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Tag: memorial

Remembering my son, Joe

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On May 13, 1992, a flight arrived at LAX from Seoul and three Korean babies, orphans all, were carried off the plane by their escorts to be handed to their new adoptive parents.

My wife and I were there to meet one of them, our new son whom we’d decided, based on photos, would be named either Sam or Joe, depending on which seemed the better fit after seeing him in person.

He was the last one off the plane, a tiny thing with an unruly shock of jet black hair that was shooting in every direction after the 11-hour flight. For a moment, we debated whether he might be an “Elvis.” But we opted for Joe.

Joe WoestendiekFast forward 26 years — and God, did it ever go too fast — and Joe (full name Joseph Yoon Tae Woestendiek) was lying in a coma in a Memphis hospital, his hair shaved off, and parts of his skull removed to accommodate the swelling of his severely damaged brain. The outlook was bleak, at best.

He was on his way home from work when his car rear-ended a dump truck on the interstate near Holly Springs, Miss. The truck grinded to a halt. The truck driver pulled Joe out of his burning car. And he was airlifted by helicopter from Mississippi to Memphis — to, ironically, the Elvis Presley Trauma Center.

He died 13 days later. For nearly two weeks doctors kept him sedated and fought to relieve his cranial pressure even while warning that, if he came out of his coma at all, he would likely have little to no brain function due to the extent of the brain damage. They warned, too, that lung problems had developed, and that those and the strain on his heart, were more likely to take his life. His heart came to a stop on June 18.

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I write this another week later, partly to explain why our ohmidog! posts came to a halt, but more to keep his memory alive, and in hopes that writing about it will be cathartic and make some of the numbness and emptiness inside me go away.

joetromboneJoe grew up in Orange County, Calif.; Yardley, Pa., Anderson, S.C., and Florence, Ala. He lived in recent years with his mom and stepdad in New Albany, Miss. He attended the University of Mississippi, where he earned a B.S. in computer science from the School of Engineering.

He’d recently started a job he loved — in the information technology department of Automated Conveyor Systems, Inc., of West Memphis, Ark.

His visits to my home, in Winston-Salem, N.C., had dwindled, but up until he finished college he’d come here regularly on holidays and in the summer. He loved guitars, and video games and, of course, dogs. He’d always get teary on his last day visiting; I was never sure if it was because he was leaving me, or leaving my dog Ace. He’d yet to meet my new dog, Jinjja, also adopted from Korea.

SONY DSCWhile here, Joe would volunteer with the Forsyth Humane Society, an organization I’ve also done some work with as a volunteer. He’d walk dogs at the shelter, and help out at events, his favorite role being donning the mascot costume — a swelteringly hot furry dog outfit — and working the crowd.

He had three dogs of his own at home.

Because of his love of dogs, and the joy working with humane society brought him, I’ve decided a fitting tribute would be to make a donation to the humane society in his name — one significant enough to merit a plaque with his name on it.

His name on a brick paver is one option, but I, for what are probably selfish reasons, want more.

I want to try to make a donation large enough to make him a lifetime sponsor of one of the shelter’s kennels.

That way, everyone who walks in to look at the many dogs available for adoption will see his name, and maybe more importantly, I will. I like the idea of a kid once in need of adoption sponsoring a kennel that will house dog after dog after dog in need of adoption — forever.

That requires a $10,000 donation, not an amount I have handy, or can even dream of obtaining. But, unachievable as that might be — and needing something to do right now — that’s what I’m working on.

So here is my plan.

I’ve started a Facebook fundraiser aimed at donating $10,000 to the Forsyth Humane Society in his memory.

SONY DSCA memorial service for him will be held in Mississippi this week.

But I want to do something here in Winston-Salem — perhaps a mini-concert featuring some musician friends of his and mine. I’m working now on setting that up.

I want it to be a simple and joyful hour or so, nothing somber, nothing speech-filled — just a chance for local friends to come together and say goodbye, maybe at the Muddy Creek Cafe in Bethania. We always enjoyed going there.

When Joe arrived in the U.S., my then-wife Jenny and I were living in Orange County, California. The riots that Rodney King’s beating sparked in Los Angeles were only starting to settle down. I was covering those for the newspaper I worked for at the time, the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Every morning, I would cruise through the most devastated areas, returning to a hotel in the evening to write. It was a bleak couple of weeks, the kind that make you worry about humanity and its future. Nearly every day, my rental car was pelted by rocks and chunks of concrete. At nearly every stoplight, I’d receive hateful stares and threatening gestures.

