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Regional Archives The Altamont Enterprise, July 21, 2011
‘He lived in a different, more generous, and easier world’
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
A dog that died over a century ago lives on as a part of postal lore and in the heart of the author who popularized him.
The stray, named Owney, found his way into the Albany post office in 1888 and slept on mailbags there, according to an account from the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum. He eventually rode Railway Post Office cars across the country and was given the tags to prove it.
Owney was a symbol of good luck, says the museum, in an era when train wrecks were frequent; no train he rode was ever in a wreck. He died in 1897 and today his stuffed body the taxidermy was paid for by postal workers is the center of one of the National Postal Museum’s most popular exhibits.
Owney’s likeness will travel places he never got to go.
On July 27, a stamp commemorating the postal mascot will be released at the museum in Washington, D.C. The portrait of Owney was painted by Bill Bonds; the stamp also features tags that were given to Owney on his travels.
One of the speakers at the event will be Dirk Wales who has popularized Owney in two books about his travels.
“I found a way to walk behind the dog as he walked through history and reflect what he saw,” said Wales this week, speaking by phone from his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
As Wales himself has traversed the country, speaking, often to children, about his book, he tells them it has a message: “Sometimes you will be given the opportunity to jump off your regular wagon and hop on the train. I recall in my own life when I had that chance and took it, and the difference it made….”
He described this week the leap he made as a young man. Raised in California during World War II, he felt lucky to be admitted to Stanford University. “But I was dead-ended as a 19-year-old kid; I couldn’t afford to stay at Stanford.”
He dropped out and worked as a carhop on the Sunset Strip. “I realized, at the end of the first year, I’d probably marry a nice girl, have children…I would become the night manager I worked for who had been there for 25 years.”
So Wales made his leap. “I applied to all the universities in southern California and I went to UCLA.” There he studied theater, writing and directing plays, with Carol Burnett and Jimmy Dean, he said. He is now a filmmaker. As he travels the world for his work, he has taken pictures of numbers and published two books of those photographs Circle the Number You Love, Cross Off the Number You Hate and The Secret Heart of Numbers.
Wales was filming in D.C. when the National Postal Museum was fairly new, he said, and he made a visit. “In the back of the bookstore was a poorly mimeographed sheet about Owney,” he recalled. “I wondered why no one knew anything about it.”
In researching his book on Owney, Wales walked the streets of Albany with Virginia Bowers, Albany’s city historian, visiting the building that had been the post office Owney considered his home.
He wrote A Lucky Dog Owney, U.S. Rail Mail Mascot, but couldn’t find a publisher. “Everyone thought I was crazy,” he said.
Finally, Great Plains Press, in Chicago, published his book. So far, 32,000 copies have been sold, Wales said, and he was asked to write a sequel, which he did.
He has also written a screenplay about Owney, he said, at the request of someone who then walked away from the project. The screenplay is based on his two books with added facts gleaned from files kept by the postal historian, Meg Ausman, whom he said liked the script. The postal service, in difficult financial straits, is unable to produce it, said Wales. “The postal people are just trying to stay alive,” he said. “We’re looking for people who would like to do this.”
Many local residents have learned about Owney through Wales’s book. “I grew up in Albany and I never heard of Owney until I read his book,” said Joan Wemple Burns, of Guilderland, a member of The Dutch Settlers Society of Albany, which is selling the book. “It just tugs at your heartstrings,” she said.
Wales used his imagination to flesh out the bare bones of facts known about Owney. “No one in Albany knows how this dog got to the back door of the post office on a cold December night,” he said.
Reading from his recent book, Further Adventures of a Lucky Dog,” Wales said, “He traveled all these places alone.” No one knows exactly where Owney went or whom he met. “He had a life, friends, adventures that were not recorded,” he read.
Wales went on about Owney, “He lived in a different, more generous, and easier world.”
Wales’s books with imagined encounters are grounded in facts. Chicago, he knows, was the railhead for cross-country travel. In his youth, Wales himself would ride the trains from California, and change trains in Chicago to visit family in Connecticut.
“Chicago had six train stations in the 1890s,” he said.
“I’m trying to reconstruct as an honest man the life of a dog who was miraculous,” he said. “Today, he’d be killed or incarcerated or the security people would drag him off.”
Giving a modern-day parallel, Wales said, “Imagine a pilot taking his mascot dog with him. Picture him checking into a hotel and saying the dog would sleep in the lobby and eat table scraps from the kitchen. They’d call security and lock this lunatic up.”
Wales said the tale he told of “an amazing animal” couldn’t happen today “because the world he lived in was very different.”
Wales’s speech at the National Postal Museum for the July 27 release of the stamp will center on his friendship with Owney.
Wales said, “I feel personally like the dog and I are best friends now.”
He concluded, “There’s a wider world to think about than the one at the supermarket.”
On July 27, the Albany Visitors’ Center, at 25 Quackenbush Square, will host a celebration from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., featuring storytellers, music by The Owney String Band, tours of the former post office where Owney started his adventures, and an exhibit by the Mohawk and Hudson Humane Society. The U.S. Postal Service will sell Owney stamps and cancellation cachets.