I hadn’t heard of Father Mychal Judge until September 11, 2001. But really, Mychal Judge had been synonymous with the Big Apple for many years prior. Most New Yorkers my age (I’m thirty-six) or older now know this name because of it’s relation to the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers, Mychal Judge was the first documented fatality in the collapse; the proof on his death certificate.
It wasn’t until recently, when I was asked to participate in this year’s Walk of Remembrance in honor of Father Judge that I got to wondering, who exactly was this man and what made him so special? No sooner were the answers presented to me the moment my mind formulated the questions. Alongside your average descriptors for a Catholic priest – warm, devout, caring - were some surprising ones being used for a person whose legacy reaches back to the early ‘80s. Words like recovering alcoholic (though Judge didn’t broadcast his early struggles with alcohol, he was passionate about AA and their part in helping him and others get on the right path to healing), Irish music lover (never one to pass up a night of singing along with a band in a pub – yes, even as a priest!), and gay (it wasn’t until later that this was known), also detailed his character. But no adjective comes close to encompassing the true definition of this man’s life: saint. Yes, this friar has been dubbed a saint, and rightfully so because of his gifts (there were many) and his flaws (a reminder of what it means to be human).
The son to Irish immigrants in 1933, Mychal Judge was raised a first-generation American in Brooklyn, New York. Though he didn’t know he’d end up a beloved chaplain for the FDNY, he did know at a very young age that he’d be a priest; his twin sister having been quoted saying that religion was a very natural environment for him. Mychal Judge, (who was born Robert Emmett Judge and was later given the name Fallon Michael from the clergy, but he dropped Fallon and changed Michael to the Gaelic form Mychal) watched his father suffer and later die from mastoiditis, a slow and painful illness in the skull and inner ear. Upon his father’s death, young Mychal traveled to Penn Station to shine shoes and earn money for his family. It was at that time, when he meandered into St. Francis of Assisi Church across the street and would watch the Franciscan friars that he confirmed his want to be a part of this community.
“I didn’t have a desire for material things,” Mychal said.
This notion proved to be true as his friends recollect when he’d stuff his pockets with whatever money he had and would give it to the homeless people he encountered in his travels. And he was always on the move. Although Father Judge entered the realm of the unpretentious, he led quite an exuberant life, befriending many people from various orbits. Whether he was helping the needy, racing to a call with the FDNY, or delivering the Eucharist in Mass, he was a creature of little sleep. The friar’s comrades have stated that he was always on the go and sometimes hard to find. “It wasn’t unlikely to find him singing amongst the crowd in a bar to an Irish rock band. That’s just who he was.”
Though his persona had a sort of nonconformist approach, there was no doubt that Father Judge lived for the Church and the people of God. On an around-the-clock basis, he rendered himself to the community, for example, giving his winter coat to a woman freezing on the streets of New York City and ministering to those otherwise alienated from the Church including AIDS patients. Many recognized Judge for his life of charity.
“He was so loved by everyone that his pager was always buzzing. At one point, he had to decline performing holy matrimony admitting to couples that he was simply too busy with the fire department.” And it was true. Father Mychal Judge was a prominent chaplain – 1 of 5 – in the most prestigious department in the country. He offered encouragement and prayers at fires, rescues, and hospitals, counseling firefighters and their families, often working 16-hour days. That alone was a tall order, but he filled it and filled it well.
“We start at St. Francis of Assisi at West 31st Street and continue down 7th Avenue, following the route the friar had taken to reach the World Trade Center. We stop at firehouses and precincts to read a verse from the bible or say a prayer in honor of their lost members and all who perished that day, something Father Judge would appreciate as we remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice,” says John.
Firefighter Jack Cook of Engine 325 in Woodside, Queens, has also been involved in The Walk since its inception. “I was a freshman in high school when September 11th happened, but I remember the day vividly – blue skies, great weather. Father Judge would visit my friend’s house [before that day] and pray with the family [Steven McDonald’s family], that’s how I knew him. Anyway, once I found out he was killed in the attacks, and then I was told about the walk, I had to be involved. It was important to me especially now that I’m a part of the brotherhood of the FDNY.”
Firefighters seldom talk openly about 9/11 unless they’re asked. And, almost every one I have spoken to says, “Heaven has one hell of a fire department.” Yes, they do, one that includes one hell of a chaplain.
