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Mule Trouble

A stolen mascot brings celebrity to a Pitt prankster who now hobnobs with the Hollywood crowd

Written by Niki Kapsambelis



The six fraternity brothers—five Pi Lams and a Sigma Chi—were in luck. They had just cut through a security fence, at West Point, as well as a second fence where they discovered snoozing guards. Their mission was on target. They’d driven from Pittsburgh to accomplish one goal: Steal the Army mascot—a mule named Poncho stabled at the West Point campus—and take it to Pittsburgh, Pa.

Pitt and Army were about to face each other on the gridiron back in Pennsylvania, and the six came up with the idea of stealing Army’s mascot and riding it onto the field the day of the game. Their scheme lacked only a few minor details, among them how to transport the mule back to Pittsburgh.

Undaunted, the group drove east to New York, stopping in Eastchester to have dinner with the parents of Herb Dodell, one of the Pi Lambda Phi brothers who planned the prank. Then they drove to West Point, broke in, found the guards asleep, and completed Phase One of their plan by stealing the mule. “It wasn’t as elaborate as it should have been,” recalls Dodell, who was a sophomore at the time. In fact, there wasn’t much of a plan beyond Phase One; the local truck rental companies were closed until morning.

The group decided on the spot that four of them would hide the mule in a wooded area near the Hudson River while two of them, including Dodell, drove to nearby White Plains, N.Y., to rent a U-Haul for a later rendezvous with the rest of the group and the mule. While they were en route, Dodell noticed a lot of police cars and military vehicles driving past them in the opposite direction. A local had seen the pack leading the mule through town and alerted authorities. “All of a sudden, we looked in the mirror, and the police and military vehicles had turned around and were behind us,” says Dodell. He and his fraternity brother were pulled over and arrested, then taken to West Point, where they were thrown into the stockade with the rest of their crew. “Nobody was taking it that seriously,” says Dodell. “But,” he adds, “we didn’t know that. There were six of us in the can. The cadets wanted to shave our heads, but we were protected by the military police.”

Eventually, the group was set free—sans mule—but not until someone snapped a photo commemorating the occasion. The picture, signed by William Westmoreland (who later commanded American military operations during the Vietnam War), hung on the wall in Dodell’s law office for years, a reminder of the social side of his undergraduate days at the University of Pittsburgh.

Dodell went on to build a distinguished legal career and now serves on the Board of Directors of the Pitt Alumni Association. Yet, a glimmer of irreverence still shines in him. “I was always kind of a prankster,” admits Dodell, who came back a campus folk hero after that 1958 brush with the law. “I was a real fraternity guy; in those days, your whole social life was the Greeks.”

Originally, Dodell—always a sports fanatic—came to Pittsburgh to check out the University and visit a nearby relative. Thrilled by the football team’s success, he enrolled, quickly becoming immersed in Pi Lambda Phi and student government, where he served as chief justice of the student court, a Druids member, and as interfraternity rush chairman. During his undergraduate years as a history major, he sold women’s shoes and worked as a delivery boy before graduating in 1961.

Dodell used his Pitt education as a springboard for law studies. While at Brooklyn Law School, he finished classes at noon and worked as a store detective for Lord & Taylor from 1 to 10 p.m., eventually becoming head of security for the Eastchester branch store. He began his legal career when ABC hired him as a staff lawyer. He soon transferred West to California. Stints with a television production company, as a resident counsel and business affairs executive, and with the Los Angeles district attorney’s office followed. Then, Dodell was presented with the opportunity of a lifetime: Warner Brothers offered him five times his DA salary, plus perks like the use of Jack Warner’s sauna and tennis court, to become the company’s director of business affairs. For a man in his late 20s, it was a dream come true.

After years immersed in the business and law of entertainment, Dodell is today a consultant to the Law Fund Management Group, LLC, a company that invests in lawsuits by funding litigation that individuals and companies can’t afford to pursue. He represents parties in civil and criminal insurance litigation matters.

He is a member of the Million Dollar Advocates and the American Board of Trial Advocates, and he has argued successfully before the California Supeme Court. Recently, he became a Superior Court judge (pro tempore) in Los Angeles County. His wife of 30 years, Shelli, works as his firm’s office administrator. His son, Gregory, graduated from Pitt and is now a resident at New York’s St. Luke Hospital. His daughter, Alyson, is an aspiring singer.

Dodell, who is president of the Southern California Pitt Club, raises funds for Southern California students to attend Pitt. Some fundraising events have been staged at Sony movie premieres, including the films The Da Vinci Code, Spider-Man 3, and Quantum of Solace, with food catered by celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck.

The Pitt Club of Southern California has raised more than $40,000 during the past three years. Last year, the club awarded its first scholarship to Pauline Gonzales, who was awarded a four-year scholarship.

Whenever Dodell returns to campus—usually three times a year—he likes to walk through the Cathedral of Learning, visit his old fraternity house, and attend a football or basketball game. “I’m dedicated to doing something meaningful, and Pitt’s part of it. I have very warm, fond feelings for the school,” he says. “I guess I’m just a kid at heart.”