was a cat who adopted the children of Elysian Heights School in Echo
Park, California. He lived at the school from 1952 until his death
attended the school and knew Room 8, Beverly Mason, Virginia Finley
and Sam Ross.
He was portly, gray even at a young age, and liked
to drink from faucets. He slept on desks, under desks and on rugs. He roamed
halls and entered classrooms with impunity. He was Room 8, the most famous cat
in Los Angeles. He was my friend and schoolmate.
8 circa 1964.
Room 8 was a large, shorthair gray striped tabby
cat who adopted Elysian Heights Elementary School in Echo Park. He showed up one
day in 1952 and stayed at the school until his death in 1968.
Except for summer vacations─Room 8 disappeared
each summer, and then returned to school on the first day of classes in
I first became acquainted with Room 8 in 1956 when
I was in kindergarten. Our teacher, Miss Allen, told us about the cat, and his
story, but I thought she said his name was "Room Mate." It made sense, too, as
the cat was the roommate of all the students at the school.
Former student Angie (Medrano) Nicolai, who
graduated in 1965, remembers kindergarten, "My first recollection of Room 8 was
Miss Mason introducing him to our kindergarten class. I remember thinking that
he was a big cat in her arms. 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 and he immediately jumped up on the desk next to the window to
take a nap in the warm sun."
Like most elementary schools in the 1950's,
Elysian Heights had lots of rules. Don't talk in class. Wait in line. Raise your
hand. Don't run in the hallway. No talking for the first ten minutes at lunch.
All these rules were dwarfed in comparison to THE RULE.
I remember from later years transgressors of THE
RULE returning palled from a session in the office with Miss Mason, the
principal. And these were the very boys who snickered at authority, ran in the
hallway and talked during the first ten minutes of lunch. There were few, if
any, second violators of THE RULE.
For me THE RULE was easy to follow. I adored cats.
Former teacher, Bob Bedwell recalled, "I saw one kid move (his seat) because the
cat took his place." THE RULE, of course, was "Don't bother the cat."
One former student said, "I never liked Room 8
because he sat on my homework." Former teacher Richard Arrow recalled that in
deference to THE RULE, he appointed a student as "cat remover" whose job it was
to relocate the tubby tabby when he interfered too much with classroom
operations. Former teacher Ray Howell recalled Room 8 as "a very important
member of the faculty," who occasionally slept on his foot while he was
Room 8 came to Elysian Heights in 1952. "It was
1952 when a cat walked into the school. Many of the students who saw him are
grown-ups now." wrote Beverly Mason and Virginia Finley in Room 8's biography, "A Cat Called Room 8" (published in 1966).
"The cat walked around the room. He jumped up and
walked on the desks. Hands reached out and petted him. Someone said, 'This I the
skinniest cat I've ever seen.' " The children gave the cat some milk and went
out for recess. When they returned, they discovered their lunches had been
raided and the cat was fast asleep.
Later, the cat followed the children to lunch.
According to the book, "The children gave him food from their lunches. He ate,
and he ate, and he ate! Then, he walked across the playground and out the gate."
The following morning, the children were met by
the cat who followed them into the classroom. Overcoming objections from the
teacher, the cat was eventually adopted by the children, but he still didn't
have a name. One student said, "Why not call him ‘Room 8', since that is the
number of our room?"
Mason wrote in 1968, "No one knew where he went at
night or during vacation. Like the swallows of Capistrano, he returned every
September for the opening of school to sleep on the desks of children. Finally,
he became the school mascot." According to Mason, Room 8 was a neighborhood cat
who was born in 1947 and was mistreated by a boarder in the home where he lived.
Room 8's notoriety began to grow. The local news
media began to take notice of his annual autumnal return to school. To students
such as me, he was just part of the everyday scene at school. After all, didn't
every school have a famous mascot? He usually could be seen patrolling the hall
or asleep in some warm, sunny spot.
He frequently made an appearance during lunch.
Even though feeding him was discouraged, he didn't discourage handouts when
sampling delicacies from our little metal lunch pails. Room 8 was no longer a
skinny cat. He had grown to be a big boy!
I don't remember much about our student government
organization at Elysian Heights. I do remember, though, the most important
position a student could hold wasn't that of student body president. It was the
holds Room 8 in this sixth grade portrait from June, 1958.