As a writer who hosts this blog, I’ve highlighted many accomplishments and talents of servicemen and women, often feeling an underlying connection to their secret – and at times very public – struggles. In performing my research into the friar’s life and also thinking of the world today, I believe Mychal Judge would be proud of the evolution of acceptance and marriage equality happening in 2015. Though there are many unjust things still going on around the globe, Mychal would be the person to put emphasis on the beauty of our planet.
It’s rare that this happens when writing about the deceased, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that through penning his profile, I feel as if I’ve gained a friend in Mychal Judge. He’s the type of person I’d have instantly bonded with if the fun, Irish, gay, recovering alcoholic priest walked into a bar.
Note: The Walk of Remembrance is taking place on Sunday, September 6, 2015. For more information, you can check out The Walk’s Facebook page or email Mr. Bates at TugJB1@aol.com
My Own Museum
I was invited to the private opening of the 9/11 Museum
this week. My husband, a first responder before, during and after that September day, was allowed entrance if he chose. With me. But I politely declined. As a former employee of Union Bank of California housed on the 14th floor of 2 World Trade, I could not - correction - DID NOT want my fond memories of my first job at age 15 to be erased from the depths of my mind.
There has been tons of footage that's reeled in my head of the 2001 events, in addition to my own private visits to the construction site. I know very well, probably too vividly actually, what went on that day.
What I want to remember is the beautifully decorated mall that I'd peruse before the work day. A teen nervously buying breakfast amongst busy, important adults who always seemed to be in a rush. I often smiled when they'd look down at me. And they often nodded in return. It pains me to think how many of those faces are now part of a museum that replaces the newsstand where we exchanged pleasantries.
I recall the lunch hours spent standing in line at the bank to cash my paycheck and then skimming the racks at Strawberry immediately afterward, searching for business clothes to replace the juvenile wardrobe of the high schooler that I was; my employment at The World Trade Center provided me dual identity.
I felt important there. We were all important.
My favorite memory is Christmas time at the Towers. How the buildings felt staged, as if we were all on set of a movie and we were acting out our holiday for everyone to see. Music, gift purchases, hot chocolate.
My coworkers were always so cheery. I remember the receptionist Frances and her rum cake. (That was the first time I tasted rum in any form.) My boss Paul took me to lunch in the Financial Center because he was that nice. I attended my first holiday party with this group of people and danced. Hard. Amongst business men and women who enjoyed my company regardless of my age. It was surreal.
I remember finding out the O.J. Simpson verdict in the elevator.
I took cigarette breaks just to stand outside and look up.
I ate dirty water dogs and sat in the courtyard just to absorb the enormity of the place around me.
These recollections are my museum. They are the comforts I seek when September Eleventh comes up. The files in drawers of my brain that open when painful images from the media try to overtake me.
I don't know if any of my former colleagues perished and I don't want to find out. They will always be very much alive in my mind. Some have speculated that because we worked on the fourteenth floor that they probably got out in time, but what most forget is that Two World Trade was triage for building one and most in two were told to stay put. I'll stop here. I choose not to envision chaos. Instead, I'll picture the bellhop my friend Andrea had a crush on who tried many times to get us to ride up to the Windows of the World. (I was too chicken to take an elevator that high because man did they shake.) There it is. There's the smile. And the image of being teased in the pristine lobby of a place so incredibly breathtaking.
My apologies for the faulty Facebook and Twitter share buttons on this post. Weebly was performing maintenance at the time of publishing it, which caused the discrepancy. Thank you for your kind emails in response to this piece and also notifying me of your wanting to pass it along to others. Xo
It's been twelve months since I first interviewed Sal DePaola, inventor of The Paint Brush Cover. In celebration of our one-year anniversary, I am featuring him again! Read on to find out why revisiting him was absolutely necessary.
Dawn: So much has happened over the course of a year for you and The Paint Brush Cover. Congratulations! Can you share with us some details of your journey since our last conversation, which includes the recent feature of The Paint Brush Cover on the DIY Network, going international, and now, pitching the product on ABC's Shark Tank?
Sal: Oh man - A LOT has happened! It mostly started at The National Hardware Show back in May of 2013. This event is the premier trade show for our industry. We received tons of attention from regular store owners, Wal-Mart execs and even from many countries around the world. You can now find The Paint Brush Cover in the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, and coming soon to many other countries.
