City Paper is not for tourists
Jimmy Stallings has made remembering FDR’s best friend his pet project.
You’ll never see Jimmy Stallings without the Seal.
It’s not as if you could miss it, anyway. Every shirt this talkative, jolly, gray-eyed 44-year-old wears has it: a 3-inch circle just above the left pocket. Every shirt. You shake the man’s hand, you try to look him in the eye, but you can’t help yourself. You just have to stare at the Seal.
It’s kind of like the Seal of the President of the United States, except that it’s not. It’s got the same design, with the same ring of stars. But in the middle, instead of that nasty cuss of a bald eagle, there’s a dog—a little black furry dog, holding bones in his paws instead of arrows and an olive branch. There are more bones fanning behind him where the eagle’s feathers would be. And the dog’s got this crazy-happy look on his face as if he’d just stepped out of some Saturday-morning cartoon, and there’s another little furry dog silhouette at the bottom. This is what, exactly?
“Thesealofthepetofthepresident,” Stallings says too fast.
“The Seal of the Pet of the President,” he says again. “I own it.”
Stallings developed the Seal almost five years ago with 24-year-old illustrator Israel Pinto, and he’s not shy about putting it on anything you ask him to. The Seal comes on stickers and folders, on button-down shirts and sweat shirts and blankets. Some of the players in those White House T-ball games have it on their uniforms. It even serves as the face of a Mont Blanc watch, available with or without encrusted diamonds. “I have hospital doctors who send me their scrubs, and they have me put the Seal of the Pet of the President on the scrubs,” Stallings says. “It’s just amazing.”
But the Seal is only the tip of the whisker, so to speak. For though Stallings loves dogs, he truly adores just one breed: the Scottish terrier. And for Scotties and their fans, one dog stands head and squared-off snout above them all: Fala.
Fala, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous companion, the subject of movies and key chains and Republican attacks. Fala, about whom Roosevelt gave a speech in September 1944 that might have cinched his fourth-term election. Fala, whose statue is easily the most popular part of the FDR Memorial on the National Mall. Before Barney or Buddy, before Millie or even Checkers, there was Fala, the original pet celebrity of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Old-timers still tell Stallings about seeing the dog hopping through the Rose Garden snow. But he wants everybody else to know about Fala, too. Not only did he make the dog the centerpiece of the Seal, he also arranged for the reprinting of Margaret L. Suckley and Alice Dalgliesh’s 1942 book The True Story of Fala.
Then he and Pinto developed two coloring books: 1997’s My Story: The Official Fala Coloring Book and the brand-new How to Draw Fala—both from S&P Publishing, which Stallings founded in 1996 when others weren’t interested in republishing The True Story of Fala. The books are top sellers at the FDR Memorial’s gift shop, and Stallings passes them out at schools and at D.C.’s Children’s Hospital and at women’s shelters. He also gives them free to customers of his carpet-cleaning business. Heck, he’ll give one to anybody he sees walking a Scottie on the street.
Stallings has been to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, N.Y., too, and read the thousands of letters people sent to Fala. Even the White House refers people with questions about the little guy to him.
“There’s a lot out there on the dog,” Stallings says in wonderment, almost as if he didn’t have anything to do with all this.
Ninety third-graders, who a minute ago were wriggling like worms, have fallen completely quiet, and they’re all reading a book. Stallings has worked his magic.
He has taken off from his job to make a Friday-afternoon presentation about Fala at St. James Catholic School in Falls Church, Va., and it’s something of a homecoming for him. Stallings has always lived in Falls Church, and he attended St. James for Grades 1 through 8. He has just given each student a copy of My Story, which each flips through eagerly.
By Stallings’ estimation, he’s spread the word on Fala to about 2,000 area students in classrooms over the past three years, as well as to kids at Zany Brainy stores from Virginia to Pennsylvania. He starts off with the coloring book and an official FDR Memorial brochure and then asks the kids what they know about presidential pets before moving on to Fala. Most have heard of Barney, who is the Bushes’ Scottie, and Buddy, Clinton’s late Labrador retriever who ran into the road and was hit by a car. (“Sometimes I use Buddy to talk about pet safety,” Stallings says later. “As in fencing and leashes.”) Today, the kids want to know if Fala is dead (yes, he died in 1952 at age 12), and where he’s buried (in Hyde Park, at the feet of Franklin and Eleanor).
Next, Stallings shows a 10-minute film called Fala at the White House, which was used to sell war bonds in the ’40s. Stallings, of course, unearthed the film at the National Archives and paid for it to be cleaned up and transferred to video, “which cost a couple thousand,” he says. Fala at the White House is told from the dog’s point of view, and the kids seem interested despite its corniness. (At one point, Fala trees a squirrel, and when the rodent grumbles back, the dog says: “Must be a Republican.”) Afterward, Stallings’ assistant, Maxine Hayashi, reads the coloring book aloud to the kids, who follow along raptly.
But a buzz starts—and then explodes into shouting—when Hayashi goes around a long table and brings out her own two Scotties: the black, Falaesque Tuffy and the wheat-colored RRazzy. For a second, all you can see over the sea of children’s heads is two tails nervously twitching. Then Stallings lifts RRazzy and carries her like a baby as a dozen little hands start touching her. “RRazzy only bites third-graders who are bad!” he warns. The small dog is incredibly well-tempered but growls when one boy pulls on her ear. “I think we’ve found one!” he says as the kids laugh.
