In 2005, I submitted this essay to SCAT, a magazine published by Light of New Orleans. Editor and publisher Joshua Clark accepted it, but Katrina happened and the magazine folded. For the last 10 years, this essay has been rattling around in an old email account. Enjoy!
Wearing an orange reflector vest over his uniform, Winston Cavendish stands with his feet planted widely apart, patrolling a Bank One parking lot as a Mardi Gras parade rolls down Veterans Memorial Boulevard. His posture is as crisp and upright as the starched collar of his oxford shirt. A silver-and-blue patch on his left arm reads “US Security Associates.”
“Yep,” he says, leaning against a sign that says Commercial Lane Only. “I guess I’m the only person to get his ears scratched by the President.”
Cavendish isn’t technically talking about his own ears, but the floppy, brown ones belonging to McGruff the Crime Dog. In a national ad campaign in the 1980s, McGruff urged young Americans to “take a bite out of crime.” McGruff’s signature gravelly voice belongs to Cavendish. One of the first McGruffs, Cavendish logged more than 162,000 air miles promoting the dog and its message of civic responsibility.
Cavendish’s gentle smile suggests 40 years spent helping old ladies cross the street. He possesses the sort of radiant contentment characteristic of monks and very small children. But during his years of crime prevention, Cavendish has been shot, stabbed, run over by a Bronco, and pushed down a flight of stairs. Work-related injuries have sent him to the hospital 18 times.
Cavendish was born in the parking lot of a New Iberia funeral home in 1943. His mother was a French and English schoolteacher from Lafayette, his father a major in the British Indian Army and intelligence officer during World War II. “He hunted Nazis,” Cavendish says reverently.
When Cavendish was five years old, he and his family left Louisiana to live out of a 1948 Ford named Jenny. Their travels spanned the 49 contiguous U.S. states. Cavendish shunned formal education, working as a rancher at the Gunster Cattle Company in Canada, a game guide (he killed a cougar with a hunting knife and a bear with a bow and arrow) and a taxidermist in New Orleans. He embalmed 120 buffalo heads for the Mounted Police Headquarters. When asked how long this task took, he responds, “Oh, not long at all. About four years.”
Inspired by his father’s ideals, Cavendish enrolled in night classes, studying criminal justice. Crime prevention became his passion.
“I love stopping crime before it happens,” Cavendish says.
At age 35, Cavendish became a Mandeville police officer. Within four months, he was promoted to assistant chief of police. His newspaper column, C.O.P. (an acronym for “Constable on Patrol”) was syndicated in the The News Banner, Slidell Sentry News and The Bogalusa Star. It ran for eight years and led to a radio show on WSDL Radio called “Behind the Star.”
Cavendish took correspondence courses from Columbia Broadcasting to develop his diaphragmatic breathing — a technique that served him well when he became the voice of the crime dog.
During this time, Cavendish attended a crime prevention practitioner’s conference in Louisville, Kentucky, where he and other attendees came up with the idea of a crime dog in a group brainstorming session. The National Crime Prevention Council loved the concept. Armed with an old London Fog trench coat, pants from Goodwill, a cloth dog head and a well-cultivated voice, Cavendish became McGruff.
His hardest task was convincing officers in other precincts to give the lovable dog a home. Many police departments were less than receptive.
“’You gonna make me wear a dog costume?’” Cavendish says, curling his lower lip in imitation of the resistant police machismo he often encountered.“’That’s bullshit.’”
In spite of this adversity, Cavendish says he was “blessed with McGruff.”
“I received wonderful letters from children thanking McGruff for protecting their lives,” he says. “Wonderful stories.”
McGruff garnered appreciation from more prestigious sources, too. The Postmaster General invited Cavendish to do commercials. He attended a gala at the Smithsonian, where McGruff’s 20-cent stamp was unveiled, placing McGruff alongside such luminaries as Smoky the Bear. Cavendish also received his fair share of accolades. He was made Policeman of the USA and decorated in FBI headquarters. He also was Policeman of Louisiana and Deputy of Louisiana that same year. He received the President’s Award from the International Society of Crime Prevention. He received the keys to New York and Los Angeles. He became honorary mayor of Selma, Alabama.
“Meeting President [Ronald] Reagan was a pretty big thing for me. I was dressed as McGruff… I said, ‘Good grief! It’s not every day a dog meets the President,'” Cavendish recounts. “And Reagan said, ‘You’d be surprised how many dogs there are on Capitol Hill.’”
In 1988, Cavendish resigned as a policeman after a dirty election for sheriff. Since then, he has worked as a security guard. Cavendish and McGruff have taken separate paths—McGruff spends most of his time in a four-story office on Madison Avenue in New York. Meanwhile, Winston devotes his energy to a memoir titled In Security. which chronicles his decades in crime prevention.
“I’m writing this book as closure or finality to a career. Maybe to vindicate my existence. Maybe to be an example to others. Maybe that’s it. I wish I could give you a clear, Johnny Carson-type answer.”
Cavendish frowns, trying to crystallize his statement of purpose as parade revelers pass by, one tossing an empty daiquiri cup onto the sidewalk.
“I guess it’s for others,” he says. “I like to think I did this, not for self-gratification, but for others.”