Another big thing for us was being featured on a show called I Want That on the DIY Network. [The show] is about cool new tools and they did an excellent job showing off The Paint Brush Cover. It really helped sales and also spread the word about us.
We were also in the holiday issue (October-December) of SkyMall magazine. Even though sales weren't as good as we anticipated, it definitely aided in establishing our brand on a global level.
But our biggest accomplishment of 2014 was, by far, getting on ABC's hit show Shark Tank. We were one out of 160 chosen (from over 36,000 applicants) to pitch in front of The Sharks. Out of that 160, less than 100 actually make it on an episode. We finally received our air date just the other day and, after 7 long months, we are scheduled to air this Friday night!
We are also talking to most of the major big box retailers right now. Deals are in the works...
Dawn: How does it feel to see your product (and yourself!) on television?
Sal: Seeing my product on the DIY Network was an amazing feeling. Seeing something that you created, something that was just an idea a few short years before, is a feeling like no other. I was just staring at the television like "Wow, I made that! That's my product up there!"
I'm still waiting to see the way they edit our pitch on Shark Tank. We were in "the tank" for about 45 minutes, and they cut it down to about 10 minutes or less. I'm dying to see what they do and how they make things appear.
Dawn: If you can reveal, tell us how it felt to be on Shark Tank? Any stories, jokes or tidbits you'd care to share?
Sal: I can't talk much about the outcome of the show (we can save that for another time), but I can tell you that it was an amazing experience. Being a HUGE fan of the show since day one, and being up there pitching my product to them, was surreal. I always said I wanted to get on, but never thought it would really happen. It just goes to show you what you can accomplish when you put your mind to something. Once I knew I had a chance to get on, I did everything I could to make it happen.
What I can say is that pitching the product was probably one of the most nerve wracking things in my life. It was scary at first - memorizing a pitch isn't the easiest thing in the world. But, as soon as the pitch was over, and they started asking questions, we all became very relaxed. It was very comfortable. You realize that [The Sharks] are just normal people.
Another thing I can tell you is that everything you see is basically how it is. It's all real. Nothing is staged. You don't meet them beforehand. The first time you see them is when you walk through the door. Everything is very real. There are no re-takes. No breaks. Just you, The Sharks, and the cameras. That's it. Really awesome stuff.
Dawn: You recently came out with a new product to add to the Paint Brush Cover line. Can you describe and tell us when it will be available for purchase?
Sal: Yep! Since the idea of The Paint Brush Cover, we had the obvious go-along product in the works. It's something we were waiting on so that we can see what kind of response we would get from The Paint Brush Cover. Since things were going so well, we decided to go ahead with our second product. From day one, whenever we spoke about The Paint Brush Cover, 90% of people would ask us, "So when are you coming out with The Roller Cover?" And that's exactly what we did.
The Roller Cover just arrived last week and is available through our website starting this week! We hope to get it into stores as soon as possible.
Dawn: Thank you so much for sharing your journey with us. I can't wait to see the outcome of The Paint Brush Cover this Friday on Shark Tank!
Sal: Thanks! One more thing, I'd also like to say that I couldn't have done this without my partners John DePaola and Anthony Caputo and my web designer/internet guru Anthony Caminiti. All work great as a team and this wouldn't have been possible without them.
To purchase The Paint Brush Cover and The Roller Cover, please visit: http://www.thepaintbrushcover.com/
Walking Point, a screenplay written by RJ Nevens, Jr., is about humanity, the evils of war, and the bonds between soldier and man's best friend. Considered a mash up of Marley and Me and The Thin Red Line, Walking Point was inspired by true events when, for the first time in American history, canines were trained and used in battle. Set in the 1940’s, this screenplay focuses on the bond between a group of donated dogs and their handlers, specifically a Doberman named Duke and his handler, youthful Private Markle. It portrays their travels by train from North Carolina to San Diego and eventually across the Pacific into battle. Their journey to Guam leads to love, loss, and victory.
RJ at the War Dog Memorial in Mobile, AL
RJ Nevens, Jr., who was born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1974, has always been a writer at heart, having written several short stories throughout his life. RJ's interest in military working dogs stemmed from his love of the Doberman breed. Having Dobermans his entire adult life, RJ admires their stoic and loyal qualities.
