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Sunday
May062012

Meet Leni, canine ambassador at Mount Pleasant Municipal Airport

Photo by Holly MahaffeyBy Holly Mahaffey

MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. - When flying into the Mt. Pleasant Municipal Airport, expect to be greeted by a friendly face.

Leni the airport dog is a familiar sight to those traveling frequently to Mt. Pleasant by air, as the ambassador of the airport and sidekick to Airport Manager John Benzinger for the past decade.

“We have people who use the airport a lot, and they don’t ask for me. They ask for Leni,” said Benzinger.

Leni has been meeting and greeting air travelers for many years, after being adopted by Benzinger and his wife in 2001.

“He was a rescue dog, we got him in 2001 and because I manage the airport he used to come out with me. As a puppy he used to fly with me. As he got bigger because he couldn’t get in the airplane he just became a real natural airport dog, meeting and greeting, offering entertainment to people, playing fetch,” said Benzinger.

“We’ve never had a single complaint,” Benzinger said. “He’s the airport dog. He’s a dandy.

They estimate his age as about 12.

Leni has met people from all walks of life. Many celebrities entertaining at the Soaring Eagle Casino and Resort fly into the municipal airport, and Leni is always ready for his photo opportunity. Framed portraits of Leni with celebrities or visiting children line the bookshelves of Benzinger’s office in the airport terminal, and Benzinger said Leni also manages to insert himself into just about any photo being taken on the grounds of the airport.

“He’s a ham,” said Benzinger. “Spoiled rotten. Any time we have a project out here, like the water main being hooked up to different buildings, he’s always in the picture. The only thing he doesn’t have is a hard hat.”

Leni once had the honor of greeting President Gerald Ford upon his arrival at the airport, and Benzinger said Larry the Cable Guy loves him.

Photo by Holly Mahaffey

Even after his frequent brushes with fame, Leni has seemed to not let it go to his head. “He treats everyone the same, it doesn’t matter who you are. He’s right there to greet you,” Benzinger said. He said Leni knows to wait for the aircraft engines to shut down, waiting on the grass for his cue to welcome arriving travelers. “As soon as the engines shut down, he’s out there meeting and greeting,” said Benzinger.

Leni’s life didn’t start out so pleasant for him. “Someone dropped him off in the Walmart parking lot,” said Benzinger. “That’s how the pound got him.”

Benzinger said he had an agreement with his wife Chari not to get a dog until they were able to move back to a country setting. They saw a photo of Leni in the Morning Sun as a rescue dog of the month, “just a little teeny guy,” said Benzinger. “The photo from the Sun was good, he looked angry leaning up against someone’s boot.”

Benzinger said Chari was volunteering at the shelter, walking the dogs before they were euthanized. “She came home and here was he. He was ugly. She said ‘they aren’t going to kill this one.’”

After being welcomed into the Benzinger home, Benzinger said Leni used to watch him when he got ready in the mornings. “I used to work at the post office, and if I put my uniform on he would go back to sleep. If I put my work clothes on he’d be ready to go.”

“And if he couldn’t come, he’d pout,” said Benzinger.

Leni wakes up at 6:30 a.m. each day and is to work by 7 a.m. for his airport duties. “He’s there all day, he’ll be there until I go home at night,” said Benzinger. He said Leni does runway checks with him in the mornings, sitting in the front seat looking for deer. “He loves to do deer runs,” said Benzinger.

“He has pulled a rude stunt once, “said Benzinger. “The Allman Brothers Band was here one night for the casino, and had pizzas delivered on their jet; there were big stairs going up to the jet. The pizza dude went into the cockpit and Leni followed him right on there. I said ‘You can’t do that!’ Everyone got a good chuckle out of it. He was ready to eat.”

Benzinger said Leni has been jokingly referred to as the airport security. “A gentleman who lives in town calls him Homeland Security,” Benzinger said. “He says ‘Yeah, Leni’s checking you out, he’s Homeland Security.’ If he lets you into the terminal you’re OK.”

In the past few years, Leni has dealt with some health issues.

“He’s been struggling with cancer for the last several years,” Benzinger said. “Last year they took two tumors off, and a toe, because of the cancer.”

Leni has also had both of his hind leg knees replaced, said Benzinger. “He wore them out. He spent so much time chasing that stinking ball. He used to play with skydiving people while they were skydiving, it’s another reason he wore out his knees.”

Benzinger said, “He would do anything for anyone. He’s the airport ambassador, and it’s worked out real well for him.”

Originally published online and in print in the Morning Sun, a Mount Pleasant, Mich. daily newspaper. 

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