At the end of the work day when the College of William and Mary President Katherine Rowe walks across the Sir Christopher Wren Yard from the Brafferton to the President’s House, she is usually greeted by two eager faces. Rowe and First Gentleman Bruce Jacobson don’t live alone — they are joined by Lyra and Bear, their two 14-year-old cats.
Lyra, the spunkier and smaller of the siblings, often uses this greeting as an opportunity for attention and a chance to make her escape outdoors, where Rowe said she’s content spending hours roaming the private garden bordering Richmond Road. Her brother Bear is more nervous, preferring to lead his owners up the steps away from the President’s House’s more public first floor.
“Bear, he wants attention; he’s completely social,” Rowe said. “He needs to have a certain amount of contact with us, particularly with Bruce, a day. … Bruce has been away for much of today so you’re seeing Bruce affection behaviors here, like, ‘If I could just get him to come upstairs with me,’ and he’s a little antsy because there are too many people he hasn’t met before. But he knows this is where the action is, so he wants to be a part of it. He has this push and pull of FOMO — fear of missing out — but he’s also an introvert.”
Jacobson, who works out of the President’s House as a telecommunications contractor, added that Bear climbs on his lap at least two or three times a day to get enough attention.
On the other hand, Lyra is not as shy. Jacobson said that if the weather is nice and the sun is out, Lyra would be content spending hours outside, coming in only for attention and food.
“Lyra is very independent; she likes to go out; she used to hunt,” Jacobson said. “She would bring us trophies when we lived in Northampton. It is fertile hunting grounds. … I think she knows we’ve heard people talk about big birds carrying off small animals, and I think she knows. She stays in this backyard under the boxwoods.”
Unfortunately for Lyra, Rowe added that they have yet to find any small rodents in their backyard, meaning that her hunting days have come to a halt. She also added that while Lyra may be afraid of big birds, she’s getting bolder — sometimes venturing around the front of the President’s House to explore the Wren Yard. Both Jacobson and Rowe said they have had students knock on the door, worried that one of their cats had gotten out.
“The last week we’ve had students knock on our door and go, ‘Is this your cat?’ and she’s just shamelessly rolling around asking for scratches,” Rowe said.
The cats first became a part of Rowe and Jacobson’s family when Rowe was an English professor at Bryn Mawr College, located just west of Philadelphia. The two were rescued from an alleyway along with the rest of their litter in Philadelphia and ended up at a shelter where they caught the couple’s eye. Bear struck them as big, gentle and quiet while Lyra was spunky, fast and small. Their contrasting personalities made them a perfect fit.
“They are amazingly social, and they are mostly pretty nice with each other,” Rowe said. “Once in a while something goes wrong, and there’s a spat, and we can never figure out why. He seems to be dominant around food; he’ll push her away from the food dish, but she’s dominant around the bed. If she’s decided she’s up there and he’s trying to encroach, she’ll smack him away.”
Rowe turned to Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy for the cats’ names. In the books, Lyra Belacqua is the young female protagonist, and Iorek Byrnison is an armored bear. However, Rowe said Bear didn’t live up to the name Iorek and was later nicknamed Bear or “Bearsy” by Rowe and Jacobson’s children Daniel and Beah.
Similar to Pullman’s protagonist, feline Lyra is spunky and mischievous.
“She likes to ride shoulders, Lyra does, and so once she’s sort of had enough time, if she’s relaxed and feeling friendly and if you’re sitting down, she’ll just jump up on your shoulder and settle there and drape her way around,” Rowe said.
After years of living near Bryn Mawr College and Smith College, Bear and Lyra braved a plane ride — their first ever — to Washington, D.C. and a trip in the car down to Williamsburg to settle in to their new home. Rowe and Jacobson said they handled the travel well.
Now settled in, the two have returned to old routines with slight adjustments. They’ve found a comfortable perching spot on the second floor landing where they each have a bed. At night, Lyra sleeps under the covers and Bear sleeps curled around Jacobson’s neck and head. In the morning, they’re up early, begging to be let out and fed.
“There was a while they were looking for the backyard,” Rowe said. “Lyra would go out every single door trying to find the backyard she remembered, but now this backyard has taken its place, and she knows its whole perimeter.”
Along with their cats, Rowe and Jacobson have settled into the house, finding comfort in consistencies like beloved family photos, a cherished piano once used for community lessons and public space in the house that allows them to engage with groups like the President’s Aides and the Spotswood Society.
Both reflecting on this last academic year and looking to the future, Rowe said she’s grateful that students and community members respect that the President’s House serves as their home. In the public first floor, she said she’s also enjoyed having it be filled with lots of people for faculty book parties or gatherings of students. Now, she said she’s just looking to have more people come by to play the piano.
“One constant is we’ve always liked to have our houses be destination for friends and family and friends of our kids,” Rowe said. “… So having this space be open for lots of people is nice, it feels like a continuation of that.”