But, it wasn't until a photograph surfaced on the internet that sparked the idea for RJ's story.
"There was this picture posted online some time ago of a Navy Seal, Jon Tumilson, and his dog Hawkeye. John died protecting our country and, from his funeral, a picture began to circulate. Hawkeye was laying at the side of John’s coffin, always faithful. That picture did something to me."
"The photo captures the essence of how a dog is always faithful, whether it be a household pet or on the battlefield. I later learned that a canine was present during the Osama Bin Laden raid. At that point, I began to research military working dogs and their assigned duties."
Nevens chose the World War II era for his screenplay because, "There was so much history made during that time: families still suffering from the Great Depression, the attack on Pearl Harbor, the US involvement in WWII, and the repatriating of Guam. So many of the dog handlers from that era are passing away now. They started the war dog program and it’s only fitting to honor them as well as their amazing dogs."
Follow RJ and Walking Point on Facebook where you can get updates on the screenplay’s march to the silver screen! Those agents, producers, and directors interested in pursuing Walking Point further, please contact Mr. Nevens at email@example.com
Featured Heroes: Navy Petty Officer 1st Class John Douangdara (1984-2011) and his Military War Dog Bart, as told through John's sister Chan Follen
John with his sister Chan
Growing up, John was an all-American kid. The boy-next-door type, he loved working with computers during his spare time in high school. "He built his first computer at a friend’s house whose dad operated a computer business from there. John also loved being on the debate team," his sister Chan begins. She recalls John being active in sports, particularly track and wrestling. "Unfortunately, he was not a lady’s man, but he had tons of friends and would have given the shirt off his back if someone needed it."
John graduated high school a term earlier than his classmates at the onset of 2003 and, from there, headed to boot camp. He decided to enlist in the Navy because of the growing relationship he had with his recruiter before his enlistment.
"John's first year in the service was very hard on him. He was homesick and kept telling me that he couldn’t wait for the next three years to go by so he could get out and come home. As a big sister, I told him to sit back and enjoy it. After all, he was stationed in Italy!"
After a period of time he started calling me from the military's dog kennels. He told me he was volunteering and helping with taking care of the dogs. Soon after, he called to let me know he was going to be in San Antonio, Texas training to be a dog handler.PO Douangdara and MWD Bart
"John never told us what he actually did when he started advancing in his military career. The only thing he would talk about was what his dogs were like. He loved his dogs," Chan says. "Up until John's passing the family always thought he was a [dog] handler and when deployed, he was patrolling the gates. It never crossed our minds that he was assigned to a SEAL team and how dangerous his deployments actually were. I think we took for granted how many times he had been deployed and how many times he came back. Since 2003, he had been deployed to Iraq three times and Afghanistan twice, passing away during his second tour in Afghanistan."
On the morning of August 6th 2011, Chan's family was informed personally by the United States Navy that John and his military working dog Bart had passed away in a Chinook [helicopter] downing in Afghanistan. "We were all devastated. I had just saw my brother two months earlier for my wedding."
After the news of John's death, we decided, as a family, that we needed to have something of John home with us since we knew his last wishes were to be laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery with his fellow brothers.Memorial Statue for Freedom Park
There was a park being built in our hometown called, Siouxland Freedom Park, which was to honor past, present and future veterans. Before my brother's passing, I wanted to show my appreciation for his service by purchasing something and having it be a part of that park.
What started off as something small (the family was going to donate a bench in his honor) soon grew bigger. After John died, a family friend went before the city council and asked them if they would name the dog park section of Siouxland Freedom Park after my brother. "Our family did not know our friend did this so when he told us, it really made us feel like the community would never forget John. To have the honor of having a park named after him, a place that will be there long after we're gone, we felt the need to put something up of John that would compliment the dog park. That's when the decision of a statue was made."
The statue of John, lead dog handler for SEAL Team Six, and his Military War Dog Bart, was unveiled at Siouxland Freedom Park on Memorial Day of this year.
We knew [the statue] wasn’t going to fill the void of John being gone, but at the same time it comforted us knowing that we had something of him near our home. We don’t get to go to Arlington as often as we like, but this is a way of remembering and honoring him even though we are hundreds of miles away.
