Photography by Stephen Lewellyn, taken in 1951 at the Berwangers’ Hinsdale home.

That’s squirrelly

Call it nuts—but UChicago’s first family of football had an unusual pet.

The winner of college football’s first Heisman Trophy, John Jacob “Jay” Berwanger, AB’36, turned down the opportunity to play professional sports. Instead the former Maroon halfback started a successful foam-rubber supply business in the Chicago suburbs, where he lived with his family, including a wife, three kids, and—briefly—a pet squirrel.

In a 1951 photo (above), Berwanger’s son John giggles as his dad tries to get a grip on their bushy-tailed buddy. “We didn’t have a cage or anything. He ran around the house,” says John, JD’67, a retired attorney in Winnetka, IL. “I remember carrying it around in the pocket of my bathrobe.”

Blown from a tree during a storm, the squirrel came to the family as a baby. Philomela Baker Berwanger, AB’38, AB’40, helped her kids feed it with an eyedropper. Neither brother remembers giving the squirrel a name although they had it for close to a year. “He certainly was a member of the family,” says son Cuyler, known as “Butch” (pictured below with his mother and sister Helen).


When the squirrel died, he adds, the children were heartbroken and wanted a replacement. Philomela telephoned the former owner of the family’s Hinsdale home, Marlin Perkins, then director of the Lincoln Park Zoo and later host of the television show Wild Kingdom. “We called and said, ‘We need a squirrel,’” remembers Butch. But Perkins was emphatic that squirrels could not be domesticated. “They’re wild animals and they bite. So that was a real sad day.”

A retired junior high school guidance counselor and coach, Butch keeps the squirrel photos on the wall of his Oak Brook, IL, home. Along with shots of his father playing football—and as senior class president, dressed in a tailcoat for the Washington Prom—the images can also be found in the Special Collections Research Center.