I remember wondering as I drove those streets how, and why, complete strangers could hate me so much.

Amid all that, we got the call that our adoptee was on his way. We were supposed to pick him up in Korea, but somebody goofed. My boss was kind enough to give me some time off, away from the riots, to bond with my new son.

And in the ensuing weeks, and years, I remember wondering how a complete stranger could love me so much.

And me him.

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That’s what he taught me, and it’s not unlike the lesson anyone who adopts a dog learns. Show a creature love and respect and loyalty and you’ll get it back — unconditionally and exponentially. Oppress, abuse and disrespect it and you’ll get … what you deserve.

As abruptly and prematurely as Joe’s life ended, I will always be thankful for the joy he brought me and the lessons he taught me.

I’m thankful, too, for all the prayers and expressions of support I’ve received from friends (and even strangers). I am overwhelmed by the response to the Facebook fundraiser. I posted it three days ago, and it’s already more than halfway to its goal.

Thanks also to the caring staff at Regional One’s Elvis Presley Trauma Center, and to that truck driver, Michael Simpson of Memphis, whose actions gave Joe a fighting chance.

Those wishing to contribute to Joe’s plaque can do so through the Facebook fundraiser.

Contributions can also be made through ohmidog!, or directly to Forsyth Humane Society. Please specify they are for Joe Woestendiek’s memorial plaque.

Michigan funeral home holds service for dog who comforted thousands of the grieving

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Hollie, a golden retriever who for 16 years comforted mourners at a Kalamazoo funeral home, was remembered yesterday with a ceremony in her honor.

Betzler Life Story Funeral Home held an open house for the therapy dog they believe to have been the first used in Michigan by a funeral home.

While more funeral homes have begun having therapy dogs on the premises, Betzler’s started their program at a time it was mostly unheard of.

Scott Betzler, Hollie’s owner, got the idea while he served on the board of directors of the Kalamazoo Humane Society. That organization offered a pet visitation program for nursing homes at the time, and Betzler decided to try to incorporate it at the funeral home.

“It was very different at the time to have a dog in a funeral home,” said Patrick Bauschke, a funeral director at Betzler. “But Hollie made it the most natural fit. She’s worked thousands of funerals and visitations and helped countless people.”

“Mention the Betzler name and chances are people will remember Hollie,” he added. “She happily greeted people at the door, mingled throughout visitations and services, and offered a calming and comforting influence on those who needed her most.”

Bauschke said Hollie had a soothing effect on visitors — “an unmatched sense of knowing just who needed her and when.”

holly2MLive reported that setting aside some time for people to remember and honor Hollie was an obvious idea.

“So many people have adored her, it is a time for people to come in and visit,” Funeral Director Joe Buysse said. “We have so many people who say, ‘I remember when I was here for Grandma or Uncle Charlie and she was here. She was a big comfort to me when I was a kid. Now I’m grown up.’ It is amazing how she has touched so many people.”

Hollie completed temperance training through the Kalamazoo Humane Society and was the first official funeral home therapy dog in the Greater Kalamazoo and Paw Paw areas.

Her work was featured in articles by the International Cemetery Cremation and Funeral Association, the Michigan Funeral Directors Association and the Kalamazoo Gazette.

She was often taken on visits to local senior communities, and visited elementary schools for book-reading sessions with children.

You can read more about Hollie’s life here.

With Hollie’s passing, the funeral home says her role will be taken over by Ellie, a 3-year-old English retriever who has been working alongside her.

(Photos: Betzler Life Story Funeral Home)

Western Kentucky weather dog passes away

Radar the Weather Dog — voted Bowling Green’s best television personality for nine years in a row — passed away Christmas morning at age 16.

Julie Milam, general manager at WNKY, broke the news to staff at the end of the station’s morning news program Tuesday, the Bowling Green Daily News reported.

“It’s a very sad and somber day at our station,” she said. “It is a great loss at our station for every employee and the community as a whole.”

A shelter pet, Radar was rescued from the Bowling Green-Warren County Humane Society in 2005. He was introduced as the station’s weather dog, appeared in forecasts with the meteorologist and lived at the station full time up until two years ago.

radarThe purebred border collie was a friendly dog who would roam about the station and greet visitors. When the time came for the weather report though, “he knew to be in that chair (and) be still,” Milam said. “He would bark on command.”

Radar gained additional fame at various community events, including his appearances at the annual Fur Ball that benefits the humane society.

Radar would go home with various members of the staff on weekends, and there were often arguments about who would get to take him home.

