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Funeral home director works to save dog that changed his life

Published Mar. 24, 2012

Rain pounded the roof of the carport where the scrawny black dog sought shelter. She looked up, soaked and sad-eyed, toward the employees at Tom Dobies' funeral home in Holiday.

"Looks like we got a new mascot,'' one of them said to Dobies.

"Like hell we do,'' he snapped.

Dobies had a dog when he was a boy many years earlier. It got hit by a car and died. Whether it was the pain of that loss or just that he got too busy building a thriving business, he never got another dog. He never wanted one.

And then he met this mutt, a Labrador mix with no tags, but with a gentleness that made her welcome. Okay, he said, maybe she can stick around until we can figure what to do with her.

A veterinarian checked her out. She was about eight years old and in pretty good shape. Somebody had cared for her, crafted a pleasant personality.

Dobies took her home. He named her Lucy.

Then he began to change.

Dobies had grown up in Tarpon Springs, far from the silver spoon. His dad worked as an auto mechanic; mom a housekeeper at Helen Ellis Hospital. Tom went to a mortuary college in Kentucky and in 1978 converted an old Montessori school into his first funeral home. He worked hard — 97 services that first year.

That would be his pattern over the next 30 years as he opened four more funeral homes in Tarpon Springs, New Port Richey and Hudson. Dobies remained independent as others sold out to the big corporations. He never took more than five days off. He got wealthy.

When Lucy showed up, he altered his work style. Each morning that she hopped in the car with him, they went for a breakfast of corned beef hash and scrambled eggs. She joined him on calls to families who had just lost a loved one.

"Folks,'' Dobies would ask first. "Ya'll afraid of dogs?''

Lucy's gentle nature seemed to comfort them. Children hugged her neck. Dobies bought a special tag for her collar: Grief Therapy Dog.

The more Lucy became part of the team, the more Dobies transformed into a self-described "animal nut.'' He kept treats in his car to lure strays. He fed them Wendy's burgers, got them checked by a vet and delivered them to shelters for adoption. He even picked up dead dogs and brought them back to the funeral home. If there was a collar he notified the owner.

His love for animals didn't stop with dogs. He spent $1,500 to repair a stray cat's bad hip and found homes for several others. He adopted one stray, and even though she was female, he named her "Bill McQueen'' after his friend who runs a funeral business in St. Petersburg.

Who says morticians don't have a sense of humor?

Dobies contributed thousands of dollars to the local SPCA and Humane Society. He paid for six specially-trained German shepherds for the police in Tarpon Springs, New Port Richey and Port Richey, the latter honoring him by naming a dog "Dobies.''

Former Pasco Sheriff Bob White made Tom Dobies a special deputy, and in appreciation for Lucy's role as a comfort dog, he named a small thoroughfare at the Land O'Lakes jail "Lucy Dobies Court.'' It shows up on a Google map search.

Lucy had become a celebrity, but she was also growing old. She came up lame and Dobies paid for knee ligament surgery. Still, she managed to continue her duty. Then one night last April, Dobies and his fiancee Pam Montana heard her thrashing about on the floor where she slept with their two other rescue dogs, Rosie and Amber.

"We thought she was dreaming,'' Montana said. "She woke us up.''

Lucy wasn't dreaming. She was convulsing.

"I couldn't bear it,'' Dobies said. "I cried and cried and cried.''

They took Lucy to their vet, who gave her some medicine that seemed to calm the problem. But by midsummer, after Lucy suffered another spell, Dobies insisted on an MRI. She had a tumor on the front of her brain. A specialist in Tampa referred Dobies to a noted veterinarian at the University of Georgia who in September removed the tumor as veterinary students watched.

"She went in on a Tuesday,'' Dobies recalled. "The next day she walked up to us.'' She licked her master's hand. By the end of the week, they were on the road back to Florida.

Montana worked with Lucy, walking her in circles, exercising her legs. And soon, though blind in the left eye from the surgery, the dog returned to work. She eagerly woofed down her morning corned beef and scrambled eggs. She made people smile through their grief.

Then, perhaps predictably, the old dog broke down again — this time as she lay on a pillow in Dobies' office. The seizures were so bad, Dobies scooped her up and raced to an animal emergency room. He got the Tampa neurologist on the phone. They ordered another MRI.

All that technology could not determine Lucy's latest problem. She lost the use of her left rear leg. Dobies put her on a stretcher normally used to transport bodies and brought her home.

He and Montana fashioned a sling to lift her when she needed to go outside. "Pam was tireless,'' Dobies said. "She just worked and worked with Lucy, and she got better.''

Last week she was walking fine, improving after twice weekly sessions with a physical therapist in Odessa. Dobies long ago stopped worrying how much all this costs.

"Lucy is a family member,'' Montana explained. "We are committed to her, and she has the will. Until that is gone, we're not quitting.''

For a man in the death business, Dobies can hardly talk about Lucy passing away. The very thought leaves him in tears, his throat burning.

But in the few moments when he gathers his composure, when he faces the reality that he has witnessed every day since he opened that small funeral home 34 years ago, he describes the plan he has for this noble dog that made him a better man.

"We'll have a full-fledged funeral,'' he says, wiping his eyes, "with a private burial. I've picked out a solid bronze casket like Michael Jackson's.''

Nothing but the best for the best.

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