The cat feeder or cat monitor wasn't an elected
position. That most prestigious of all positions was appointed from within the
ranks of the sixth grade class by collaboration between the teacher and
Principal Beverly Mason. An added benefit of being the cat feeder was having
access to that most secret and restricted area on campus, the teachers' lounge,
where Room 8 dined. The chosen one also got to hold Room 8 for the annual sixth
grade class portrait.
Room 8's fame grew beyond the borders of Echo
Park, or even Los Angeles. LOOK magazine ran a three page spread by
photographer Richard Hewett in November 1962, titled
published a three page spread on Room 8 in November, 1962 with
photographs by Richard Hewett.
"Room 8: The School Cat". His biography, written
by principal Mason and teachers Finley and Valerie Martin was published by
Putnam's in 1966. Room 8 made personal appearances with Mason and his feeders at
local cat shows and community groups. He was made an honorary member of various
A short article about him appeared in the
Weekly Reader (a national newspaper for elementary school pupils) in
January, 1967. He appeared on Art Linkletter's "House Party" television show
several times and was featured in a segment of the 1968 NBC-David L. Wolper
television documentary, "Big Cats, Little Cats."
Teacher Shari Kerr later wrote, "I remember the
many times radio, television, and newspaper people came to visit our classroom,
Room 8. The only calm member of our class was Room 8. We were always nervous but
to him it was routine and he was a ham actor."
Room 8 is remembered in different ways. Beverly
Graham, whose children attended Elysian Heights, and now has a grandchild
attending the school said, "He was always there. (He was a) great cat. Everybody
liked him." Jean Baird, a former school clerk said, "Room 8 gave the school
something that the students liked-a symbol-a cat taken in and cared for."
Former student John Hernandez remembers, "I had
the opportunity to know Room 8 on a personal basis. Room 8 stayed the entire
summer with our family and our two cats. I believe it was 1962. Room 8 had, on
various occasions, appeared at our backyard door looking for a meal which we
obliged. There might be a chance the he had fathered our female's last litter of
six. Three of the kittens had the markings of a grey tabby, just like Room 8. We
gave all six kittens to local folks, so it wouldn't surprise me to find out that
the Room 8 lineage still roams the neighborhood."
Former kindergarten teacher Toshi Ito remembered,
"He loved flowers. He smelled flowers in the garden. He liked to drink out of
the faucet." Virginia Nakano said (of Room 8's later years), "He slept at our
house-slept all over the place. The cat didn't want to be bothered (by
children). He wanted to eat and sleep." Former teacher Bob Bedwell recalled, "He
never had an accident as far as I can tell." Betts Hall, whose daughter attended
Elysian Heights remembered, "He waddled along the eraser tray and would wipe off
everything on the lower part of the blackboard." David Pierce, a former student
said of Room 8, "I was an object in his world. He was a very demonstrative kitty
(but) he didn't go out of his way to be petted."
Room 8's paw prints.
Room 8's paw prints were imbedded in wet cement in
the front of the school on June 11, 1964. Held gently by custodian Sam Ross, "Everyone cheered! Television cameras rolled as he walked across the wet cement
with his tail and head high," recall Mason and Finley in "A Cat Called Room 8."
The paw prints and inscription, "Room 8-School Cat," while worn from the passage
of time and foot steps, survive to this day.
Room 8 after his paws were pressed in wet concrete, June 11, 1964.
Years later, guitarist Leo Kottke saw the paw
prints and inscriptions in concrete outside the school and asked his manager,
who lived nearby, about them. Kottke wrote an instrumental called "Room 8," that
was included in his 1971 album, "Mudlark." "It is an unusual tune because of the
way it moves," said Kottke, "It took about a month to write."
By Mason's account, Room 8 received over 10,000
fan letters from 47 states and several foreign countries. Sometimes he received
more than 100 letters in one day, but the average was about 30 letters a month.
While many of the letters were properly addressed, some were sent to "Room 8,
Los Angeles, California," or "The Cat, Los Angeles, California."
Room 8 checks
over his the work of his secretary, Alice Flanagan, 11, in this 1965
photo from the Los Angeles Herald Examiner by Art Worden.
