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When animals went to school

“One of your own number”

Donkey in the Law Quad.

Just another “unicorn in the garden.” (Image courtesy of the U-M Law School.)

Michigan’s fraternity houses have enjoyed no monopoly on animals. The halls of learning, too, have hosted their share of asses and pigs.

Probably the first large mammal to attend a U-M class was an aged, long-eared, good-natured donkey that appeared in the academic year 1859-60.

He went to a class in mathematics taught by George Palmer Williams, the first professor to convene any class at U-M. That had been in the fall of 1841. In his first years on the faculty, Williams taught courses in natural philosophy—the study of nature before the advent of modern science—but he had shifted to mathematics.

He was now a little past middle age, “of medium height, straight, square-shouldered, somewhat portly, with a large head and a heart much larger than his head.” Williams lived in a house on the Diag, one of several provided for the use of professors, and he taught in a classroom on the top floor of the building called South College, which stood roughly where the south wing of Angell Hall stands today.

One of his students remarked that Williams “always entered a room, whether it was a drawing room or his classroom, with a benignant smile that melted everybody and made everybody, even the frightened freshman, entirely at ease and at home.” Behind his back the students referred to him as “Punky,” for reasons now lost.

George Palmer Williams, U-M

George Palmer Williams, aka, “Punky” to his students. (Image courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)

Early one morning, Williams was at home preparing for his early class when Bill Jolley, a campus janitor, knocked on his door and told him there was a donkey in his classroom. Williams, who never hurried, finished his morning routine. In good time he proceeded to South College, climbed the stairs, and entered his room.

There he found his sophomores at their desks, heads down, diligently reviewing their notes. At the head of the room, tied securely, there was, indeed, a donkey calmly finishing a meal of hay spread across Williams’ desk.

The professor surveyed the scene for a moment, then smiled and said: “Well, young gentlemen, I am extremely delighted this morning to see that you have chosen one of your own number to preside, and consequently do not need me. You may take the next 14 propositions in geometry for tomorrow.

“Good morning!”

And he went back down the stairs.

President Tappan and the pig

It was one thing for a farm animal to show up in Punky Palmer’s classroom. It was something else to introduce one in morning chapel–especially when the Congregational minister presiding was Henry Philip Tappan, president of the University.

U-M President Henry Philip Tappan

President Tappan had a surprisingly good sense of humor. (Image courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)

In nearly 10 years at Michigan’s helm, Tappan had molded the fledgling frontier school to his vision of what a great American university might become. He had hired distinguished scholars to join the faculty. He had inaugurated a program of scholarly research. His diction was perfect. He carried himself with austere dignity. Students liked and respected him–from a cautious distance.

Among the president’s regular tasks was to conduct compulsory morning chapel for all students.

One morning, he entered the chapel through the east door. He noticed the students were unusually quiet. He scanned the room.

Across from him, seated quietly on its haunches by the west door, a pig was looking at Tappan.

The president removed his spectacles from his breast pocket, put them on, and took a closer look. Then he turned to the rest of the class.

“This sophomore has not yet presented to me his credentials,” he said. “He ought to be modest enough not to enter the chapel until he is duly installed as a member of the University. Now, if some member of the sophomore class will kindly open the door, I think his friend will depart in peace.”

The pig was invited out and chapel proceeded.

At the end of the service, Tappan remarked that he had been wondering how a pig had managed to get into the chapel–not an easy thing, either for a pig on his own or even for students accustomed to working with livestock.

“I am inclined to think,” Tappan said, “that in all probability, two friendly members of the second class from the rear [the sophomores] went out upon the campus, got down on their hands and knees on each side of the friendly pig, and he, thinking that he was among congenial company and among his kind, came right along with them into the chapel.”

The unicorn in the garden

Michigan Daily, April 28, 1954.

Michigan Daily, April 28, 1954.

Roughly a century after the pig went to chapel, there were repeated sightings of a unicorn in the Law Quad.

The best documented instance occurred on April 27, 1954, shortly before the annual Law School dance known as the “Crease Ball,” so named because it was the only point in the calendar when law students, a notoriously casual lot, could be seen with neatly ironed creases in their trousers.

The dance was put on by the Barristers, the Law School’s honorary society. That year, the man in charge of drumming up attendance at the Crease Ball was Ted Swift, a second-year known for his initiative.

Now, in this era, no student was allowed to enter the Law Quad’s inner courtyard, reputedly by order of Dean E. Blythe Stason, whose office overlooked the space. On fine spring mornings, the dean was known to open his windows and admire the unspoiled greenery below. So students referred to the space as “The Dean’s Garden.”

As it happened, an animated short film titled The Unicorn in the Garden was playing at the Michigan Theater. It was based on a popular short story by the humorist and cartoonist James Thurber.

So it was a startling coincidence when, on the morning of April 27, a law student on his way to an eight-o-clock glanced through a window to the inner courtyard and spied a large animal grazing on the well-tended lawn. It wore a sign urging attendance at the Crease Ball. A conical straw hat vaguely resembling the horn of a unicorn lay at the animal’s feet.

“I’ll be a son of a b—-,” the student was heard to say. “There’s a unicorn in the dean’s garden.”

By 10 a.m., the animal had been seen by most law students, a number of undergraduates, and a Michigan Daily photographer and reporter. The Daily’s editors splashed a photo and an article in the next day’s paper.

The animal was led away. The dean investigated but could not prove a case.

Ted Swift, head of Crease Ball publicity, wrote to the Daily, criticizing the paper for glorifying the sophomoric behavior of “some misguided and juvenile law student of limited mental capacities.”

Swift received a phone call from Dean Stason, who thanked Swift for his letter to the Daily and praised his mature judgment.

The story of the unicorn in the Law Quad borrows directly from James Tobin, “Michigan Law at 150: An Informal History (2009).” The original source is Ted Swift, “There’s a Unicorn in the Garden: An ‘Animal House’ Caper Revisited,” Law Quadrangle Notes, Fall 1981. The stories of the donkey and the pig were found in “Stories and Amusing Incidents from the Early History of the University of Michigan (1895).”


  1. Sharon Talbot Meyer - 1965

    Charming stories, and valuable glimpses into early years on campus!
    Thank you!


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