Featured Heroes: James Allen McElroy (1980-2011), United States Marine Corps and Army National Guard, and his widow Alicia McElroy, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Educator & Help Advocate
Alicia with her late husband Mac
James "Mac" McElroy, a thirty year-old family man who not only loved his wife and son, but also golf and football, was active duty as a combat engineer in the United States military for a total of 12 years. He initially served with the Marine Corps, deploying to Afghanistan during that time, and then went on to join the Army National Guard when his original enlistment was up. That's when Mac redeployed to the Middle East, first to Iraq and then again to Afghanistan. It was after his last tour overseas that left him feeling the effects of Post Traumatic Stress: anxiety, restlessness, depression, irritability, was hyper vigilant, and experienced memory loss.
"Mac was undergoing PTSD treatment at a Warrior Transition Battalion in Fort Benning, Georgia, where he died in his bed," Alicia says. "He was only home from Afghanistan a short while. His death was determined to be accidental, caused by multiple drug toxicity. Basically, the combination of drugs in his system slowed his heart rate to the point that it was unable to sustain life. All drugs found in his system were prescribed to him and were all in therapeutic range, meaning no excessive amounts of the drugs were found. The meds had been taken as prescribed." But, it's what this young widow discovered after her husband's death that was unnerving:
I started doing my own research and was shocked at what I found. Soldiers and veterans are being prescribed what they call the "PTSD cocktail" and are dying at an alarming rate; several hundred have died in the past two years alone. Drugs that weren't approved by the FDA for treating Post Traumatic Stress were being used anyway, with the most potent of them being Seroquel.Mac with his son Dane
Mac's death put Alicia on a mission. "There was nothing I could do to bring Mac back to us, but I knew he would want me to spread awareness and advocate for his fellow brothers in arms to prevent another tragedy. If one life is saved by sharing Mac's story then his death would not be in vain."
I want people to know that PTSD is real and there are other ways besides medication to get better. I also want people to know that America's finest are receiving substandard care that the military considers acceptable.
To follow Alicia in her pursuit to save soldiers against preventable deaths, please visit her facebook page:
Justice for Mac - A Soldier's Battle with PTSD
Post Traumatic Stress is characterized as a severe anxiety disorder. According to the National Center for PTSD, experts believe PTSD occurs in:
1 in 10 of Gulf War veterans
11-20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans
30 percent of Vietnam veterans
If you or someone you know needs help with PTSD or is in crisis, call 1-800-273-TALK. Press "1" for the Military Crisis Line.
For more information on PTSD and where you can get help and receive assistance, please visit:
Featured Heroes: Lani Mitra Singh, Veteran Combat Medic (US Army), and her service dog Emir H323, Retired Military War Dog (US Air Force)
Lani enlisted in the Army in 2006 as a combat medic and was stationed at Ft. Carson. But, just seventeen days shy of deployment to Afghanistan, a training accident broke a vertebra in her back, which required her to stay behind in rear detachment, supporting her company stateside. The injury left her 70% disabled that she needed to medically retire in 2010. "I adopted my first retiring military dog, Billy, in 2009. MWD Billy and I would live two of the best years of both our lives," she says, remembering him fondly. "My last year in the Army, MWD Billy would often come to formation with me at Ft. Carson and would visit and help the wounded soldiers. I knew after taking care of war dog Billy that I would adopt retiring military dogs for the rest of my life."
When these canines retire, they are usually old and broken, requiring a lot of medical care. The person that adopts a retired war dog must assume all costs of that dog as they are considered equipment [to the military] and are not given retirement benefits.
While in the Air Force, Emir had four deployments to Iraq. He was trained in explosive detection and patrol - dual purpose. During Emir's last deployment in 2008, he was assigned the task of protecting President George W. Bush during his visit to Baghdad.
Lani and Emir in school
Lani adopted MWD Emir H323 in January of 2012 as an "emergency re-home" because the person who originally adopted him became too ill. In February of 2012, Emir was retrained as a service dog so that Lani could attend Pikes Peak Community College. Once there, Emir became the campus Military/Veteran Affairs Office mascot of the school. "Emir was an excellent service dog who took his job very seriously and performed many tasks that I needed done, which made attending college possible for me," Lani says.
