Enjoying the future but never forgetting the past
On the 14th anniversary of her own father passing away from cancer, McCallum teacher Deirdre McGahon sat at the front of room 138 A and checked her email. She read a note from guidance counselor Mickey Folger, whose best friend Sawyer Smith recently passed away from cancer. Folger was looking for a home for her friend’s gigantic 180-pound Anatolian Shepherd.
“I just can’t let this sweet boy go into a county shelter,” Folger wrote in her email. “He is a part of my precious friend!”
Smith and Folger met around 16 years ago through mutual friends. Smith’s former husband played bass guitar with Folger’s former boyfriend, and the two became friends immediately.
“We hit it off instantly,” she said. “We had an instant chemistry. We just fell in love with each other. We had this great best friend romance going on, and she was my ride or die.”
It was evident early on in their friendship that Smith deeply cared about animals, specifically rescue dogs. In fact, her two dogs before she met Gus were both personally rescued from an abusive puppy mill.
“She’s always been a huge advocate of ‘adopt don’t shop,’” Folger said. “So, about 10 or 11 years ago, she spearheaded a group in Lubbock, Texas, to shut down puppy mills.”
Her group was successful, closing a mill that was mass breeding Labrador retrievers, where she rescued two dogs: Faith and Meredith.
“She brought them home, and they were her babies,” Folger said. “They were her girls.”
Unfortunately, both dogs passed away, leaving Smith once again searching for a new furry companion.
“She started praying for a dog,” Folger said. “She has never not had a dog, a big dog, she’s always loved big dogs.”
Luckily for Smith, her longtime friend Kelly Searles came across the perfect opportunity for a surprise. While she was at the store, Searles noticed that there was someone outside the front door giving away puppies. Knowing how much Smith loved dogs, her friend brought Gus, one of the puppies, home to her. When she first brought him home, Gus was 125 pounds and still growing.
“He was a big puppy,” Folger said. “He was her gigantic cuddle bug.”
Unfortunately, Smith and Gus’s time together was cut short. In August of 2018, a few months before adopting her fur baby, Smith was diagnosed with breast cancer. Before her health took a turn for the worse, she and Folger spent the next few months checking off things on her bucket list.
“When she passed away in September, the big question was ‘What about Gus?’” Folger said.
Before she passed away, Smith’s friend Neil Ard planned on taking Gus back to his home in New York, but with two dogs already, one of which was not keen on welcoming a new dog into the family, he was unable to bring Gus home. Smith’s daughter, Taylor, was unable to take in Gus because her apartment could not accommodate him, and Smith’s mother, in her 80s, wasn’t able to care for him either. So, Ard and Folger made it their mission to find the best possible home for their best friend’s baby.
“It was really important to find a good home for Gus because he kind of embodies my best friend right about now,” Folger said. “I had intended on bringing Gus home with me, but I have three dogs of my own. I just knew that we wouldn’t be able to give Gus the kind of attention and love that he needed if he came home with me.”
Folger and Ard also had to act fast. Gus was still living at home with Taylor, who was cleaning out Smith’s house, but the pair only had until the end of October until they had to move out. To speed up the process, Folger and Ard decided to send out a blast through a rescue organization specifically for Anatolian Shepherds like Gus.
“We had a few nibbles, but we were going to have to travel him and that made us nervous,” Folger said. “The fact that we would never have access to him ever again was really disconcerting for me and Neil because Gus was her baby, literally her baby, just a piece of Sawyer.”
As the Halloween deadline quickly approached, Folger decided to try a new strategy. On Oct. 23, she sent out an email blast to the McCallum faculty asking if anyone could take care of Gus. Soon after, Macjournalism reposted Gus’s story on its Instagram page.
“People just started crawling out of the woodwork wanting Gus, wanting Gus and wanting Gus,” she said.
McGahon was the first person to reply.
“[When I saw the picture of Smith and Gus] I could tell she was sick and how much love he brought, and I melted,” she said. “We thought it would be cool to get a big dog, but we were thinking more like 60 or 70 pounds. So, when we found out about Gus, we were like ‘OK, what’s 100 more pounds?’”
McGahon sent the picture to her boyfriend, Phil O’Neill, who encouraged her to get more information before jumping into anything. She quickly set up meetings with Folger to express her interest in taking Gus home. With four pets already (three cats and a frog), she and O’Neill were worried that their home might be too full to accommodate such a large dog. After talking with Folger, however, they knew that Gus belonged with them.
“We sat with one another and talked about our philosophy with pets,” Folger said. “He had to be a part of the family. He has to be [treated like] a human because he is; he’s a giant part of everything that made Sawyer.”
While they were still working out details, Taylor Smith had to return to her home in Dallas, checking Gus into a kennel on the way. He did not stay there for long. The week before Halloween, Folger drove to Smith’s mother’s house to pick up all of Gus’s earthly possessions, checked him out of the kennel and drove him to his new forever home with McGahon, O’Neill, three cats and a frog.
For Gus, the transition took a little bit of getting used to.
“You could see on his face that he was sad and depressed, so the two of us sat down,” McGahon said. “I talk to my animals, and we had a conversation that he’s safe and he’s home. It’s OK that he will always love Sawyer, his original mommy, and it’s OK to have love for both of us. I told him that he never has to forget her and that we’ll always love and honor her.”
Knowing how important Gus was to everyone who knew and loved Smith, McGahon created an Instagram account for him the night he arrived home.
“I made an Instagram account so that all of the people who’ve loved him before could see how he’s doing and that he’s properly taken care of and worshipped and loved,” she explained. “Plus, he’s adorable so I think everybody would want to see his big giant face.”
The account, @gusthebfd, was much appreciated.
“It’s wonderful because we get to see our boy pretty much every day,” Folger said. “He’s in Austin with someone who I have a lot of love and respect for, which means I can see him whenever I want.”
Once he adjusted to the new environment, Gus’s friendly personality began to show.
“He’s loving and friendly and does not realize that he’s 180 pounds,” McGahon said. “He just wants to snuggle and sit in your lap.”
Aside from cuddling with his new family (even though his feline siblings do not appreciate his tendency to cuddle very much), Gus has gotten into a bit of mischief.
“We realized very quickly that he can reach the counter,” McGahon said. “The second night he was home we made steaks. They were big steaks, probably about a pound each. Phil and I were eating and left the third steak on the counter, and we heard something. We went running over, and Gus ate the entire steak in one gulp.”
Folger and Ard still try to be a part of Gus’s life by helping out McGahon as often as they can. When he got in trouble for digging in the trash, all three of them brainstormed ways to keep him out of the garbage.
“I think that Deirdre has the just-right personality for Gus,” Folger said. “She’s very loving, and she’s also whimsical and quirky, which is the kind of personality that Sawyer and I both have and appreciate.”
The whole process of finding Gus a home was incredibly important to her and Neil, not just because of the love they have for him.
“It felt like my last act of service for Sawyer,” Folger said. “She was full of love and light, just an amazing human being, and she brought all kinds of people around her.”
Now, with McGahon, Folger is confident that she made the right decision for Gus.
“This dog just embodies so much love, and he is so loved,” Folger said. “I think that any other place would be a mistake. I think he’s right where he’s supposed to be, and I think [Smith] would feel the same way.”