Handsome Dan: A 130-year-old legacy

The original Handsome Dan, 1889. Yale Manuscripts and Archive.
The original Handsome Dan in 1889 (Courtesy Yale Manuscripts and Archives)

Handsome Dan is one busy bulldog. In his role as Yale’s live mascot, he is one of the most visible and engaged members of the Yale community. When the pup isn’t “cheering on” Eli athletes from the sidelines, he’s appearing at university fundraisers, posing with U.S. presidents, starring in student films, and even helping out with Commencement, such as leading the procession with President Peter Salovey in 2017.

The history of Handsome Dan is rooted in over a century of 18 different bulldogs who have held the Yale mascot title.

Yale was the first college in the U.S. to adopt a live animal mascot, and to this day, Handsome Dan remains the most well-known. The legacy of Handsome Dan was established by Andrew B. Graves from the Class of 1892, a member of both the crew and football teams, who originated the Yale mascot name for the English bulldog. Legend holds that Graves had seen a bulldog sitting in front of a local shop, and purchased him from a New Haven blacksmith for just $5. However, Harper, also a bulldog, was recorded to be the predecessor of Handsome Dan.

In the early 1890s, Handsome Dan I was dubbed the “Yale mascot.” Before baseball and football games, the purebred bulldog was led across the field, and the ritual soon became a tradition at Yale’s major sporting events, meant to bestow confidence and prosperity upon the athletes. After Graves graduated and moved to England, Dan I stayed behind with Graves’ younger brother, fellow Yale undergraduate William Leon Graves, where Dan I continued to symbolize athleticism and confidence across campus. 

Upon his passing in 1898, the first-generation mascot was stuffed and sealed in a glass case in the Payne Whitney Gymnasium, where “he is the perpetual guardian of the treasures which attest to generation of Yale athletic glory,” according to former Yale history professor Stanton Ford. 

Yale went without a bulldog for three decades after Dan I’s death. But in 1933, the class of 1937 decided to change that. The class collected pennies from Yale students, and purchased a new bulldog, named “Dour Doruna,” who was christened Handsome Dan II. In the years since Dan II, 16 more bulldogs have been bestowed the title and role of “Handsome Dan” on the death or retirement of the previous mascot.

The university has also used the legacy of Handsome Dan to celebrate important milestones in the campus community. Bingo, the first and only female in the chain of bulldogs at Yale, was adopted when the university first admitted women in 1969, and she reigned during the 1970s.

Walter, Handsome Dan XVIII
Walter, Handsome Dan XVIII (Photo credit: Michael Marsland)

Yale’s latest bulldog, Walter — named after Yale football legend Walter Camp — was born on Sept. 23, 2016, and was introduced later that fall as Handsome Dan XVIII. Of the 18 Handsome Dans, Walter is the first Olde English Bulldogge, a different breed from the others, who were all purebred English Bulldogs and suffered from myriad health conditions due to their breeding. Walter’s immediate predecessor, Sherman, Handsome Dan XVII, passed away in the summer of 2016, most likely due to a heart attack, and Whizzer, Handsome Dan XIV, died from similar health conditions. At the request of Chris Getman, former caretaker of four Handsome Dans — Sherman, Maurice, Whizzer, and Louis — when choosing Walter, Yale made the switch to an Olde English Bulldogge, a new bulldog breed created in the 1970s as a more athletic and healthier alternative to the former mascots.

While the 130-year legacy of Handsome Dan is highly cherished by the Yale community, Walter represents hope for the future of bulldog breeding and for generations of Handsome Dans to come.  

Handsome Dan XVIII is currently in the care of a fellow Eli, Assistant Athletics Director of Facilities, Operations, and Events Kevin Discepolo ‘09.

It’s been an incredible honor being part of the long history of mascots at Yale. Walter and I have been able to meet so many great people and have attended unforgettable events. It’s fun to watch how much joy he brings to everyone,” says Discepelo. “Personally, some of my favorite moments are when he’s not being a “celebrity,” but just a regular dog, going for hikes and playing in the backyard at home.”

Handsome Dan XVIII has been featured in Sports Illustrated, Fox Sports, and Yale Alumni Magazine, and you can find Walter in his workplace at the Ray Tompkins House Office. 

To keep up with Walter, follow him on Instagram @handomedanxviii or on Twitter @handsomedan18!

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