Eventually, he moved in full time with Marilyn Gardner, her two dogs and her foster kittens.

“He was a very loyal and sweet and funny character,” she said.

From 2008 to 2017, Radar was voted Bowling Green’s best television personality by Daily News and Amplifier readers as part of the annual Best of Bowling Green poll.

Radar’s adopted sister, SOKY, has taken over some of his station duties. She was also adopted from Logan County through the Bowling Green-Warren County Humane Society.

Lorri Hare, the shelter director, said Radar’s celebrity did wonders for promoting animal adoption.

“You can find great dogs here at the shelter every day,” she said. “He’ll be missed by a lot of us for sure. He lived a great life. A lot of people loved him.”

A public memorial is planned for February, according to WNKY.

Shep: Montana dog was faithful to the end

It may be a dog in Japan who is most famous for demonstrating the true meaning of loyalty, but the vigil of a Montana dog, named Shep, is at least equally heart-wrenching.

The story of Shep’s vigil begins, almost eerily, the year after the death of Hachiko, the Akita who, after his master died, famously waited for him every day at a train station for nearly 10 years.

Hachiko would accompany his master, a university professor, to the train station every morning, and be waiting for him when he returned. When his master didn’t get off the train one day, having died while at work, Hachiko continued going to the train station every day for nine years and nine months, until he died in 1935.

In 1936, a sheep herder in Montana took ill and was taken to St. Clare Hospital in Fort Benton. His dog followed him into town, and waited outside the hospital.

A nun who ran the kitchen at the hospital brought the dog food as he stood vigil for the next several days, until the sheep herder, whose name has been lost to history, died.

His body was put into a coffin and taken to the train station in Fort Benton to be shipped to his family back east.

As it was loaded onto the train, Shep was there watching. Reportedly, he whimpered as the door slammed shut and the train pulled away,

The dog chased the train for a while, then turned back.

For the next five and a half years, Shep, believed to be a collie mix, never left the train station. He lived underneath the train platform, and would greet each train that stopped — about four a day — in hopes of seeing his master.

According to FortBenton.com, Shep “eyed each passenger hopefully, and was often chased off as a mongrel but never completely discouraged. Neither the heat of summer days nor the bitter Montana winter days prevented Shep from meeting the next train.

“As Shep’s fame spread, people came from everywhere to see him, to photograph him, and to try and make friends and possibly adopt him. All of the attention was somewhat unwelcome; after checking the train he often retired quickly to get away from those who came to see him. Most people missed the point that Shep was a one-man dog.”

Railroad employees fed Shep, and the story of his vigil was carried in the old “Believe it Or Not” newspaper feature, and picked up by other news media of the day.

As time went on, though, Shep was slowing down, probably arthritic, and he had grown hard of hearing.

One day in 1942, unable to hear an arriving train and too slow and frail to get off the icy tracks, Shep was struck and killed.

His death made headlines and thousands of people sent in condolences.

Hundreds attended his funeral, at which a boy scout troop carried Shep in his coffin up to a bluff and buried him.

An obelisk and sign mark the spot of his burial, and 50 years after his death the town of Fort Benton commissioned a statue memorializing Shep, which now sits alongside the Missouri River.

NBC’s Dateline carried a short report about Shep last week:

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Residents create a memorial at site where pit bull was found hanging from bridge

Concerned and frightened residents of an Atlanta suburb have created a memorial to a pit bull found hanged from a bridge nearly two months ago.

They’ve covered the guardrail on the overpass with stuffed animals and reward signs in hopes the dog’s killer will be brought to justice.

Volunteers met at the bridge along Kelly Lake Road Saturday and attached hundreds of stuffed animals — mostly dogs — to the handrails.

Police in DeKalb County continue to investigate the case, and a $10,000 reward has been offered for information leading to a suspect, according to WSB-TV in Atlanta.

A woman walking her 2-year-old son to day care found the dog hanging by a chain from the bridge on May 20.

Many residents believe the killer lives in their neighborhood.

“You don’t have to be a dog lover or even have pets to understand what a vicious crime this was committed right here across the street from where people live, right next door,” explained Johanna Falber, who organized the event.

Falber said the group has been posting reward signs on the bridge, but someone keeps removing them.

“It’s about a vicious killer that’s out here somewhere, that keeps ripping down our signs so they’re not caught,” Falbert said. “We want attention. We want this to stop. We want that dog killer found.”

Police described the dog as a brown and white, female pit bull.

Anyone with information about the dog or the crime can call the police tip line at 404-294-2645.

Is artwork an attack on pit bulls?

