On a quiet hilltop farm in St. Johnsbury, you'll find a landmark that speaks volumes of the special relationship between people and their pets. Darcie McCann of the Northeast Kingdom Chamber of Commerce says, "It's very, very touching."
It is the Dog Chapel: the masterpiece of artist Stephen Huneck, who created a place for dog owners to mourn the pets they've lost. But this weekend, the Dog Chapel became a memorial to its builder. "It really surprised a lot of people," McCann sighs.
Huneck committed suicide last week. He was despondent, his wife said, after having to lay off employees. The death shocked Huneck's Northeast Kingdom community and fans of his dog paintings and carvings in large part because the artist's work seemed so full of joy.
Alex Aldrich, the executive director of the Vermont Arts Council, says, "You think, 'That can't happen! Especially not to him!'"
Channel 3 visited Huneck in July of 1999, when the Dog Chapel was under construction. He told us then, "It's like the baseball movie. 'You build it, and they will come!'"
And they did. Over the last decade, thousands of visitors on two legs and four made Dog Mountain a tourist destination. They bought prints, carvings, greeting cards and more. "When you think about Vermont artists, one you'll think of is Stephen Huneck," Aldrich explains.
Huneck became one of the state's most commercially successful artists and shared his spotlight with St. Johnsbury and the region. When national and international press came calling, he always spoke of the beauty of the Northeast Kingdom, earning him honorary status as a diplomat for the Chamber of Commerce. Chamber director Darcie McCann says, "It's been a tough couple days for the Kingdom, I think."
Since Huneck's death, admirers have left messages and flowers at the Dog Chapel, thanking him for making the world more beautiful and fun, and for understanding how pets are family members, too.
We asked an employee of Stephen Huneck's gallery what the future holds for the gallery and the dog chapel. She said nothing's been decided yet, but everyone hopes both can stay open. "It means so much to so many," McCann says.
People who have found comfort at the Dog Chapel or who've taken away colorful keepsakes are now finding new meaning in a line from Stephen Huneck's own book about the chapel. It reads, "It hurts beyond words to suffer the loss of a friend."