Today’s post is by Steve Grooms
One morning around 1955, George Grooms—my father—woke up with a smile. He had been dreaming. In this dream my dad was walking the sidewalks of our town when he noticed a distinctive dog sitting on the curb. The dog was some kind of hound, a bloodhound or basset. It had a long, pendulous nose and droopy ears. The most memorable thing was the dog’s expression. The dog seemed utterly grief-struck.
In the dream this melancholy dog looked at my father and spoke one short sentence.
“Cheer up,” said the dog.
Cheer up? What a bizarre comment! The saddest dog in the universe had just told my dad to cheer up!
Dad rushed to his office without talking to anyone. He began sketching the melancholy dog before his memory of the dream faded.
My father was a genius at imagining unique toy animals and then figuring out how certain shapes of fabric could be sewn together to form a three-dimensional stuffed toy.
Designing stuffed toy animals is one of the most obscure jobs in the world. My dad was once considered one of the two or three best designers in the world.
This dog resisted the design process. The body was easy, but all the prototypes Dad created looked jolly or cute. None had the tragic look of the dream dog’s face. Dad knew that the problem lay with the eyes. No matter what eyes he put on this dog, it looked idiotically cheerful.
Then Dad did something totally original. He fashioned eyelids that could be sewn in place to give his stuffed dog a sad expression. This was a radical innovation in the 1950s.
At that time stuffed toys were generic objects meant to be given to undiscerning infants. Stuffed toys were designed to be inexpensive. But my dad was an artist, and the artist in him knew this dog had to have a distinctive face for it to connect with people.
Those eyelids were the first of many innovations he would develop to create stuffed toys with vivid expressions. My dad’s company sold these stuffed toys under the name “personality pets” to highlight the way they differed from cheap, generic stuffed toys.
There was never an issue of what this dog would be called. Cheer Up appealed to children and adults, becoming the first of my dad’s designs to be famous. Cheer Up came in several forms (sitting, lying prone, lounging on his back) and several sizes.
Several years ago I was invited to attend a special meeting of the Ames Historical Society. The society was premiering a film that celebrated my father’s company.
Collegiate Manufacturing had been a significant employer in Ames for over 40 years.
The day before the film was shown I was invited to the home of a man who had a wonderful collection of stuffed toys from Collegiate Manufacturing. It was emotional for me to wander his basement gazing at hundreds of stuffed toys designed by my dad.
Monkeys, dogs, tigers, giraffes, horses, skunks, turtles and other critters stared at me from Don’s display shelves. I grew up knowing these toys but had not seen any of them for nearly 60 years. While I recognized many, I was most moved by Don’s collection of Cheer-up dogs. He had about three dozen Cheer Ups.
Don repeatedly urged me to take some toys as a gift. I was touched by his generosity, but I turned him down. I had no right to anything he had collected.
A day later we had the historical society meeting. When the meeting was over, I rushed to my car to start the long drive to my Saint Paul home. Don ran to catch up with me, shoving a box in my hands. “Don’t refuse me again,” he said. “I could tell by your eyes which ones meant the most to you.” The box held three Cheer Up dogs in the three poses that had been most popular.
My father died in 1999, and I heard that Don died a few years ago. Yet both live on in memory and in the friendly form of the little Cheer Up that sits on my bedroom dresser.
Most mementos honor the memory of a special person. My Cheer Up celebrates the memory of two men with good hearts.
Do you have a memento that helps you remember someone special?