In June of 1949, Harold Bryant, superintendent of the Grand Canyon, sat down to draft his monthly report. It had been an eventful month at the national park. A man had committed suicide by jumping into the Colorado River. (Boating parties were told to be on the lookout for his body.) A hiker had crossed the canyon in a single day. Four new mules had been acquired from Utah and were being trained for trail work.
And Tommy Tucker had been found dead inside his trailer — “apparently of a heart attack brought on by old age,” Bryant wrote.
Tommy Tucker was the most famous squirrel ever to come from Washington.
He came from a tree, as all Eastern gray squirrels do. Stories differ — he fell from a branch when still a blind and hairless baby; or his mother died, leaving him orphaned; or a child found him — but, whatever happened, in 1942 he arrived at 1846 16th St. NW, the home of Mark C. and Zaidee Bullis.
Who can say whether the warm bundle stirred some maternal instinct deep inside Mrs. Bullis. The house she shared with her husband — a prominent dental surgeon some years her senior — did not echo with the sounds of children. There were none, nor would there ever be.
Mrs. Bullis nursed her tiny ward, spoon-feeding him milk until he regained his strength, and then watched him grow as he feasted on walnuts, vegetables, bread, cookies and — a special treat — avocados. Soon, he had a name: Tommy Tucker, perhaps after the nursery rhyme that begins “Little Tommy Tucker / Sings for his supper.”
It was one of Dr. Bullis’s patients who sewed the first outfit, the details of which are lost. Perhaps it was the blue-and-white gingham dress, or maybe the ruffled skirt with pearl necklace, or the Dutch-girl costume with apron and bonnet. They were fashionable duds, scaled to a squirrel’s proportions.
Tommy accompanied Mrs. Bullis as she shopped. Soon, she started visiting schools with Tommy, his outfits packed in a suitcase. More than 500 schoolchildren at Silver Spring’s Woodside Elementary sat in a frigid auditorium — the furnace was broken — and watched Tommy perform. He attended the annual meeting of the Children of the American Revolution, sharing the bill with a Marine Corps sergeant just back from the attack on Bougainville Island. He was a frequent visitor to Children’s Hospital. (One wonders what the sickly children thought of a rodent twitching on their bedsheets.)
In January 1944, Tommy was featured in a spread in Life magazine. (The editors had a sense of humor: The opening page was across from an ad for shotgun shells.) Wrote the Life correspondent: “Tommy has a coat and hat for going to market, a silk pleated dress for company, a Red Cross uniform for visiting the hospital. He sits without squirming while Mrs. Bullis dresses him in one outfit after another. He does not even squirm when she calls him ‘Tuckee babee.’ ”
Tommy never complained, Life reported, although sometimes he bit Mrs. Bullis.
Despite the occasional nip, observers noted a preternatural calm in Tommy, a most unsquirrel-like demeanor as he was bathed and dressed and laid upon a tiny bed. He knew no other life, of course, and it seemed not to trouble him that, despite being male, he wore female clothes. (There was a simple reason, Mrs. Bullis explained: Tommy wore dresses because his tail interfered with pants.)
Tommy was nothing if not patriotic. He appeared on the radio with FDR in a war bond drive and starred in a short film made by Paramount. At the height of his fame, he was the titular head of the Tommy Tucker Club, whose 30,000 members promised to be kind to animals.
I imagine his life after the war was a letdown. The newspaper mentions disappear until January 1948, when an Arizona headline reads “Clever Squirrel of War Bond Fame Stranded in Yuma.” It takes a few days for the Bullises to convince California agriculture officials that Tommy is not a wild animal but a pet and thus can be carried across state lines. A year later he is denied entry to Mexico.
But Tommy is a trouper throughout. He appears at the Arizona State School for the Deaf and Blind in Tucson. Zaidee and her husband now make frequent “health and pleasure” trips to the Southwest, with Tommy safely ensconced in a trailer behind their car. They have added a Navajo outfit to his collection, and Tommy now has a wife: Buzzy.
It is on just such a trip on June 25, 1949, that Tommy is stricken. Did his life flash before his eyes, the highs — Life magazine! FDR! — as well as the lows: his name misspelled as “Tommy Ticker” in the Iola (Kansas) Register and the Clearfield (Pa. ) Progress?
An Associated Press story datelined from the Grand Canyon says that Tommy’s mortal remains are being sent to a taxidermist in Denver. The park superintendent reports that it is Jonas Bros., still in business today. Jack Jonas was in high school when the famed squirrel came in to be stuffed. “He was mounted with his arms out so you could pull the clothes over him,” said Jack, 80.
According to AP: “[The owners] said he will be placed in a museum but weren’t sure of which one.”
And there the trail grows cold. Perhaps in some forgotten corner of a museum there sits — nay, there stands — Tommy Tucker, a little dusty, a little moth-eaten, but still the best-dressed squirrel in the world.
To read John Kelly’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.