Sculptor Anna Vaughn Hyatt, an animalier, was commissioned to create the icon. She studied and made sketches of “Sultan,” a black African lion housed at New York’s Bronx Park Zoo, before creating a one-fourth-sized model.
The Steele High School mascot, a bronze sculpture of a lion, was unveiled in 1908 at the corner of Main Street and Monument Avenue in Dayton. DAYTON DAILY NEWS ARCHIVE
The artist, who donated her skills to the school, traveled to Naples, Italy in 1907, to supervise the bronze casting of the lion at a local foundry.
“I worked all that winter modeling the large lion and in March and April they cast it by the cire-perdu process exactly as it was done in the days of Benvenuto Cellini,” she told the Dayton Daily News in 1952.
Leo the Lion, commissioned for Steele High School and unveiled in 1908, was relocated to the Dayton Art Institute in 1955. DAYTON DAILY NEWS ARCHIVE
“The place was lit only by oil torches. An image of the Virgin was conspicuous and during the crucial pourings of the bronze the excited workmen knelt to pray for the success of the pouring.”
Hyatt traveled to Dayton for the “heroic statue in bronze” unveiling held Dec. 11, 1908. She described her artistic process to an audience, the Steele High School band performed and numerous presentations were made.
Longfellow School eighth grade students Cindy Miller, Barbara Weber and Sharon Schamel were photographed in 1973 on the back of Leo the Lion at his perch outside the Dayton Art Institute. DAYTON DAILY NEWS ARCHIVE
“This splendid work of art, so suggestive of dignity, poise and latent power, will but prove to be another means of enhancing your loyalty and affection for your alma mater…” said John E. Eberhardt, chairman of the high school committee of the board of education.
The crowd of students and teachers, wearing red and black, the Steele High School colors, moved outside and into the street to view the campus scene as the new mascot was unveiled.
“The beautiful Lion over which our banner floated, stood looking down…” wrote student Carrie A. Breene in 1923. “There was absolute silence for one long moment. Cars had stopped, citizens had joined us, all traffic was still. Then broke tumultuous huzzas from hundreds of throats and the crowds surged nearer.”
In 1913, raging flood water knocked the lion from its pedestal, breaking his tail and destroying the base he stood on. The community rallied and raised funds to reinstate the statue and in the fall held another dedication.
Today Leo the Lion stands watch at the Dayton Art Institute.
Credit: Lynn Hulsey
Credit: Lynn Hulsey
The mascot kept watch over generations of Dayton students as they entered Steele High School. In 1955, after the school had closed, Leo was moved to his current home perched outside the Dayton Art Institute overlooking the skyline.