This fall, a stream of new students will arrive at Carleton College, a well-regarded liberal arts school in Northfield, Minn., about 40 miles south of the Twin Cities.
When they reach the library, there’s a good chance the tour guide will point out a bronze statue of cat stationed near the entrance. It’s Toff, who for more than a dozen years roamed the halls of academia, ruling the Carleton campus as his own private domain.
Toff started out life in 1997 as a stray kitten adopted by a couple of professors — Martha Paas, in the economics department, and Roger Paas, a German professor.
The Paases initially tried to keep Toff inside their house, which was across the street from the school, but the cat insisted on being let outside. Eventually the Paases gave up and Toff began to spend his days and nights exploring the school grounds and beyond, typically returning home to catch breakfast.
Although pets aren’t allowed in school buildings, Toff wielded a personality that could open doors, and he wandered where he pleased.
Toff roamed into offices, including the president’s. He also visited classes, crashed trustee parties and took naps in students’ beds. He was found loitering in the entrance of the student union waiting to be let in. And campus security, responding to motion-detector alarms set off in the library in the middle of the night, would arrive to find Toff.
The charming and intrepid feline flaneur wasn’t merely tolerated — he was adopted by the campus.
He got elected to the student senate as a write-in candidate. Students made a video about him. He was featured in the alumni magazine, the student newspaper and the school’s website. He appeared on postcards sold at the student bookstore, and he endorsed a recommended reading list at the library. Students were known to say that the school’s embrace of Toff helped them decide to enroll there.
When Toff died in March 2011, the St. Paul Pioneer Press published an obituary on him, and there was an outpouring of alumni condolences on his Facebook page, which got views from more than 85,000 people from all over the world.
Recently, another free-spirited cat, an orange tabby called Lyman Bongo Bailey Openshaw, seems to have been adopted by the Carelton campus.
But Toff isn’t forgotten. Students often touch his statue for good luck before exams, flowers are still left on his campus grave, and his April 1 birthday is celebrated annually with cake at the school dining halls.
There’s also often a Toff-related April Fool’s announcement at the Gould Library. One year, the library staff announced they were renaming the building the Toff Memorial Library. Another year, they claimed they were beginning a new service where you could check out a cat.
According to Martha Paas, Toff “revealed the generous heart of Carleton, and where he was concerned, people would overlook the ban on animals, for ‘It isn’t an animal. It is Toff.’”
Photos courtesy of Carleton College.