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The joy of Abner

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Saturday, Dec. 22, 2012, 8:56 p.m.

I got word last week that Abner had died — Abner the dog.

Abner had been a “volunteer” at the Little Sisters of the Poor retirement home on Pittsburgh's North Side, a private facility that provides high-quality care and compassion to the elderly poor.

I first wrote about him in 2007.

As it went, Abner was brought to the Little Sisters home in 2005 when his owner, Gorman Walker, became a resident.

Gorman and his wife, Doris, had gotten Abner as a puppy in 1999. At that time, Doris had been battling cancer. Gorman thought a dog would inspire her to go walking every day.

The couple visited a farmer who'd bred a litter of Brittany spaniels. There were only three puppies left when they arrived. One ran to Doris and immediately made his affection known. Gorman and Doris knew right away they'd found their pup. Doris named him Abner after her childhood dog.

Abner produced the desired results — Doris took him for a long walk every morning. The two were soon inseparable.

In January 2005, Doris' cancer finally caught up with her. Gorman did his best to carry on after Doris was gone, but it wasn't easy. They'd been married 53 years. He missed her desperately. Thank goodness he still had Abner.

But Gorman's health began to deteriorate. He'd had heart issues for years but was so busy caring for Doris, he had no choice but to keep going. Without her, his heart weakened rapidly.

Gorman knew he couldn't take care of himself anymore, but where to go? Most retirement homes didn't allow pets. The thought of parting with Abner was unbearable.

Then providence intervened.

See, for nearly 20 years, Gorman had been a Little Sisters of the Poor volunteer. The sisters at the home had cared for Gorman's mother in her last days; he began volunteering his time and services there after she died.

In the process, he befriended many wonderful people. Two good friends were Dan and Kitty Hilinski, who had begun volunteering in 1994 after the sisters cared for Kitty's mother. Dan and Kitty were aware of Gorman's predicament.

They had the perfect solution.

You see, after so many years of giving, Gorman suddenly needed to receive. Just as he was no longer able to care for himself, a space opened up at the Little Sisters residence. Gorman had found his home.

So had Abner.

Dan and Kitty adopted the dog. Since they volunteered at the home four days every week — and still do — Abner was able to visit Gorman plenty, and did. In fact, Abner went on to become the house dog, bringing cheer to many residents at the home.

Gorman would live at the Little Sisters home for three wonderful years. He died on Dec. 6, 2008. But Abner's work continued. He continued bringing joy to elderly residents until Dec. 6, 2012 — his last day as the home's volunteer dog.

He was nearly 14, after all. He was suffering from cancer. With bad joints in his knees and hips, he had difficulty standing. He was no longer able to make his rounds at the home.

On his last day, when he was taken to the veterinarian, Dan and Kitty were beside themselves with grief. They comforted Abner. They told him he'd soon be back with Gorman and Doris, as well as with another wonderful woman, Patricia Lowe, who'd cared for him after Gorman died.

And so, Abner was put to rest.

I was sad to learn Abner is no longer with us. Then I realized the joy he'd brought into my own life — look at all the wonderful people he helped me to meet. I marveled at the joy he had brought into the lives of so many.

And now you know about the incredible life of Abner the volunteer dog.

(The Little Sisters of the Poor survives on private donations and does not accept government support. To donate time or money, visit or call 412-307-1268.)

Tom Purcell, a freelance writer, lives in Library. Visit him on the web at E-mail him at:

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