The volume of mail created an educational
opportunity of sorts for some students in the fifth and sixth grades who were
conscripted to be Room 8's "secretaries". They answered each piece of mail and
signed it with a rubber stamp of Room 8's paw print. Juanita Buck, Virginia
Finley's sister, recalled Finley telling her much of the profits from the book
were used to pay postage responding to Room 8's fan mail. This was an era where
people wrote letters by hand, or at best with a typewriter. There was no email.
The gray tabby mascot's popularity generated a
revenue stream on behalf of the students. Some of his fan mail contained
donations which were used, according to Mason, to buy books for the school
library. After the Room 8 book was published, the school held occasional book
sales in support of the library.
Throughout my seven years at Elysian Heights, I
never recall thinking about Room 8's age. He was there before I arrived and was
there after I left. It wasn't until I began researching this story that I became
aware of how old he really was. My perception of age as a child is quite
different from my perception of age today. Assuming Mason's information is
accurate as to his birth year, Room 8 would have been about nine years old when
I walked on the school grounds as a kindergartener and about 17 years old when I
said goodbye to him as a sixth grader in 1963.
As he aged, Room 8 began to have health problems.
He lost some teeth. He was injured in a cat fight in November, 1963. He nearly
died of pneumonia in December, 1964. After recuperating at the Lockhart Animal
Hospital in Hollywood, he spent nights and vacations with the Nakano family who
lived near the school. This was the first time, according to Mason; he was
willing to accept a nighttime home. Mason wrote, "Many times, neighbors helped
Michiko Mitsui poses
with Room 8 sometime in the early 1960's. Many neighbors of Elysian
Heights School looked after Room 8 when school was out.
the hills and looked under bushes for Room 8 who
hadn't arrived back at the Nakano home. Sometimes it was dark, and flashlight
crews were organized before he was found sleeping in a garden or visiting a
Custodian Sam Ross wrote, "It was my privilege to
carry him in my lap when he was driven for his yearly doctor's visit. As he grew
older he waited for me to carry him to the Nakano's at night. He knew I'd see
him safely across the street."
Teacher J. Van Heuklon wrote, "As Room 8 grew
older, he enjoyed attention even more. He showed me I wasn't giving him enough
attention one day by slowly placing himself in my lap. Even though seventeen
pounds of cat is a lapful it was a good feeling to have him gently purring and
kneading his claws in my lap."
Old even by today's standards, Room 8 lived
another four years after his bout with pneumonia. Mason wrote, "Summer school
was held for the first time since 1962, and Room 8 came faithfully every day
until he became ill and was taken to the hospital." Room 8 died August 13, 1968
at the age of 22 years.
The Long Beach Press Telegram wrote
on August 14, "SCHOLARLY FELINE Cat Named Room 8 Loses the Last of 9 Lives- Room
8, a white and gray tomcat with a grammar school education, died Tuesday of a
kidney ailment. He was 22, equivalent to 154 human years. The cat with the funny
name is survived by pupils who have attended Elysian Heights School since 1953,
the year he decided to make the school his home and the children his mascots."
If a measure of one's importance in Los Angeles is
by the size of one's obituary in the Los Angeles Times, then the beloved
gray and white tabby was important. His obituary, written by Dial Torgeson, ran
three columns, with a jump and a three column photo on the front of the second
section of the paper.
Room 8 was laid to rest at the Los Angeles Pet
Memorial Park in Calabasas on August 15, 1968. Former teacher Bedwell and former
clerk Baird attended the ceremony. "There was a procession (from the school) to
the cemetery using three cars. There were 10-12 people at the funeral. It wasn't
a huge group." Bedwell said there was a viewing of Room 8's body, "He was in a
coffin curled up."
Room 8's grave in Calabasas.
The following day, City News Service wrote, "Room
8, the cat who loved children and for 15 years made Elysian Heights Elementary
School his home, was buried in Calabasas Thursday. School is out for the summer
and the kids he adored are scattered far from the scene of the playground they
shared with the black and white tomcat. Even so the bouquets arrived at the
Calabasas Pet Cemetery. The Nakano family, with whom Room 8 lived at night for
many years, personally laid a heart-shaped wreath across the grave. The wreath
was made of roses and carnations which were Room 8's 'favorite flower'. Later a
monument will be placed at the gravesite with his picture and a simple epitaph
to the cat who died of a kidney ailment Tuesday."
