1 of 2
Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
Students from Rolayne Hanson's third-grade class at McMillan Elementary gather around the stuffed animal Owney on Thursday.

MURRAY — A nearly 120-year-old, legendary Postal Service dog mascot made his way to McMillan Elementary, where he picked up an Olympic pin, participated in a reading party and bounced around in a "bike rodeo" as part of his national tour.

Owney the Traveling Dog arrived at the school by mail Thursday from Colorado, sporting a vest decked in memorabilia from places as faraway as Waikiki, a Philadelphia Eagles jersey and a Wyoming cowboy hat. He's a stuffed animal version of the stray dog adopted by Albany, N.Y., postal workers in 1888, who became a world traveler and is preserved, bushy tail and all, in the Smithsonian Institution's National Postal Museum.

Ten years ago, a schoolteacher stumbled onto Owney's story, printed in the 1977 book, "Owney, the Traveling Dog" by Lynn Hall. The stuffed animal version of Owney has been traveling by mail to classrooms in all 50 states ever since, accompanying children's postcards about their state's history and events, from 9/11 terrorist attacks to Hurricane Katrina. Even the White House is involved.

"It gives kids the feeling of, 'We're one big huge country, but I'm an important part,' " said McMillan third-grade teacher Rolayne Hanson, who uses Owney to teach social studies, geography and world events throughout the school year. "We have friends . . . in every state."

The Smithsonian dubs Owney, the tan mid-sized mutt who wandered into the Albany post office in 1888, the "Mascot of the Railway Mail Service." Adopted by the postal workers, Owney had bedded down in some mailbags, according to the museum's Web site. Attracted to their texture, or possibly scent, Owney followed the bags onto a Railway Mail Service train and ended up riding trains across the state. Later, he traversed the country and, in 1895, the world on trains and steamships.

Railway mail clerks considered Owney a good luck charm, as no train Owney rode ever wrecked (though wrecks were a common occurrence back then,) the Web site states. Around the world, clerks decorated Owney with charms until they were so heavy the dog could no longer bear them.

Owney died of a bullet wound in 1897 in Toledo, the Web site says. Mail clerks raised funds to preserve the body of their mascot. He has remained in the Smithsonian Institution since 1911.

After his story resurfaced 10 years ago, the stuffed dog made his first successful trip to one classroom in each of the 50 states in 2000, the Web site says.

Hansen's classroom has had Owney, who is on the last leg of his journey, since Thursday. The stuffed animal they've been tracking on a giant U.S. map was revered from day one, receiving alone time with each student and participating in class activities.

"He traveled around the world, and visited other places, and everyone was nice to him. He's a hero," third-grader Stephani Rodriguez said.

Owney leaves Monday for Arizona, along with postcards touting Utah's Olympic host city status, its national and state parks and the highest literacy rate in the nation. Utah postcards will go to the one participating school in each state and Puerto Rico, and to the White House.

Past presidents seemed to enjoy being part of the project.

"Thank you so much for sending Owney . . . to me," said President Bill Clinton, who received Owney and a traveling companion, Zoney, in a letter to Ms. Adams' third-grade class in Camarillo, Calif., in 1999. "I hope they enjoyed their vacation at the White House. My staff will miss them very much."

E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com