Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Thurber dog Muggs ‘is getting his due’

COLUMBUS, Ohio – In a special spot under the shade of an ancient tulip poplar tree, the two men carefully lowered the 2,200-pound block of granite onto a spot they had dug specifically for it, this stone that bears a fairly unflattering epitaph:

“Nobody knew exactly what was the matter with him.”

But then again, those who know the story of Muggs — the infamously cranky dog that belonged to the family of Columbus’ beloved humorist and cartoonist James Thurber — would have been surprised if this long-delayed monument placed last week in the Thurber/Fisher family plot in Section 50 of Green Lawn Cemetery said anything nice at all.

Because let’s face it, Thurber’s short story, “The Dog that Bit People,” (from a collection compiled in 1933) didn’t make the Airedale terrier seem very endearing. It tells us how Muggs bit pretty much everyone in the family in the 11 years that Thurber’s mother, Agnes Mary “Mame” Thurber, had him — except for the matriarch herself. He bit the iceman. And the garbage man. And the mailman. And the vacuum-cleaner salesman. And apparently a mayor of Columbus.

You get the idea.

But when Muggs died in 1928, Mame Thurber was adamant that he would be buried in the family plot. Thurber wrote that he convinced her that was illegal (whether or not that was true at the time, modern-day cemetery officials don’t rightly know), so instead, Thurber buried Muggs alongside some local road whose location has been lost to time.

A statue of James Thurber’s cantankerous family dog, Muggs, is finally going up in Green Lawn Cemetery. Workers prepped the location near Thurber’s plot on August 10. Jay Biddle of the monument crew, left, and monument crew head Justin Shumway, right, level the base.

Although Muggs is long gone, a chance meeting two years ago at Green Lawn between Thurber’s relatives and Randy Rogers, voluntary president of the board of the Green Lawn Cemetery Association and its only paid employee as executive director, led to Muggs’ monument. The life-sized bronze statue of him, patterned after Thurber’s cartoon drawing and created by local sculptor Renate Burgyan Fackler, will soon honor him here.

“It was clear from the writings that Muggs wasn’t wired quite right, but Mame really wanted him in that cemetery,” said Sara Thurber Sauers, James Thurber’s 66-year-old granddaughter from Iowa. “It’s kind of nice to know that Muggs is getting his due.”

Sauers and her 89-year-old mother, Rosemary Thurber, hope to be in Columbus for a special unveiling and festivities later this month.

On Friday, Aug. 27, a Thurber 5K Dog Trot through the cemetery (leashed dogs welcome) will take place, and runners will get a sneak peek at the monument. Proceeds will be split to benefit Thurber House and to help cover the $2,000-plus cost of the granite. The $6,200 cost of the Muggs sculpture was covered by donations to the nonprofit Green Lawn Cemetery Foundation.

Then, on Aug. 28 at 11 a.m., the completed monument and statue will be unveiled to the public following a tour of the historic grounds that will start at Green Lawn’s Huntington Chapel. Thurber House representatives will be on hand with an exhibit about Muggs and Thurber.

Rogers was long familiar with the story of Muggs, and he first got the idea about a monument about four years ago. It would be a nice touch, he thought, but also would be practical. James Thurber’s unassuming grave is among the top two visitors most often ask for directions to (World War 1 flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker is the other), but it can be difficult to find. A highly-visible Muggs will no doubt make that easier.

So Rogers noodled the idea around in his head, but nothing much came of it. Then, one spring day in 2019, he was planting trees atop a hill in the cemetery and saw some people at Thurber’s gravesite. He went down to chat and found that it was Rosemary Thurber and Sauers.

“By happy coincidence, Randy Rogers … came over to introduce himself. During our conversation, he mentioned the possibility of a Muggs sculpture as an addition to the plot. I am so glad that it is now happening. We are particularly pleased with the resulting sculpture,” Rosemary Thurber wrote in an email from her home in Michigan. “And more than that, we know that my Grandmother Thurber would be so very happy!”

Meg Brown is director of children’s education at Thurber House literary center, where the Thurbers once lived, at 77 Jefferson Ave. She said the Muggs monument is perfect.

“The Thurbers always loved dogs and had many dogs over the years. But Muggs has his whole own story,” said Brown, who uses Muggs a lot in her programming to teach about personality and personification and the like. “There is this deep sense of humor and a kind of snarkiness to the dog. His story is fun and funny and relatable.”

Muggs was not, however, an easy project to pull off, Fackler said. Taking a drawing of a curmudgeonly Airedale with a sour expression on his face and a cartoon-style body and turning him into a 3-D sculpture proved, well, challenging.

“One leg is shorter than the other and even his ears don’t match each other,” said Fackler, who owns Chrysalis Sculpture Studio in New Albany. “But we aren’t trying to make it realistic. We are trying to make it Muggs, the drawing. Everyone who came by and saw it in my studio couldn’t help but smile.”

Last Tuesday, as crews set the stone and did a test run with Muggs so that they could drill the holes where the bolts will go to hold him down just before the unveiling, Fackler and Rogers stood there with prideful grins, kind of like parents watching their kid take the stage for a performance.

Of course, it’s easy for them to be happy because, after all, Muggs never bit them.

The other line carved into the monument, “Cave Canem” comes from the end of Thurber’s story, where he writes that after Muggs was buried, Thurber used an indelible pencil to write that phrase on a board there at the site. The Latin phrase means, appropriately enough, “Beware of dog.”

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