Remembering two travellers who left rich legacies

As a career journalist, hundreds of people - and pets - have come in and out of my life over the years. I don't often hear what's become of them, though sometimes through obituaries or word of mouth I learn of someone's passing.

Never twice on the same day.

On Wednesday I picked up a message on my answering machine from a woman telling me her stepfather, Jim Tate, had died the previous day in Gettysburg, the town where he was born, where he met Civil War veterans and where he worked as a licensed battlefield guide until a month before his death - at 94.

I profiled Jim in August, joining a tour with a family awestruck to be in the presence of a man who witnessed history at 20, attending the 75th - and last - formal reunion of Civil War veterans on the fields where their comrads had fallen.

On the same day I got a call from a man clearly beside himself with grief. Through sobs he told me he was David Walton and he was calling about a dog named Buster. I felt tears well up before I realized who it was. 

"You wrote about his trip from West Virginia," he said. "He died yesterday, of cancer."

Ah, Buster the hound-mix, who was on death row at Wetzel County Animal Shelter in 2004 when David's son Peter, found his furry face on Petfinder and the family arranged to have him transported to their home in suburban Philadelphia.

It was the first I'd heard about the "canine underground railroad," a network of kind-hearted drivers and coordinators who help dogs in high kill shelters, often in the South and Appalachia, get to good homes in the north.

Through Petfinder, transport forums and email lists of drivers across the country, these volunteers make connections that make the difference between life and death for thousands of dogs each year.

I followed Buster from the little cinder block shelter in New Martinsville, WV, on the Ohio River to the Walton's comfortable suburban home with the big fenced in yard in Hatboro, Montgomery County.

The story, "Coming for to Carry Them Home," inspired an anonymous donor in Virginia to donate $10,000 to help the shelter build a fenced-in exercise area for the steady stream of dogs they take in - the hounds that "won't hunt," the "leftovers" from backyard breeders, the litters of "oops" puppies from unspayed female dogs kept on chains.

Buster helped awaken me to the plight of animals in our region and inspired me to commit to telling their stories on this blog which enters its fifth year this month.

The indefatigable Wetzel County shelter director, Rosy Cozart hopes the Waltons will seek out her shelter again when they are ready to rescue another needy dog.

"We'll arrange a tranport for them," she told me in an email.

Meanwhile, at his funeral today, Jim Tate's family along with his fellow battlefield guides - a remarkable group with encyclopedic knowledge of the Battle of Gettysburg - will remember their brother guide, one of the last living links to the Civil War.

He will be buried next to his wife, Ellie, at the storied Evergreen Cemetery, in the shadow of the witness trees, just a few steps fromthe spot where President Lincoln delivered his "Gettysburg Address."