Posted By BENZIE SANGMA
What caught her eye drawing her to the road that spring day on May 3, 1979?
One would never know. But she never heard the sound of an automobile thundering down the road toward her. In a split second laden with sounds of screeching tires and a dull thud, it was all over.
Alice Mowat Whitney was dead.
The tragic news ricocheted through the hallways and classrooms of Sir James Whitney School for the Deaf in Belleville as teachers and students busied themselves in the day’s routine. Shock and grief gripped them as they found out the details of the fate of their dear pet who had lit up their days with a wag of her black tail and a glance from her warm, friendly eyes.
Donna Fano was a teacher at SJW at the time of the tragedy. She was in her classroom that morning when news of Alice’s death was announced over the school PA system. While she heard the details of the news from another teacher, she recalled that the students from different residences heard of the accident at breakfast time in the main school cafeteria.
A crossbreed of Newfoundland water dog, which originated in ancient times before the Europeans arrived in Canada, and Labrador, Alice first came into the lives of the staff and students at SJW when she was donated to the school by Farley Mowat in 1972. In the following years, she became the school’s live-in mascot dog.
Delving into Alice’s family history, Fano found an interesting lineage that made the SJW mascot even more special.
Alice’s father, Albert, was born in the Newfoundland out port of La Poille, noted Fano.
“He was one of the last of the ancient Newfoundland water dog stock. His mate was Victoria, a mostly Labrador lady; and the pair gave birth to Alice and the rest of the pups in 1971, where she (Alice) was petted by Pierre and Margaret Trudeau during a visit and perhaps would have become their dog if she had not been afflicted with loss of hearing.”
Instead, her brother, Farley Trudeau, went on to live as a member of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s family for several years.
“Another brother travelled across the ocean as the companion of Premier Kosygin of the USSR. A third went to live with Canadian author Scott Symons, and another brother spent his adult life with Dr. Joe McGinnis, author and underwater expert and explorer,” noted Fano.
Fano thought that Alice might have been the only deaf dog in North America to have been owned by a deaf school.
“The deaf students all thought it was so cool to have a deaf pet. Not very often would they be permitted pets in the residences,” recalled Fano. “She was very loving and affectionate, friendly and so agreeable.”
In an article published in The Intelligence in February 1976, a Mrs. Ryer, a counselor with whom Alice lived during the holidays,was noted to have observed:
“She learns more quickly than other dogs who hear,” she said. “Alice understands and obeys sign language to sit down, come here, lie down and let’s go for a walk.”
Alice was buried in Hodgson Woods located behind the present Sagonaska School.
“Students and staff grieved at the death of their school pet. The now-deceased Dr. J. Demeza gave the tribute at the dog’s funeral at the woods then the students and staff lined up to sprinkle soil on the grave,” recalled Fano.
A new tombstone was unveiled at the site of Alice’s grave on Oct. 20, 2009 at SJW.
“The first tombstone, made of cement, was made by Bruce Gomes, a student in the vocational shop in 1979 and was set up on Alice’s grave.” said Fano. “The tombstone lasted almost 20 years before it broke into sections from the weathering and was moved to the school archives and kept there until 2006. The current Manufacturing Technology teacher Norbert Irion had plans to replace the tombstone with a metal cage housing a slab of marble with sandblasted lettering on it but the school birthday committee decided to replace it with granite for more durability.”
The project, she noted, was made possible with support from the OSD/SJW Alumni Association, Belleville Association for the Deaf, SJW Student Parliament, Bert ‘N Ernie’s Café (staff lounge snack bar), and SJW students and staff. The ceremonial event was the highlight of the 139th birthday anniversary celebrations of the Sir James Whitney School for the Deaf.