Melvin Bradley, the man who knew more about the long-eared, broad-backed Missouri mule than probably anybody else, has died. He was 83.
Bradley, a University of Missouri professor of animal science from 1948 to 1990, died March 14 in Boone Hospital Center in Columbia, Mo., of complications after surgery.
The popular simile "stubborn as a mule," the professor maintained, is not well-founded.
"We call mules stubborn for their wisdom," Bradley told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1994, when he published his two-volume, 600-page book "The Missouri Mule: His Origin and Times," with photographs by Duane Dailey. "If we try to hurry them through any object of fear, they may not budge until they know it's harmless."
Bradley spoke from practical as well as scholarly knowledge. He was born on a mule farm near Kaiser, Mo., and by age 12 was working a "span," or team, of the nonreproductive crosses between a male donkey and female horse.
"We bred 'em and broke 'em and worked 'em and sold 'em, and I found that the mule has so much more personality than a horse," he said in 2001, when mules were being showcased at the Missouri State Fair in Sedalia. "A mule is highly intelligent. He will outsmart you."
Bradley also found that mules could and would work longer, harder and in greater heat than horses. They were used extensively in the 19th century for farm work, mining, drilling and pumping oil in Oklahoma and Texas, hauling borax from California's Death Valley and moving other heavy freight across rugged terrain.
Although Kentucky and Tennessee pioneered mule breeding, Missouri perfected the art, Bradley maintained, and developed "the finest mule heritage in the world." One reason was simply the state's location as the gateway to the west and the rail terminus from the east.
The single town of Lathrop, Mo., Bradley said, shipped about 350,000 mules to Britain for use in World War I. As machinery replaced beasts of burden, mule breeding and "skinning," or driving, declined in the 1920s and largely disappeared by the 1940s.
In his lifetime of research, however, Bradley discovered one military curtain call for the animal: U.S. forces employed 8,000 Missouri mules to move howitzers and other supplies over the rugged mountains in the Burma-China-India theater during World War II.
Bradley, who earned his bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of Missouri and a doctorate at Oklahoma State University, served in the Army during that war, and then settled down to teaching equine care and studying his much-loved mule.
Concerned that mule experts were a dying breed, he worked with Dailey, a University of Missouri agricultural photographer, to form the Missouri Mule Skinners Society in 1982. They crisscrossed the state for more than a decade, interviewing and photographing anybody they could find who had a tale to tell about mules. The result was their authoritative 1994 book.
After Bradley's urging, the Missouri Legislature formally designated the mule as the official state animal in 1995.
"It was a great day for mules," Bradley told the Kansas City Star Journal in 1997, "although most people in Missouri probably thought mules already were the state animal."
Bradley is survived by his wife of 57 years, Gloria; two children; two granddaughters; and one sister.