A "whimsical" sculpture of a dog and a cat will be installed this year near Centennial Beach in downtown Naperville to honor the efforts of two women who founded an organization to help animals 35 years ago.
Ardis McCallion and Cleo Keller will be recognized on a plaque when the Naperville Area Humane Society's sculpture is unveiled this summer or fall behind the Naperville Park District administration center on Jackson Avenue.
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McCallion, the society's founder, and Keller, a founding member and longest consistent volunteer, are both 89 and not involved in plans for the artwork, which will be visible from the city's popular Riverwalk.
But those who are fundraising for the $10,000 sculpture say it will serve the dual purpose of thanking the public for support during the humane society's first 35 years and honoring the two people who were most instrumental in getting it started.
"We decided it's a good way to honor these ladies," said longtime humane society member Gail Diedrichsen. "We thought it was really important to honor people, recognize people and give them well-deserved accolades while they're still on the planet."
Naperville park board members agreed, approving the sculpture's location on park district property during a meeting Thursday night.
Now, humane society members can finish fundraising for the 7-foot-tall and 8-foot-long steel sculpture they have commissioned from artist Dale Rogers, hoping to install it by the society's official 35th anniversary in August or around its annual Black Cat Ball fundraiser in October.
"It's very whimsical because it has a cutout bone in the dog's body," Diedrichsen said about the work of art. "Kids just love to go up to that and peek through it and have their photo taken."
Before the Naperville Area Humane Society was formed, McCallion and Keller grew up in two South Dakota towns not far from each other. McCallion spent her youth on a farm, finding herself drawn to dogs, cats and horses.
"I just always related to animals and often felt sorry for them," McCallion said. "They're not always treated very well."
When she moved to Naperville in 1965, she noticed the community lacked an organized way to handle lost animals or pets that owners could no longer care for. As Keller puts it, "the town had absolutely no way to take care of strays."
The two women and other early volunteers began turning their houses into foster homes for stray cats and dogs. In the humane society's early years, members raised money for pet food and supplies with bake sales and garage sales and by taking turns making calls from a phone tree.
McCallion was a paralegal described by humane society member Dave Schlotterback as a determined woman who "wasn't going to take 'no' for an answer." And Keller was well-connected as advertising director for the Naperville Sun.
Together, they helped the budding organization register as a nonprofit and develop plans for a 3,500-square-foot animal shelter on Diehl Road that still serves as the humane society's headquarters.
"I didn't have any special skills, but there was a desperate need and I just felt that we had to do something," McCallion said.
Executive Director Angie Wood has seen much of the society's growth since being hired in 1988 as humane education manager -- 10 years after the organization moved into its Diehl Road shelter. Her favorite programs now include Paws for Tails, in which volunteers take therapy dogs into schools, a pet behavior help hotline and a safe pets program that provides temporary care for animals owned by victims of domestic abuse or the homeless.
Wood has seen the organization grow to 10 staff members and 650 volunteers, able to care for 60 total cats and dogs at a time. And she's seen longtime volunteers like McCallion and Keller maintain their connections to the organization they founded.
McCallion stopped volunteering when she moved to Maryland six years ago, but Keller still pitches in every Friday, working the front desk and bringing the shelter dogs a special treat of hot dog meat.
"The most rewarding thing for me is the acceptance the public has given us," Keller said.
Diedrichsen said Keller and McCallion deserve the recognition the sculpture will bring because they started the humane society from scratch.
"Back then, people actually kind of laughed at Ardis and thought she was making something important that wasn't important," Diedrichsen said. "They thought it was a waste of time to help animals."