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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

Stephen Huneck (1950-2010): A Remembrance

“I was in a coma for two and a half months,” said Stephen Huneck, artist and bestselling author (The Dog Chapel, and a series of “Sally” books about his cherished Labrador retrievers).

This was two years ago, and I was sitting in the chair with hands, and he was behind his dog desk. Every object in the place was a work of dog art — even toilet paper rollers. I was in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, to interview Huneck for a magazine article about his Dog Chapel — one building on 175 acres that also housed a gallery, an enormous print and sculpture studio, and his home. He was telling me about the genesis of the Dog Chapel after an illness.

“My muscles had atrophied. While I was in a coma, I met my ancestors. I got to know my Native American relatives, and they gave me a lot of very good advice.”

The man was an ox. He had cheated death several times. So I was stunned to learn that Huneck committed suicide last Thursday because he was despondent about having to lay off his staff.

“I recovered very quickly,” he told me about his debilitating illness. “My dogs were a great help in my recovery. I love the woods up here. My dogs not only gave me the encouragement to learn to walk again, but they also protected me. They knew I was very ill and weak. I was a seriously strong man before this because I made my living carving wood by hand — it takes years to build up those muscles in your wrist and hands and forearms even if you're strong.

“I heard a voice and it said ‘Build a dog chapel.’ It didn't say anything about people coming. Every dog I owned who passed away terribly, terribly, terribly hurt me. And I realized other dog owners go through the same thing. When a person dies, we have rituals we do. By doing them, we put closure on that grieving. However, with a dog, you can grieve for years and feel that loss. I realized I could do myself and my fellow man a great favor by creating my own ritual. I rode on the coattails of religion as far as making this chapel. The closure was people putting their pictures up, saying a few words about that dog, and walking away knowing that thousands of others would know about their dog, and it put closure on it. And it’s worked. It’s worked beautiful.”

“Like many Americans, we had been adversely affected by the economic downturn,” wrote Huneck’s wife, Gwen, in a letter, reported by the Associated Press. “Stephen feared losing Dog Mountain and our home. Then on Tuesday we had to lay off most of our employees. This hurt Stephen deeply. He cared about them and felt responsible for their welfare.” Two days later, he shot himself in the head while sitting in a parked car outside the office of his psychiatrist.

Rest in peace, dear Stephen Huneck, who gave so much comfort to so many people. And I pray that your family finds the rituals to recover from your suicide — not an easy task.

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