It’s been 20 years since the Jonathan the Husky statue was unveiled at UConn, but Larry Wasiele still feels immense joy at the sight of recent graduates, orientation groups, and youngsters clamoring to rub the nose of the beloved mascot for good luck. After all, the larger-than-life bronze Husky dog is his creation.
“It’s a kick to go to graduation and watch people line up in front of it,” Wasiele says. “The statue is a wonderful connection I can have with lots and lots of people.”
Planning for the Jonathan statue began in 1992, as the vision of then-University President Harry Hartley. Hartley was a Pennsylvania native and graduate of Penn State University, who was familiar with Penn State’s Nittany Lion mascot. He noticed how, at games, students flocked to the Nittany Lion statue outside Beaver Stadium.
“My goal was to establish tradition at UConn, and the Husky statue was the heart of that,” Hartley, now 77, says.
UConn was on board, too. On Oct. 26, 1992, School of Fine Arts Dean Robert Gray wrote a letter to Lewis Rome, the chairman of the Board of Trustees at the time, noting that UConn was one of the only major universities not to have such a statue. In his letter, Gray requested that the proposed mascot statue be “larger-than-life-size,” arguing that this would make the statue more inviting for people to interact with and would better convey the significance of the Husky.
My goal was to establish tradition at UConn, and the Husky statue was the heart of that. — Harry Hartley, University President Emeritus
After obtaining the green light from the Trustees, the first person University officials called was Wasiele – the man behind the 1980 Husky dog logo – not to ask him to build the statue, but to inquire about other sculptors who could possibly build it.
“When I got that call, my heart exploded,” Wasiele recalls. “I thought, ‘I have to be the one to do this. I can prove it.’”
Not wanting to reject his offer outright, Wasiele says, the University settled on an unadvertised contest to determine who would build the husky statue. Competitors submitted their sketches, and University officials, without knowing which entrant had drawn which sketch, chose their favorite.
Wasiele’s husky was named top dog.
By late summer of 1993, the University had awarded Wasiele the contract, and a committee of half-a-dozen faculty and staff was formed to monitor the statue’s progress.
Wasiele began his artistic process by doing his homework to find the perfect combination of husky characteristics – paws, legs, face – to use as a model for the statue. Images of the current live mascot, Jonathan X; South Pole expedition dogs; huskies from Jack London novels; and the face of his own dog, Surf – actually a German Shepherd – consumed his thoughts in search of the ideal husky – “big, strong, not mean.”
While driving one day, he noticed a dog in the car in front of him and followed the driver for an hour until the driver finally pulled over, allowing the artist to admire the husky he had eyed from the backseat.
“It was a big dog. It just filled the car with these giant shoulders and a big tail,” he remembers.
He melded elements from each of the dogs into a sketch, then brought the model to life, carving the Husky from a block of styrofoam in his living room. It looked as though it had snowed in the house, he says. At the recommendation of a child, he used Sculpey clay to envelop the styrofoam figure, and this clay allowed the model to arrive in mint condition at the Paul King Foundry in Johnston, R.I.
Wasiele was particularly concerned about the statue’s durability, so to encase it, he chose bronze that was ⅜” thick – two times thicker than the foundry had ever worked with before. “I fired a 30/30 rifle into the bronze to test it, and with the ⅜” [thickness], there were no marks,” he says.
To complete the statue, UConn had to find funding to the tune of $75,000, and the money needed to come from private sources. Tim Tolokan, an athletics program specialist on the husky statue committee, recalls how the University and the Alumni Association teamed up to identify 30 donors, and enlisted the University President himself to make phone calls.
“I used the ‘Hartley touch,’” says Hartley, with a grin.
By spring of 1995, the statue of Jonathan the husky was finished and ready to be transported to its permanent home near Gampel Pavilion. A large tractor with “UConn” emblazoned on its side arrived at the sculptor’s home off Gurleyville Road. With the 6-foot-by-7-foot, more than 1,000-pound statue “wrapped like a mummy,” Wasiele held the dog by its legs to prevent any damage on the two-mile ride to campus.
On May 12, 1995, Wasiele’s wife Laurie unveiled the Jonathan statue, before a crowd of about 100 people, Hartley among them.
“When I think back to my list of accomplishments at UConn, the statue is one of my highlights,” says the former President.
Even now, he likes to tease the sculptor about the dog’s ears. “I still joke with Larry about those ears,” says Hartley. “Those ears aren’t Husky ears, they’re German Shepherd ears.”