Rusty leaves suburbs, stays in hearts
At the end of a week burdened by the inevitable weight of death and taxes, six dozen people gather in the early-morning subfreezing temperatures of a suburban parking lot -- not to mourn or protest, but to see a little dog named Rusty off to his new home in Utah.
"Look what one dog has done for this community. Look at all the good," says Steven Piraino, general manager of S & D Prime Maintenance, who got to know Rusty during the last three years as the stray dog followed his crews' snowplows around this parking lot. Huddled around the pastries and coffee station set up outside the offices of Follett High Education Group in an Oak Brook office park, the festive crowd sports balloons, a homemade sign and endless stories about the little stray dog who won their hearts.
"We knew who it was, but we'd still come out," says Mike McTighe, the Oak Brook community service officer who built a relationship with Rusty over three years as he responded to calls about the elusive stray dog before finally being the officer who managed Rusty's bittersweet capture in September. "We'll miss chasing him."
During his years on the lam in a part of Oak Brook bordered by gated communities and office parks, Rusty frolicked with other dogs, ate treats and captured hearts -- but never let people get too close.
"I fed him for three years. All he would eat for me is mozzarella cheese," says Julie Gleason, officer manager at The Rubicon Group, while holding a homemade sign in the shape of a dog bone and waiting for Rusty to arrive. "I thought I was the only one feeding him until I went on Facebook and saw everybody was feeding him."
In addition to the 359 friends Rusty has on his Facebook page under the name "Steve Arfenbarker," the 4-year-old Chow-Sheltie mix has been treated for heartworms and given personal care by the smitten staff at the Hinsdale Humane Society. The care was paid for with donations from a trust fund set up for Rusty by Harry and RonnDa Peters, who live nearby and also fed him.
That money funds Rusty's 1,600-mile trip in the Hinsdale Humane Society van with Jenny Vlazny, the animal charity's longtime operations manager. Vlazny is using vacation days to bring Rusty to his new home at the 3,800-acre Best Friends Animal Society sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, which is surrounded by national parks and nestled in what might be the most stunningly scenic canyon in Utah.
"Such an outpouring of love for one little dog," says Lori Halligan, executive director of the Hinsdale Humane Society, as a unified "aww" rides the mist escaping from mouths in the chill when Rusty emerges from the van for a goodbye stroll.
"We all thought he was our dog," says Peggy Bean, an inventory control accountant for Follett's. "He knew my car. He'd follow my car. I never went anywhere without a rawhide in my pocket. He really was the sunny spot of every day."
Like many of these folks who never could get close enough to touch, pet or grab Rusty, Bean now is able to reach behind Rusty's ears and give him a scratch.
"I'm so overwhelmed," Halligan says as people snap photos of Rusty getting into his van for the long trip. "For him to go up to the crowd and let himself be touched, it's just amazing."
"He'll never know how loved he is," Gleason says.
"We're going to visit Rusty," Peters promises.
"I was so looking forward to this," says Piraino, whose sons, Andrew and Steve, also got to know Rusty during winters of plowing snow from the parking lots. "Finishing the week, especially this week, on something like this makes you feel good."
For more information or to donate to Rusty's caretakers, visit hinsdalehumanesociety.org or bestfriends.org.
Stray: Finally, Rusty's fans can pet him