It is with regret to report that MWD Emir H323 passed away on May 20, 2013, however, his spirit is still very much alive as this is Emir's second year nominated as a contestant in the Hero Dog Awards in the Military category, an annual contest sponsored by the American Humane Society. His voting link is: http://www.herodogawards.org/vote/?nominee=92463898
Emir partnered with a charity and, should he win the prize, all monies will be donated to the United States War Dog Association.
You can follow Emir on facebook, where his fan page helps educate others about the work and history of war dogs since the inception of the Canine Corps in March 13, 1942. His facebook page is: MWD Emir H323
Also, please join Military Working Dog Reclassification on facebook to help war dogs receive the benefits they deserve!
Featured Hero: Jackie Liantonio Ventrudo - Mother, Wife of a Firefighter, Breast Cancer Survivor
At age 34, you're still young and in love, thinking nothing of living life vicariously, but sometimes life has other plans...
As 2013 rolled around, it brought a lot of change to Jackie's life. "I was refocusing my energy on my family and making a lot of personal transformations when I discovered something strange [on my body]," Jackie begins. "I felt it and couldn't ignore it, so I confronted my husband and asked his opinion. Right away he urged me to go to the doctor. Even if it was nothing, he wanted me to put myself first, something that mothers rarely do. He put it in plain terms: if it was for one of our kids, I would rush to the doctor's office. He was right. After that initial visit, everything became a whirlwind: a mammo, an ultrasound, a biopsy and then the results; my world came crashing down."
There is no easy way to say you have cancer, and that’s all I heard. I wanted to throw something, scream and tell them to test again, but all I did was sit there and let the tears run down my face as my husband held me and cried too.Jackie with her two sons
"I didn’t say much to my children. My youngest is only one, and my four-and-a-half year old (who should be 30) is also still really small to understand. Until I had answers to his questions, it just wasn’t a conversation I was going to have with him. Phone calls were held in another room, visits were just that - aunts, uncles, and cousins stopping by to say hi and play. But the worst part has been putting my boys to sleep at night and wondering: Am I going to watch them grow? Will I be here next year to see my oldest graduate kindergarten? Will I see my little one ride a bike?
I've cried to my husband whom, to this day, tells me, "You are going to be here to see all that - and then some! Jackie, always remember this is curable if we go about it the right way. You will be a survivor - we caught this early!"
Within a week, Jackie and her husband were on their way to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City to meet with Jackie's breast surgeon to discuss her options. While there, she found out that the cancer was not hormone-related, something she thought may have been brought on by her last pregnancy, which would have led to treatment that would have been a bit easier on her body. Instead, she was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma leaving her with only two options: four months of chemotherapy followed by surgery, or surgery and then the chemo.Jackie and her family in Disney World
"I decided to go with the first option - chemo then surgery, figuring I'd just bought myself four extra months to do what I wanted: to take my children to Disney World and have some normalcy before their lives were turned upside down; to enjoy a vacation where I had no worries and to enjoy my Mother’s Day this year with my husband, boys, mom, dad, mother in-law and aunt. So that's what I did.
As I sit down and tell you this, I am halfway through my chemo. I've lost my hair and I'm constantly tired, but to watch my baby look up and kiss Mickey Mouse for the first time, it was worth all that I endured to this point."
Jackie's oncologist says that she is doing great, the most aggressive of the drugs are over and she "kicked that out of the ball park." Her PET scans and MRIs only show the cancer as a tumor, which is great as it was caught early. She has seven more weeks of chemotherapy and then it’s a break for a few weeks before her surgery.
I have elected to have a double mastectomy with reconstruction. I need to be there for my family, for my husband and for my kids. I need to live and by doing this, I have a greater chance. Two years from now I don’t want to hear that they found it in the other breast. I do not want to constantly be looking over my shoulder or be crossing fingers every time I have a mammo. On the brighter side of things, I get new boobs….hey, you still have to maintain a sense of humor to get through life.
To join Jackie's fight against breast cancer, please visit:
2013 Komen Greater NYC Race for the Cure
Featured Hero: Charles Catalanotto (1914-1978) World War II Veteran with the United States Army
According to Ellis Island's Port of New York Passenger Records, my Sicilian-born grandfather, Calogero "Charles" Catalanotto, arrived in America on January 11, 1920 from Palermo, Italy aboard a ship called the Italia; thus beginning his journey into American life. He was five-years old.
