Jean Lea, the grande dame of the dog park

DUNEDIN — Big Bruce Simmons was a deputy at the Pinellas County jail.

Little Jean Lea was all of 5-foot-2.

They were strangers then, four years back, just watching their dogs run at the Happy Tails Dog Park.

Bruce had brought his pug Brutus; Jean, her beagle Bill. When the dogs met, Brutus, as he often did, sprinted behind Bill and began to hump.

This could have been awkward, especially for Jean, a retiree in her 80s with a pageboy cut of bone-white hair.

Bruce said, "Guess I shouldn't have left my bedroom door open."

And Jean said, "Why? He's not masturbating."

And Bruce said, "Damn."

He had found a friend.

• • •

Jean was new in town. She had left her home in the North Carolina mountains and settled into a Palm Lake Village triplex off Solon Avenue, near where her daughter lived. Except for Bill the beagle, she lived alone.

To fill her time, she read Ann Rule crime stories and went to Publix and cooked in her crock-pot. And every day, twice a day, she and Bill hopped in her old Jeep Wagoneer and headed for the half-acre plot at Happy Tails reserved for little dogs.

The park regulars formed into morning and after-work groups, and Jean belonged to both. They would circle up on a picnic bench or in plastic chairs and laugh and shoot the breeze. The afternoon group, which Bruce called "the 4 o'clock crew," would stay until sundown or later, depending on the lights at the baseball fields next door.

Happy Tails was at times a book swap, social club and dog beauty pageant, where everyone had something in common running around their feet. All the stress from the outside world could be kept at the double gate.

"You could have the most tense day in your life, and then you go there, you take your dog, you go in this dog park and you let your dog go," Bruce said. "It was a good feeling."

Jean's friendliness and energy would make her, at least among the regulars, queen of the dog park. Even in her old age she was sharp as a sandspur and quick with a dirty joke.

"I'm glad I'm at the age I'm at now," Bruce remembered her saying. "I can say anything I want."

• • •

Over time the friendships grew. Small talk of breeds and treats and recipes gave way to personal news and updates from home. Jean brought homemade breads and pies. The group grew accustomed to pushing her Wagoneer when the transmission got stuck.

Jean had been a florist, a health food store owner and a 911 dispatcher. But what she excelled at was reading people. She had this intuition, remembered park regular Debbie Grover, a way of knowing when something was wrong.

She became a confidant. She would counsel divorcees, talk about money, draw tears.

When she prodded Bruce, he would always say he was "fantastic," that everything was fantastic.

And Jean would say, "I think you're full of bull s---."

And Bruce would say that was his middle name. And Jean would say it fits.

Bruce was 24 years younger than Jean. When his father was dying, and he visited him in the hospital sometimes 16 hours a day, Jean became like a surrogate mother. She would sit and listen at the park and remind Bruce how lucky he was that he got to say goodbye.

• • •

Last year, for days at a time, Jean would go missing from Happy Tails. She would lie in bed, the TV off, the lights dimmed, sometimes too frail to sit up.

She was 86, and the medication to treat the cancer in her breast and spine was weakening her by the day. Debbie would visit with TV dinners or rotisserie chicken, though Jean would lie that she didn't need it, that her cupboards were full, that she was just "having a little trouble breathing, is that okay with you?"

Friends from the park would call and offer to take Bill for a run.

"He's my dog," Jean would say. "I just have to get off my lazy a-- and get there."

When she could, she would show up in a sun hat that hid her thinning hair. She did her best to talk, but would forget names and dates and dogs she had known for years.

One afternoon at the park, Jean threw up. She was mortified. Quietly, Debbie remembered, she asked for help.

• • •

One night last summer, Debbie and Jean sat alone at the park.

Jean said, "Life is a funny thing. You live it, and two weeks after you're gone nobody remembers you."

And Debbie said, "Shut up." She said Jean would be remembered, and that she would plant a magnolia tree for Jean right over by the fence.

And Jean said, "That sounds nice. I like magnolias."

• • •

In December, paramedics loaded Jean into an ambulance and she told Bill goodbye. Bruce and Debbie had never seen her so weak. A couple of days later, she tried to walk out of her room at Mease Dunedin Hospital, saying she was tired of the place and she wanted to go home.

Her last words to Bruce came on Dec. 13, a Sunday. She told him to behave.

Two days later, after a transfer to the Sylvan Health Center, Jean made a rattling sound. Bruce was the only one in the room. He told her he loved her, and he kissed her, and he said she was the best friend he ever had.

Jean, who had decided to donate her body for research, had no funeral. So last month, on a chilly Saturday afternoon, her friends gathered in the dog park for a farewell party. Bruce brought a cake and served it from his tailgate. Debbie brought Bill, whom she had adopted. The regulars laughed about Jean, and remembered her dirty jokes, and wrote messages on balloons before letting them float away.

Standing there, near the fence, a freshly planted magnolia tree stood tall against the breeze.

Drew Harwell can be reached at dharwell@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4170.

Jean Lea, the grande dame of the dog park 03/12/10 [Last modified: Friday, March 12, 2010 2:40pm]

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