Room 8 Lives On in the Hearts of the Pupils and Teachers That He So Profoundly Touched at Elysian Heights Elementary School
"Room 8 was a good cat. I liked him very much. He was the greatest cat in the whole world."
-- Vivian DeLeon
It all began mundanely enough one day way back in 1952 when he scampered through an open window. From that inopportune beginning, he went on to spend the remaining sixteen years of his life roaming the hallways, visiting classrooms unannounced, sleeping on desktops, sharing students' lunches, and occasionally even inadvertently erasing a blackboard or two as he pussyfooted through chalk trays. It therefore was only natural that he was always the piece de resistance in every class photograph taken during that halcyon period.
The venue was Elysian Heights Elementary School in the Echo Park section of Los Angeles and the gatecrasher was an unflappable gray and white cat known simply as Room 8. Although he crossed the Rainbow Bridge on August 13, 1968, he remains very much still alive today in the memories of the students, teachers, and administrators who were privileged to have known him during his all-too-short sojourn upon this earth.
Former student Angie Medrano Nicolai first made Room 8's acquaintance when school principal, Beverly Mason, introduced him to her sixth grade class. "I remember thinking that he was a big cat in her arms," she recalled for the Los Angeles Daily News on April 1st. (See "Tabby Adopted by School Became National Celebrity.") "She wanted us to know that he belonged to the school and that there may be times he would come into our classroom to visit."
"She put him down," Nicolai continued, "and he he immediately jumped up on the desk next to the window to take a nap in the warm sun." (See photo above of Room 8 napping although not necessarily at the same time as described by Nicolai.)
"I was lucky to be one of the sixth graders who got to feed the cat in the teachers' room every day," Elysian Heights alumnus Julie O'Neal Hines recalled for the Daily News. "We weren't allowed to have pets in my home, so a quick cuddle of Room 8's fat furry body was always a welcome thing." (See photo below of Room 8 with an unidentified young girl.)
Room 8 was "a very important member of the faculty" who occasionally slept on his foot while he was lecturing, is how former teacher Ray Howell chose to remember him for the Daily News in an April 1st companion piece. (See "Elysian Heights Students and Teachers Remember Room 8.")
Former kindergarten teacher Toshi Ito, whose son Lance presided over the infamous "Juice" Simpson double homicide trial, remembers Room 8 as a cat who loved flowers and liked to drink out of faucets.
Vivian DeLeon, who was a third grader in 1968, perhaps said it best when she told the Daily News, "Room 8 was a good cat. I liked him very much. He was the greatest cat in the whole world."
Not a great deal is known about Room 8's early years. He was born in 1947 but apparently ran away from home after having been abused by a boarder.
It is even more mysterious where he spent his nights, weekends, holidays, and summer vacations since he did not actually live at Elysian Heights but instead only visited when classes were in session. It is known, however, that he spent a considerable amount of his time with the Nakano family who lived near the school.
As Room 8 grew older, school janitor Sam Ross would ferry him across the street to the Nakanos in order to prevent him from getting hit by a motorist. "He knew I'd see him safely across the street," Ross once fondly recalled.
He also spent time at the residence of former student John Hernandez. "Room 8 stayed the entire summer with our family and our two cats. I believe it was 1962," he recalled for the Daily News in the companion piece cited supra. "Room 8 had, on various occasions, appeared at our backyard door looking for a meal which we obliged." (See photo below of him and Room 8 being entertained by an unidentified musician.)
Hernandez furthermore believes that there is a small chance that Room 8 may have impregnated his female cat and as a consequence some of his progeny may still be roaming the streets of Echo Park. Whether that is true or not it makes for pleasant speculation.
Over the years Room 8 had two close shaves with the Grim Reaper. The first one came in 1963 when he was seriously injured in some sort of fracas and the next one was a year later when he contracted pneumonia. Luckily, he was able to secure medical treatment at Lockhart Animal Hospital in Hollywood and soon recovered.
It is unclear, however, what he found so attractive about Elysian Heights in that cats generally prefer solitude to crowds. Likewise, it is not known if any of the teachers, administrators, and students ever attempted to give him a permanent home.
Regardless of how he spent his time away from school, Room 8 always would show up as regular as clockwork each September for the opening day of the new school year. As word of his exploits spread, his reappearance was not only eagerly anticipated by students and teachers alike, but the local media as well.
In November of 1962 he was featured in Look magazine and Weekly Reader published a story about him in 1967. He also appeared with Art Linkletter on the television show House Party and was featured in the 1968 television documentary, Big Cats, Little Cats.
In 1966, Mason and teacher Virginia Finley published a biography about him entitled, A Cat Called Room 8. (See photo below.) A handful of both new and used copies of the book, which was illustrated by Valerie Martin, are available on Amazon for between $97 and $125.
During his lifetime, the cat received in excess of ten-thousand letters from fans in forty-seven states as well as from several foreign countries. Some of them even contained monetary donations for food. Fifth and sixth graders, who were given the task of responding to them, signed each one with a rubber-stamped replica of Room 8's paw print.
Unlike so many spoiled celebrities, Room 8 never let his notoriety go his little head and remained the same self-effacing cat that he always had been right up until the time of his death at the age of twenty-one. He was then interred in Los Angeles Memorial Park in Calabasas where a three-foot-high granite tombstone featuring a memorial medallion adorns his grave. (See photos below.)
