Sonny Seiler remembered as the ‘ultimate and eternal damn good dog’

Caretaker of Uga mascot line laid to rest in his hometown

SAVANNAH — They say a city is a reflection of its most colorful residents. In Savannah, home to many a character celebrated both on the printed page and the silver screen, Sonny Seiler defined the city’s spirit for much of his 90 years.

Mourners from across the state gathered Wednesday to attest to Seiler’s legacy and bid him farewell. Seiler died Aug. 28 from cancer, leaving behind four children, seven grandchildren, one great grandson and one English bulldog — not to mention hundreds of thousands of admirers.

Such is the appreciation for Seiler that his funeral drew a standing-room-only crowd on a weekday morning. The Lutheran Church of the Ascension, located downtown on Wright Square, was packed with Georgia dignitaries, from judges and lawyers to business leaders to government and elected leaders to University of Georgia officials.

In conversations before, during and after the service, Seiler’s family members and friends shared memories of a loving family man known, according to his granddaughter Margaret Story Bradwell, for his “many, many side gigs.”

They talked of Seiler the ambassador, caretaker to generations of University of Georgia bulldog mascots, beginning with Uga I.

They talked of Seiler the attorney, an unrivaled master of evidentiary procedure and a courtroom showman.

They talked of Seiler the thespian, an actor with three movie credits to his name. Those included an appearance in the film version of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” the best-selling book based on trials in which he was a lead defense attorney.

They talked of Seiler the daredevil, who as a teen swam 11 miles from Savannah’s River Street to Fort Pulaski near Tybee Island, “braving the tides, jellyfish, and an incoming nor’easter” along the way.

They spoke of Seiler the prankster, a one-time kidnapper of Auburn’s beloved golden eagle, an incident few know about because Seiler and his accomplices returned the bird soon after snatching it due to the unruly creature’s bite and claws.

Of all Seiler’s qualities noted during the remembrances, two came up repeatedly: His kindness and good humor.

As one of his eulogists — longtime friend, fishing buddy and iconic Georgia Bulldog radio network reporter Loran Smith — told attendees “Sonny will be remembered as the ultimate and eternal ‘damn good dog.’”

Seiler’s death came suddenly, according to family members. He’d dealt with illnesses off and on in recent years, albeit nothing out of the ordinary for a man of his age, they said. A new ailment left him bedridden in late July, and after a battery of tests, doctors diagnosed cancer as the cause.

Seiler’s oldest daughter, Swann, said she’d hoped her father would attend last weekend’s Georgia game against Tennessee-Martin and the regular-season debut of Boom, or Uga XI. He died five days before the opener.

Seiler’s connection to the University of Georgia and the bulldog mascots earned him statewide notoriety. The Seilers have raised the line of English bulldogs as family pets since 1956, when Sonny, then a Georgia law school student and a newlywed, was gifted the pooch by his mother-in-law.

Seiler and his wife, Cecelia, took the dog that would become Uga I to its first Georgia game on a lark – the idea was born at a pregame fraternity party. The Bulldogs won that day, and Seiler was ordered by then-Coach Wally Butts to bring the canine to future games.

The Uga tradition continues today, and every Seiler family toast — at weddings, funerals, birthdays and other gatherings — is to the health of the English bulldogs, his granddaughter, Bradwell, noted during her eulogy.

Yet caring for Uga and his successors was one of Seiler’s side gigs, not his professional passion.

His day job was as an attorney, and his peers considered him among the top civil defense lawyers in the region. His focus on evidence and leveraging those findings at trial were his specialties, according to Jan Skutch, a retired journalist who covered the Chatham County courts for more than four decades.

Seiler’s courtroom skills led to his defending an accused murderer, Jim Williams, in a series of trials in the 1980s chronicled in “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” Prior to hiring Seiler, Williams was convicted of shooting and killing a young man in his Savannah home, but that ruling was overturned on appeal.

Prosecutors refiled the charges against Williams, and over the next eight years tried him three more times. The last ended in an acquittal when Seiler discovered key evidence that supported Williams’ claim of self-defense in the shooting.

The author of “Midnight,” John Berendt, noted Seiler’s courtroom prowess in an email conversation ahead of Wednesday’s funeral.

“He was a showman in front of a jury. He amused them, he had flair, and jurors liked him for it,” Berendt wrote. “In the jury room during the Williams trial they referred to him as Matlock,” a reference to the fictional TV show lawyer played by Andy Griffith.

Seiler was buried Wednesday in the Savannah cemetery, Bonaventure, made famous by Berendt’s book. Eulogist Smith reminded mourners that Seiler lived life as he practiced law.

“Sonny was about living life to the fullest,” Smith said, “and it was a privilege to tag along.”