William Howard Taft and James Madison, the official canine ambassadors of the Virginia Tech College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, weren’t always presidents.

Abandoned at an east Tulsa taco stand when he was a puppy, James (then known as Rocco) was a tiny, scruffy street dog when Laura Belmonte, dean of the college, and her wife, Susie, fostered him. Part Chihuahua, part terrier, part hellion, he instantly stole their hearts — and socks and towels and bathmats and anything else that caught his fancy — and became a foster fail.

James licks Laura Belmonte's face.
Originally a scrappy street pup, James is always affectionate. Photo by David Hungate for Virginia Tech.

A few weeks later, a fortuitous call from a local pet store brought Wally into the mix. A purebred Westie, he had been boarded there for two years. The staff all loved him, but knew he deserved a better life.

After persuading his first mom to surrender him, the co-owner contacted the rescue group for whom Susie and Laura volunteered. His heartbreaking story immediately touched their hearts.

Willy in a bowtie
Willy always opts for formalwear when visiting the Office of the Dean. Photo by David Hungate for Virginia Tech.

Laura and Susie’s first Westie, Truman, had died a few weeks earlier, his life sadly shortened by spending his first years in horrible circumstances as a stud dog in a puppy mill. Susie and Laura really wanted another Westie, and after discovering Wally and Rocco were already pals in doggie day care, they decided it was fate.

Determined to keep things presidential, Laura and Susie christened the pups James Madison and William Howard Taft. Little did they know that the pups would rise from such humble circumstances to the glories and fame of representing such an august college.

Willy and James rock their Hokie gear in Dean Laura Belmonte’s office.
Willy and James rock their Hokie gear in the office of Laura Belmonte, a professor who specializes in the history of U.S. foreign relations. On a shelf behind the trio are a set of presidential bobbleheads. Photo by David Hungate for Virginia Tech.

Other Adventures of Willy and James