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Whether it’s art, propaganda, or a combination of the two, a memorial to victims of fatal dog attacks is creating controversy as one of dozens of entries in a public art display in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The work  is called “Out of the Blue,” a reference to how dog attacks — and particularly pit bull attacks, the artist repeatedly points out — usually happen.

outofblue2The display, created by a woman identifying herself as Joan Marie Kowal, consists of more than 30 decorated crosses, representing the number of people killed in dog attacks this year, and images of the victims, many of them children.

The artwork is rubbing some dog lovers, and particularly pit bull lovers, the wrong way, which has led to some demonstrations and the kind of heated, everybody’s an expert debate that follows pit bulls around wherever they go.

Joan Marie Kowal, we suspect, has more experience in badmouthing pit bulls than she does in creating art, but then again artists don’t need credentials in this competition.

Every year, for 19 days, three square miles of downtown Grand Rapids is opened up to artists in ArtPrize, a competition that awards $200,000 to the grand prize winner.

Downtown becomes “an open playing field where anyone can find a voice in the conversation about what is art and why it matters,” according to the  ArtPrize  website. “Art from around the world pops up in every inch of downtown … It’s unorthodox, highly disruptive, and undeniably intriguing to the art world and the public alike.”

This year, “Out of the Blue” has proved among the most disruptive.

A week ago, perturbed pit bull owners brought their dogs to Calder Plaza, where the entry is displayed, in hopes of presenting their views and showing that pit bulls — the breed most often mentioned in the memorial — aren’t vicious killing machines.

When they sat down in front of the memorial, Kowal complained they were obstructing the public’s view.

Kowal told MLIVE.com in an email that “visitors can’t even see the art and many have told me the bully breed owners, sitting on the ledges blocking the view of the victims’ biographies and refusing to move, makes them unable to enjoy the piece.”

Grand Rapids Police Lt. Pat Dean said Kowal filed a complaint in late September about people sitting with pit bulls on the stone wall in front of her ArtPrize entry. Police found nothing illegal at that time, he said, and members of the group, while on public property, moved at the request of officers.

Kowal describes the work as “an opportunity to Pay it Forward, and show the good side of humanity. Visitors are encouraged to express their sympathy, respect, and support for the victims and their families by leaving teddy bears, flowers, or memorial decorations in the designated heart-shaped memorial space.”

According to a brief biography listed on the ArtPrize website,  Kowal is an animal lover, who has feral cats and pet squirrels. She attended Grand Valley State University.

Not a whole lot can be learned about her through searching her name on the Internet, and there’s no mention of any previous artistic pursuits.

There was a 2011 MLIVE.com article that mentioned her name, and quoted her as being a supporter of a proposed pit bull ban in Wyoming, Michigan.

Perhaps she became an artist “out of the blue.” Perhaps her anti-pit bull passion needed an outlet.

We support the right for just about anyone to call themselves an artist, assuming they are making some form of art. We don’t have a problem with Kowal expressing herself — either vocally or through her “art” — on the streets of Grand Rapids. By the same token, we have no problem with pit bull owners and their dogs sitting down squarely in front of it, as long as it’s public property. They have the right to express themselves in public, too, whether they’re ArtPrize contestants or not.

So do we. And our opinion is Kowal is pushing her personal agenda under the guise of a non-profit organization’s art competition, and that it’s likely part of a well-plotted effort by those forces intent on painting all members of the breed with the same brush, reinforcing negative stereotypes while playing fast and loose with the facts.

Kowal says she plans to add three more crosses this weekend in remembrance of three other people who died from injuries she says were caused by pit bull attacks.

“That is not my fault that they were all killed by pit bulls,” she said. “I’m just showing the facts.”

An Act of Dog: A memorial to the millions of shelter dogs put down in America


It’s easy to ignore statistics. They’re cold and dry and lack soulful eyes. And when the numbers are overwhelming — like the 5,500 unwanted dogs who are put to death daily in U.S. shelters — we tend, as a rule, to find life is more comfortable and less depressing when we don’t do the math.

Louisville artist Mark Barone is an exception to that rule. Rather than ignore the problem, he decided to put a face on it — 5,500 of them, in fact.

For two years now, he has been painting portraits of dogs who have been put down at shelters across the country, and he’s more than halfway to his goal: 5,500 portraits that he hopes will someday — unlike their subjects — find a forever home.

Barone and his partner, Marina Dervan, call the project “An Act of Dog.”