Stallings put together his Fala presentation after he took My Story to a College Park, Md., teachers’ conference in the summer of 1997. The teachers asked him to come up with a study guide for fitting the book into their curriculum. “It was tied into field trips to visit the FDR Memorial,” he says. “I worked with a couple people at the Park Service so a park ranger would take the children around on a special tour, and then the kids would get a letter from the president. From that I got a lot of interest [from area schools].”
It’s almost final-bell time, but the kids are still swarming Stallings, asking him to sign their books and come back soon with How to Draw Fala. He usually does return, but also with a quiz, with questions such as “Why are there 32 pages in the coloring book?” (Answer: FDR was the 32nd president.) “The only person who ever came back to St. James when I was here was John Glenn,” he says, signing his name and then “Class of 1970” underneath.
The odd thing about Stallings is that he didn’t grow up with Scotties—and he doesn’t even own one now. (He’s waiting for RRazzy to have puppies.) His ex-father-in-law introduced him to the breed about 15 years ago, and Stallings eventually inherited his Scottie.
“The dog hated my mother-in-law,” he says. “Just hated her. And the feeling was mutual. And at my father-in-law’s funeral, the first thing my mother-in-law said was, ‘Well, I’m going to put the dog to sleep.’ And so I took the dog.”
Stallings instantly became a Scottie person. And when a politics and history buff becomes a Scottie person, his thoughts naturally turn to Fala. And through Fala, to FDR.
“My respect for FDR has grown tremendously,” Stallings says. “And I think FDR used Fala tremendously, especially with that Fala speech, which was just a killer.” (Among other things, Republicans had accused Roosevelt of leaving Fala behind on a visit to the Aleutian Islands and then sending a Navy destroyer to pick him up. In a speech that was played on the radio on Sept. 23, 1944, and quoted for weeks after, Roosevelt said that, although attacking him or his family was fine, attacking his “little dog” was unfair and Fala’s “Scotch soul was furious.”)
So Stallings will never forget the morning in early 1997 when his sister called to tell him how Sen. Carl Levin had just proposed that a statue of Fala be added to the new FDR Memorial being built near the Tidal Basin. The True Story of Fala and My Story were already in the works. It was like a dream come true. “The [Senate] committee immediately voted nine-to-nothing to add Fala to the memorial,” Stallings says. “It took three months to get Eleanor added, and she only passed by a single vote.”
Stallings went into action, going to National Park Service merchandise-planning meetings for the memorial and putting up special posters of Fala and FDR around town to get the word out. “They weren’t doing much promotion at all, and they had not even considered any merchandise on the dog,” he says. “The first couple of people that I talked to didn’t even know that FDR had a dog named Fala.” But the Parks & History Association, which runs concessions for the Park Service, agreed to stock The True Story of Fala and My Story after seeing both. Ever since the memorial opened, in May 1997, its gift shop has had trouble keeping Stallings’ books in stock.
Unfortunately, Stallings himself has had a little trouble with the Park Service. It started when he came to a planning meeting wearing
a T-shirt that said “The Fala¥¥¥¥ (oops) FDR Memorial.” “We knew that it was going to be a big memorial for the Scottish-terrier people,” says Stallings. But, he says, the Park Service people thought the idea that Fala would be a draw was ridiculous.
“It just upset them to no end,” Stallings says. “The attitude was, ‘How dare you! This is a presidential memorial!’ Nobody realized the power of this dog until the memorial opened. And then they just got hit with ‘Boy, this dog is the most popular thing down here.’”
Indeed, on a recent Saturday afternoon, that assessment is borne out. Tourists crowd around the 2-foot-high Fala standing next to a dynamic bronze of FDR, getting their pictures taken with their arms around him or bringing their wary dogs up for a sniff. And sure enough, the gift shop is sold out of Stallings’ books. (Their printer, Al Johnson of Concept II Graphics in Baltimore, says that Stallings has sold or given away close to 15,000 copies.)
“The most universal symbol for a dog is the symbol of a Scottie,” says Stallings. “And I think people just naturally like Scottie dogs.” He adds that things are better now between him and the Park Service, as Bill Line, chief of public affairs for the service’s National Capital Region, confirms: “If the group is doing anything to promote terriers on their own and apart from the memorial, we have no problem with that and, in fact, we even encourage that. We have no reason to want to stop anyone’s interest in dogs.” But Stallings is still wary of showing the Park Service one of his new ideas: putting the Seal on cars and vans with that total-wrap vinyl that can make a bus one big ad.
“The thing is, if I do it, somebody at the Park Service will say, ‘Aw, look, it’s that Jimmy Stallings again, that guy with the Fala dog,’” he says. “But it would be fun, and it would promote visitation to the memorial.”
Visions of Seals distracting Beltway traffic notwithstanding, Stallings would next like to publish his Fala scrapbook, stuffed with old letters to the dog, cartoons, and photos of collectibles: the Scottie fountain-pen sets and Scottie paperweights and Hammacher Schlemmer Scottie key chains FDR gave to his cabinet and staff as gifts. Stallings wants to get back to Children’s Hospital with the books, too, and maybe with a Fala pen that looks like a hypodermic needle. He’s also developing a new Web site—www.fala-fdr.org—after losing his previous one in a domain-name mix-up.
All in all, Stallings says, it’s a good time to be a fan of Fala, especially now that George W. Bush has brought a Scottie back to the White House.
“A woman at the memorial just told me that she saw a Secret Service agent walking Barney,” Stallings says. “It’s like a restoration.” CP