The Christian Science Monitor wrote, "In
these times of pressured stands on fundamental issue. It is heartwarming to be
reminded of another kind of commitment carried on for 15 years by a cat and the
children of a Los Angeles primary school. The faithfulness and affection he
stirred will continue to register in the thoughts of the many who have heard of
him." Echo Park's community newspaper, the Parkside
Journal, wrote, "Room 8's life was worthwhile and he made a contribution
through his love for children and response to adults. The thousands of letters
he received and answered through students brought happiness to many people and
children throughout the world."
Room 8 memorial
issue of Elysian Heights school paper, November 1968.
Room 8 was important to the school and the
community at large in many ways. To some, like Julie (O'Neal) Hines, he was a
substitute for the pet she couldn't have at home. "I was lucky to be one of the
sixth graders who got to feed the cat in the teachers' room every day. 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. Miss Mason did her best to give the inner
city Echo Park kids the experience of the small urban farm that she created on
one corner of the schoolyard."
Angie Nicolai was also a cat feeder, "It was my
honor that Miss Mason selected me when I was in the sixth grade. My primary
responsibility was feeding him lunch which meant hunting through every classroom
to find him. Sometimes he knew it was feeding time and I found him walking
towards the teacher's lounge just as I got to the hallway."
Third grader Vivian DeLeon wrote in 1968, "Room 8
was a good cat. I liked him very much. He was the greatest cat in the whole
Soledad Mendoza summed it up, "He walked into my
heart and found a special place."
with Room 8.
Miss Beverly Mason, the long-time principal of
Elysian Heights, was Room 8's spokesperson, benefactor and alter ego. He was
she, and she was he. She stayed in the background while he basked in the light
of public attention. Former teacher Bedwell said, "She was a fantastic woman,
yet very private."
Richard Arrow, the former teacher, recalls Mason
as "a dynamic leader and principal." Betts Hall recalled Mason as an "amazing
woman." "She made things happen. Animals were her big love." Former student
Pierce said, "I didn't know how special she was until many years later as an
adult. She worked to give us inner city kids as rich an experience as she
Elise Ozan, a former teacher said of Mason, "This
woman did everything she could to advance young people. She did everything she
could to make certain the kids had a well rounded education."
Mason, teacher Virginia Finley and L.A. Unified
School District art consultant Valerie Martin collaborated in 1964 and 1965 to
write "A Cat Called Room 8." Mason and Finley wrote the text while Martin drew
the illustrations. The book was published in 1966 by G. P. Putnam's Sons and
went through six printings. Students could buy the book for $2.50. It can still
be found through vintage book vendors and in the reference section of many
Cat Called Room 8 with signature page. The book, first published in
1966, went through six printings.
Even though modestly referred to as the teacher,
"Miss White", in the book, it was Virginia Finley, according to her sister
Juanita Buck, who took the skinny gray tomcat in on that day in 1952. The book
only alludes to it in the credits by saying Finley was a teacher at the school
in 1952 when the cat arrived.
It's been forty years, this year, since the
beloved gray tabby's shadow crossed Elysian Heights' playground for the last
time. All of the principal individuals mentioned in the book have passed on,
too. Dr. Ted Haskell, Room 8's long time veterinarian died in 1975. Beverly
Mason died in a vehicle accident in 1991. Valerie Martin died in 1993. Virginia
Finley, who administered the estates of both Mason and her mother, Alice Bradish,
died in 2000. Samuel Ross, the school custodian who cared for Room 8 and the
children of Elysian Heights in more ways than anyone will ever know, died in
While Room 8 no longer roams the hall of Elysian
Heights or the streets of Echo Park, his legacy remains.
The Room 8 bed fund at Orthopedic Hospital was
established, according to a story in the Elysian Courier school
newspaper, November 1968. "Twenty children from our school donated $10 to start
the Room 8 Fund at the Orthopedic Hospital." According to a hospital newsletter
article, "The children decided that there should be a living memorial for Room 8
and that it should go, as he had, beyond the school walls. They decided to
establish the memorial to help other children be able to run and play with
animals." The first contributions to the fund were personally delivered to the
hospital by the children who also brought a copy of the Room 8 book and painting
of Room 8 to hang in the schoolroom.
The fund brought in more than $10,000. That amount
of money represented a considerable amount of hospital services at the time.
