jerry.
The Young family has been associated with Tech for a century. William O. Young had a fatal heart attack while quail hunting in the days following the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. His son, Robert A. Young Sr., went to work for the school in 1942 and served as what would become known as the vice president of administration until his retirement in 1984. Robert A. Young Jr. is a retired Russellville dentist who continues to be an ardent supporter of the school and its athletic teams.
Particularly fond of the first Jerry were members of National Guard Battery F. That’s why ROTC students escort the current Jerry at Tech athletic events. A 1930s article in the student newspaper, the Arka Tech, said the original Jerry showed “determination” and had only one bad habit—chewing on shoes. A Feb. 26, 1936, article said Jerry was “always present at anything of importance at the armory,” which hosted home basketball games at the time. When Jerry died in late 1937, an Arka Tech headline read: “Campus loses mascot in passing of Jerry.”
“My grandfather lived just across the street from campus,” Robert A. Young Jr. says. “Jerry would wander over to his office at 11:30 a.m. each day and stay until 5 p.m.”
Tech history professor Tom DeBlack, who recently completed a book on the school’s history, describes both Jerrys as “the most popular animate objects on the campus.”
Times haven’t always been easy at Tech. DeBlack writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “The onset of the Great Depression adversely affected the already precarious financial condition of the state’s institutions of higher learning. … Because of financial difficulties associated with the Depression, the Legislature had discussed abolishing the agricultural schools it had created barely 20 years earlier.” More problems came with the onset of World War II when males joined the armed services. Tech’s enrollment dropped to 133 students in the fall of 1943. Empty dorm space was used by members of the Women’s Army Corps and naval air personnel who trained there.
In recent years, Arkansas Tech has been among the fastest-growing colleges in the region with more than 12,000 students now on campuses at Russellville and Ozark. The campus biography of the modern Jerry says he “represents an admirable characteristic that has defined Arkansas Tech for more than 100 years— persistence.”
Several years ago, Sam Strasner, Tech’s director of university relations, came across the story of Jerry and decided to revive an old campus tradition. Strasner obtained a bulldog puppy from a breeder in Oklahoma in September 2013. After a month of training, Jerry came to a meeting of the Student Government Association, whose members promptly proclaimed him as the campus ambassador. Tech’s athletic teams had become known as the Wonder Boys in the 1920s following a newspaper description of its powerful football squad.
“It’s a great team name, but we never really had an object toward which Tech students and alumni could express affection,” Strasner says. “It’s hard to hug a newspaper story. Now we have Jerry.”
Jerry lives with Strasner and his wife Heather. The dog averages about three days a week on campus during the school year. He attends athletic events, visits students and even greets prospective students and their parents. At the birthday party, people line up to pet Jerry and have photos taken with him.
Strasner is hoping there won’t be a 76-year break between bulldogs this time around. He named the new ambassador Jerry Charles Young and is hopeful there’s a Jerry Charles Young II, a Jerry Charles Young III, and many more bulldogs in Arkansas Tech’s future.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson’s column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
He’s also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.