"The cat with the funny name is survived by pupils who have attended Elysian Heights (Elementary) School since 1953 (sic), the year he decided to make the school his home and the children his mascots," is how the Long Beach Press-Telegram eulogized him on August 14, 1968.
The Valley News and Green Sheet, the forerunner of the Daily News, said succinctly, "There will be a familiar face missing from classroom eight at Elysian Heights Elementary School in September. The cat had become an international celebrity through the fifteen years of his schooling."
Although Mason, Finley, Martin, Ross, and many of the students and teachers who knew Room 8 have, like him, passed away, the school to its credit has elected to keep his memory alive. Most notably, his paw prints were preserved in cement out front of the school on June 11, 1964. They are accompanied by a portrait drawn by Martin that bears the inscription: "Room 8. School Cat." (See photo below.)
"Everyone cheered! Television cameras rolled as he walked across the wet cement with his tail and head high," Mason and Finley related in their book. Los Angeles Times reporter Dial Torgerson remembered the momentous occasion somewhat differently, however.
Room 8 "took fame with feline equanimity, posing casually for countless pictures, becoming ruffled only once, when asked to put his paw prints in concrete in front of the school. (He left so fast he provided a tail print, too)," he wrote upon the occasion of the cat's death.
The memorial would later inspire guitarist Leo Kottke to compose an instrumental entitled Room 8 which he included on his 1971 album, Mudlark.
Two paintings of Room 8, a bronze statue, and an enlarged version of his memorial medallion occupy a prominent place in a hallway. He also is the centerpiece of a triptych in the library and a fading image of him adorns the outside of one of the classrooms.
A mural painted on the side of the auditorium by Yuriko Etue and entitled "Our State, Our Selves" shows him strolling through California history while inscribed in concrete at the corner of Baxter Street and Echo Park Avenue are twelve-inch letters which spell out "Elysian Heights School. Home of Room 8, School Cat 1952-1968." Nearby, testimonials and images of the cat have been etched into the concrete by admiring students. One of them reads: "I love Room 8 because he sleeps on my desk."
His image also can be found on calendars sold by the Echo Park Historical Society as well as on the walls of local restaurants. There is even Room 8 wearing apparel.
Perhaps more significantly, teachers ensure that Room 8's memory will never die by reading Mason and Finley's biography to a new crop of students each year. "Room 8 taught us kindness to all beings and respect for life," current teacher Sheryl Gallo told the Daily News in the main article cited supra.
All things considered, Room 8 did pretty well for himself even though, as far as it is known, he never earned a degree in spite of attending classes for sixteen years. Perhaps as August 13th approaches school officials will act to correct this gross oversight and award him one posthumously.
Although two unidentified cats reportedly roamed the halls of Elysian Heights as late as the 1970s, it is highly unlikely that any felines would be tolerated today. The same goes for the horses, goats, sheep, and chickens that the school used to house in an outdoor enclosure.
Every ailurophobe and his brother would go into histrionics about allergies, diseases, scratches, and security. Moreover, it would be exceedingly difficult for even the world's most intrepid feline to discover an open window through which to scamper in today's world of self-contained buildings.
None of that in any way nullifies the numerous positives associated with cat ownership. In particular, studies have demonstrated not only that children exposed to domestic animals at an early age develop resistance to allergies, but also that cats help to reduce stress and to lower the blood pressure rates of those around them.
More importantly, cats have a civilizing effect upon people in that they serve as a persistent reminder that there is more to life than strife, shekel accumulation, and mindless self-indulgence. With this realization also comes the deeper understanding that animals are far more benevolent and important to the continuation of life on this planet than man, despite all his pretensions, ever will be.
Although officials at Elysian Heights have not announced how they intend to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of Room 8's passing, the fact that classes will not be in session on August 13th should not deter them from doing so. More to the point, if they could somehow muster the courage in order to buck the system they should seriously consider establishing a living memorial to Room 8 by adopting a successor.
In time, this newcomer would sans doute inspire a new generation of both students and teachers. After all, there is a considerable amount to be learned from cats. Par exemple, just "staring at one will fertilize the mind," according to poet Christopher Smart.
Down through the millenniums cats have lived, suffered, and died in anonymity with very few of their names, faces, and exploits having been recorded in either literature or history. Anyone who has ever shared his or her life with a member of the feline species knows only too well just what an egregious miscarriage of justice that has been.
By keeping Room 8's memory alive officials at Elysian Heights have taken a giant step toward changing all of that. The process of enfranchising cats and other animals remains in its infancy but perhaps one day animal rights will assume their rightful place alongside human rights.
After all, just because man has the capacity to exploit and kill animals at will does not make it morally defensible. Sixth century B.C. philosopher Pythagoras summed up the moral dilemma in a nutshell when he said: "As long as man continues to be the ruthless destroyer of lower beings, he will never know either health or peace. For as long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other. Indeed, he who sows the seeds of murder and pain cannot reap joy and love."
As for Room 8, he remains an inspiration even to those who did not have the honor of knowing him but yet earnestly wish that they had made his acquaintance because he was indeed a very special cat.
He also is a throwback to those simpler, gentler times when individuals were willing to make room in their schoolhouses, homes, and hearts for cats, dogs, horses, and other animals instead of treating them as nuisances or worse.
Photos: Find a Grave (Room 8 sleeping and with schoolgirl), Echo Park Historical Society (Hernandez with Room 8 and Mason and Finley's tome), Roger Vargo of the Daily News (Valerie Martin's memorial to Room 8), and Scott Groll of Find a Grave (tombstone and memorial medallion).