Growing up in New Rochelle, New York, Charles and his family did what all immigrants knew what to do when coming to America at that time: they learned the native language, English, and worked hard to achieve the American dream while maintaining their cultural traditions in their household.
Along with many young men, Charles was drafted to fight in World War II as a soldier in the United States Army. Proud to serve his country, my grandfather deployed to Germany.Charles with his wife Mary
After his return to the United States, Charles was fixed up with a beautiful lady named Mary. An independent woman with a strong will, Mary was not easily attainable. But, after several dates and a promise of companionship, Charles won her heart and together they established a family, having two daughters, Lydia and Bernadette.
Despite having two small children, both Charles and Mary worked hard in their respective businesses: Charles owned and operated a barbershop on Cortelyou Road in the Ditmas Park section of Brooklyn, as Mary, a seamstress, logged long hours at a factory while simultaneously selling women's undergarments out of the front room of her house, known to the neighbors as, "Mary's Cotton Shop."
On a cold December day in 1978, Charles succumbed to a massive heart attack in the basement of the Canarsie home he shared with Mary. He was sixty-four years-old.
Denali is not your average pooch. He’s an overachieving Italian, cover model, and all around do-gooder; he is a therapy dog. But, a hero never truly works alone. His proud owners, Robert "Bob" Ipcar and Jane Landis, deserve credit in part for their Spinone’s accomplishments as they, too, are exemplars of community service.Bob and Jane with Denali
Bob, a retired cameraman with the United States Army who became a Director of Photography for thirty years in civilian life, and Jane, an English as Second Language teacher and environmentalist at the Audubon Center in Brooklyn, initially tried therapy work with their first dog, a Mastiff named Yuffie. Though the efforts were good-natured, Yuffie's size startled patients and staff upon entrance onto hospital floors from the elevator. Yuffie did, however, receive recognition from The Good Dog Foundation and was appointed their mascot!
Jane, Bob, and Denali at work
After Yuffie's passing, Bob and Jane toyed with the idea of getting another dog. While backstage at the West Minster Dog Show, they were introduced to the Spinoni breed, a non-aggressive, pleasing type of hunting dog, and, as the old adage goes, the rest is history.
Denali, whose temperament is calm and sweet, is definitely in his comfort zone as a therapy dog. “Whether we’re in the physical therapy unit at New York Methodist Hospital, on the palliative care/hospice floor at the Brooklyn VA, or making rounds with nursing home evacuees from hurricane Sandy at our local armory, Denali is hailed on a first name basis, basking in “shout-outs” from patients and staff alike. It’s a precious connection that will always stay with us,” says Bob.
Denali and me!
Upon meeting Denali, I instantly saw what made him special. His willingness to let me pet him, smush his cute face, and talk to him in a baby-like manner (an embarrassing habit I can’t seem to break) made me feel at home with him. Bob and Jane, equally inviting, offered up stories of their dog, including a few memorable awards he received for being an advocate for the community at large.
Denali with hospital staff
Denali volunteers on a weekly basis at NY Methodist Hospital where he visits patients undergoing physical therapy. “The coordinator, Amanda Nable, embraces our presence and encourages Denali and the rest of the therapy dogs who volunteer. There are a great many things happening there because of her,” Bob says. Jane smiles, agreeing with her husband.
Denali's therapy work at the Brooklyn VA Hospital is particularly special for Bob. “It’s a way to give back,” he says with an expression that tells me he is grateful for his days as a soldier.
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Jane informs me that her work with the displaced elderly at Park Slope Armory after hurricane Sandy spawned the idea of bringing Denali to provide comfort for the victims. “After receiving permission from the lead psychiatrist of the operation, Denali visited with the evacuees from Belle Harbor Nursing Home and, boy, were they happy to see him.”
Who could resist that cute chocolate face? Certainly not the publishing industry! Denali posed for the cover of Barron’s Dog Training Bible, by Andrea Arden, and is also featured on several pages throughout the book. He was also featured in the Daily News article, “Furry Docs on Duty.” Though he isn’t in Hollywood, he is most definitely on YouTube. Check out adorable Denali bringing Jane flowers for Mother’s Day. (Dog lovers, consider yourselves warned!)
*If you'd like to read more about dogs (therapy or other), visit my friend Dorri's blog.