Their hope is the works will someday be displayed in a permanent memorial museum, which — between its emotional impact and the funds it would help raise for no-kill rescues and shelters — could help lead to their larger goal,  a no-kill nation.

Mark, a well-established artist, had moved to Santa Fe when, about three years ago, he lost his dog of 21 years, Santina.

“It was kind of a sad time, and I thought it would be therapeutic for Mark to go to the dog park,” Marina recalled. “I thought it would be helpful for him to get some dog love, and it was. It was really great. It got me in the mood to think about adopting another dog. Mark wasn’t at that stage, but it didn’t stop me from looking.”

Looking for adoptable dogs online and at local shelters, she quickly learned the sad reality that she says neither she nor Mark, up to then, were aware of — that millions of dogs in need of homes are put down at shelters every year.

“Instead of finding a dog, I found out all these horrifying statistics,” she said. She shared them with Mark, along with images and videos of dogs who had been, or were on the verge of, being put down.

He asked her to stop sharing, but she kept up.

“If we don’t look at it, nothing will change,” she said. “So he looked at it, as painful as it was, and day or two later, we were standing in the kitchen and he asked me the number of dogs killed everyday in the country … I gave him the number 5,500, based on statistics from Best Friends.”

It was then that the idea of honoring shelter dogs by painting 5,500 portraits of those who had been killed was born, and along with it, the longer term plan of a memorial museum, along the lines of the Vietnam Memorial and the Holocaust Museum.

First, they started looking for the studio space to get started on the task, mailing out inquiries in search of a city or town that might offer free space for him to paint.

Santa Fe wasn’t interested. Louisville was among about 30 places that were.

That’s where the couple lives now, and where Mark has completed about 3,200 of the portraits — some of them life- sized, some of them larger.

“It’s the big ones, 8 feet by 8 feet, that slow things down,” Mark said.

Only one of the 8×8-foot paintings depicts a dog who died a natural death — Mark’s dog, Santina. According to Marina, Santina will serve as the gatekeeper of the exhibit. Other large portraits feature  Batman, a 10-year-old pit bull who was left outside in 21 degree weather, and was found dead at a shelter the next morning, and Grant, who was deemed unadoptable due food bowl aggression and put down.

The large paintings — there will be 10 of them — will include the individual stories of those dogs, representing the most common reasons shelters give to put animals down.

“It’s pretty much the wall of shame,” Marina said.

Mark and Marina are still looking for a permanent place to house the works, and for sponsors and benefactors for the museum, and they have some promising leads, both in Louisville and around the country. In addition to being an educational center, the museum would also be an outlet for selling merchandise that features the images — shirts, cards, and other products. An Act of Dog, which is a nonprofit organization, would pass on all profits to no-kill facilities and rescue groups.

The dogs in the paintings come from shelters all around the country. Their photos are submitted by rescue groups, volunteers and shelter employees. They have all been put down.

Mark and Marina object to the use of the term “euthanized” when it’s applied to healthy animals. “Deliberately ending the life of a healthy and treatable pet is killing.  Deliberately ending the life of a medically hopeless and suffering pet is euthanasia,” Marina said. They don’t much like “put to sleep,” either.

“Semantics are a powerful way to keep people from the truth and our mission is to show reality without the candy wrapping,” she added.

Mark paints everyday, from sunrise to sunset. At night, he and Marina work on the An Act of Dog website. They’re both foregoing salaries at this point.

Mark has served as a consultant to cities interested in using the arts to revitalize blighted areas, among them Paducah, Kentucky, and its Paducah Artist Re-locaton Program. Marina worked 20 years coaching corporate executives.  

Now they’ve cashed in their retirement savings and are devoting full time to the project.

“We could turn away and pretend like we didn’t see what we saw, or we could do something about it,” she added. “If that means we have to live poor,  we’re OK with that, because we know we did something.”

They’re working now in studio space provided by the Mellwood Art Center in Louisville, where they did end up adopting a new dog, named Gigi, from a local shelter.

What drives the couple, though, are all the dogs who don’t get out alive — the thousands put down each day.

“The no-kill movement is making strides, but not fast enough,” said Mark who, on those days he doesn’t feel like painting, reminds himself of the bleak numbers, and the 5,500 reasons — every day — he must continue.

To learn more about An Act of Dog, and how to become a sponsor or benefactor, visit its Facebook page or the An Act of Dog website.

(Photos and video courtesy of An Act of Dog: At top, a collage of Mark’s paintings; Mark and Marina in their studio; some of the larger paintings, with Mark’s former dog, Santina, at left; and three shelter dogs dogs Breeze, Freckles and Sky)