A drive began in 1969, started by Lois Spears, to
promote the issue a postage stamp in honor of Room 8. According to an article
written by Mason in All Cats magazine in January,
The Pet Pride
organization issued a private, commemorative stamp in the in the
1976, more than a half million people throughout
the U.S., Asia and Europe signed a petition asking the U.S. Postal Service to
issue a Room 8 commemorative stamp to honor all cats for the part they play in
the lives of people. That goal is still unachieved today. The Pet Pride
organization issued a private commemorative stamp with Room 8's image in the
Hettie Perry founded the
Room 8 Memorial Cat
Foundation in Pasadena in 1972. The no-kill shelter is now located in Riverside,
California. A painting of Room 8 hangs in the shelter. The organization is the
last remaining vestige of Room 8's charitable past and is supported by
Wickipedia entry on the community of Elysian
Heights concludes, "Elysian Heights was also home to, ‘Room 8 the Cat',
arguably, the most famous cat in America." An Echo Park Historical Society web
and print story by Jenny Burman on the famous feline begins, "Mystique Endures
for Echo Park's ‘Most Famous Cat in the World'. Put simply, Room 8 was - is -
one of the Echo Park's most famous residents, and, between rock stars, art
stars, writers and intellectuals, political luminaries, we have quite had our
Find A Grave, a website listing the final resting
places of famous individuals, shows photos of Room 8's grave and displays more
than 300 messages and virtual flowers left in his memory. One message from a
young girl named Allie posted in 2005 reads, "I am in the second grade at Union
School. Last night I read a story in my reading book about you. My grandmother
said it was a true story and she looked you up on the internet. I was happy to
see your picture. Thank you for being a school cat. I wish I could pet you." Dr.
Joseph Black posted in 2003 "Room Eight taught not only the students of Elysian
Heights, but millions of other eager young minds around the country, about
renewal and of the inevitably of loss in a most heartwarming way."
A photo of Room 8's granite headstone is featured
prominently on a page about the Calabasas pet cemetery in the book, Weird
California by Bishop, Oesterle and Marinacci.
T. Hanson, of Nashville, in an on-line review of
"A Cat Called Room 8" wrote in 2006, "I didn't attend Elysian Heights until a
few years after Room 8 had passed, but he was still a very important part of our
school. Every year or so the school would have more books printed and sell them
as one of the fundraisers.
"At the time I attended Elysian Heights (the 70s),
Ms. (sic) Mason was still our principal. The school still received lots of fan
mail for Room 8, even in the 70s, and students often had writing assignments
responding to other children who wrote asking about Room 8. If you went to
Elysian Heights for any period of time, you learned how to write a letter."
John Hernandez posted on an Echo Park Historical
Society blog in 2007, "He lived a great life. How many cats can say they had an
entire neighborhood at their disposal for food, warmth and companionship?"
A painting of
Room 8 supervises activities in the Elysian Heights School office.
Room 8's presence is still felt throughout the
hall and classrooms at Elysian Heights School. "Elysian Heights School Home of
Room 8 School Cat 1952-1968" is inscribed in foot-high letters in concrete at
the corner of Baxter Street and Echo Park Avenue. A painting of him hangs in the
school office; two paintings greet visitors in the hall next to a large version
of his memorial medallion and a bronze statue.
He is the centerpiece of a triptych mosaic mural
hanging in the school library. His likeness adorns the outside wall of a
classroom building and a 2005 mural by Yuriko Etue features the gray feline
walking through California history on the side of the school auditorium.
His name, likeness and inscriptions devoted to him
by children are preserved in concrete along the school's perimeter. Each year
teachers, like Edith Vizari and Isabel Lee
Elysian Heights teachers
Isabel Lee, (L) and Sheryl Gallo (R) go over lessons in room 8
classroom. Lee, teaches in room 8, now a first and second
grade classroom. Gallo teaches second and third graders in another
classroom. Forty years ago when the feline, Room 8, roamed the
campus, classroom 8 was the sixth grade classroom.
who currently teaches first and second graders in
room 8, read the book to their students. "I teach at the ‘cat school'," said
second and third grade teacher Sheryl Gallo, "Room 8 taught us kindness to all
beings and respect for life."
Sixth grader Hiroshi Omori wrote in the Elysian
Courier, "I remember how Room 8 jumped on my desk and purred. I miss him."
sketch of Room 8 by Valerie Martin.