It was the last day of classes at Mt. Washington Elementary School and the sunny playground was raucous with excited hoots and hollers, cheers and jeers as the sixth-graders humiliated the teachers, 17-12, in the traditional big baseball game.
Everyone was caught up in the excitement except for one solitary figure. He lay slumped in the shade 40 yards away, his liquid brown eyes downcast, his tongue lolling lugubriously, drooling disconsolately into the dust.
The sad and lonely one was named Chief. He'd seen all this many times before and he knew the rowdy end-of-school ballgame meant a long and dreary summer with no kids to protect, no kindly teachers to bring him tasty bones.
Chief, as you may have figured out by now, is a dog. A very special dog.
At Mt. Washington, the German shepherd-collie-Labrador-St. Bernard blend is kind of a living legend. He sort of owns the place.
Patricia McDermott, a former teacher at Mt. Washington, who now works as a master teacher at Cahuenga Elementary School, is partly responsible for the legend. When she talks about Chief--as she did Wednesday while visiting the legend and her former pupils--she says things like: "He is a very smart dog--he has an IQ of 2,000."
Chief, at that moment getting his belly scratched by a fourth-grader, wagged his tail modestly.
Then McDermott related a few anecdotes that have gone into the making of the legend:
- There was the time that some preschoolers got hold of some poster paint and painted Chief red all over.
"It took two weeks for us to get the paint off," she recalled.
- The rainy Christmas Eve, two years ago, when Chief accidentally got locked in one of the classrooms. A security guard discovered him, but didn't have a key. A series of phone calls followed and, at last, cafeteria manager Berta Sosa, who lives in the neighborhood and had a key, volunteered to interrupt the holiday evening to set Chief free.
- There was, of course, the time a Very Important Person from the school district offices downtown was in the auditorium making a speech to the students when Chief, obviously bored with the proceedings, ambled across the stage and departed, to the delighted giggles and applause of the entire assemblage.
- And, finally, Chief's sure, lens-louse instinct for the camera. Whenever the photographer shows up to take the class pictures, he trots through the halls to take his place in the front row, and even makes a doggy smile when the photog says, "Cheese."
There are umpteen other Chief stories, maybe not thrilling by the standards of the old Lassie television show, but plenty interesting to the kids who actually know the central character.
"I think he's nice," said fifth-grader April Cleaver. "He takes care of our school."
Navi Patton, a second-grader, agreed that Chief is pretty neat. "And he never bites," she said, "and he doesn't yell at me."
Jeannine Patria, the sixth-grade teacher who took over the care and feeding of Chief when McDermott moved to Cahuenga last year, said that as far as she knows, the big, soulful-eyed dog is unique: no other school in the district has its very own dog.
In fact, the old fellow (he's in his teens) really doesn't belong to the school, nor does the school (as Chief seems to think) belong to him.
His owner, Chris Carter, lives catty-corner from the school, but since about 1976 or '78, Chief has spent most of his waking and a good many of his sleeping hours on campus.
Enforcer of Decorum
He performs his duties faithfully--principally chasing off strange dogs and even weird people who don't belong on the school grounds, and showing up promptly at 8:15 a.m. to see that everyone behaves with dignity during the pledge of allegiance to the flag.
Sometimes, Chief even helps recruit new teachers.
Patria recalled that when she was deciding which school she wanted to teach in about five years ago, she came to Mt. Washington and found Chief relaxing in the principal's office.
"I decided then that anyone who had a dog sitting in the office--well, that had to be the kind of person I wanted to work with."
In return for his dogged devotion, Chief gets to do interesting things like drink from the huge classroom bowl, bothering the goldfish and crawfish living therein. He also gets dog biscuits twice daily, and countless brushings, pattings, huggings and scratchings from the kids and teachers he watches over.
Principal Barbara Gutierrez admitted that she sometimes frets about permitting a dog to act as if he owns the school, but said she wouldn't dare try to change the arrangement. You just don't mess with a beloved living legend.
"I know," she said, "that the principal would go before the dog."