The lady of the Lake - Celebrating Seniors
You've probably heard what it means to be a "doctor's wife," but have you ever heard what it is like to be the wife of a veterinarian? Dorothy Whitney can tell us. Married to George Whitney for 44 years, in that time Dorothy has played surrogate mother to a duck, a pig, miniature sheep, birds, dogs, a goat, and even snakes.
Snakes can still be found in "Lake George," the pond next to the house they built.
Maybe that's why, even in summer, the Whitneys can entertain friends outside and never worry about mosquitoes. When George and Dorothy were about to build a house in Orange 40 years ago, they decided to create a pond first. Since Dorothy is from upstate New York, they dubbed it "Lake George."
Besides helping George with the business end of his practice, Dorothy has also taken special care of many animals. One day they found a nest of mallard ducks under their overturned canoe next to the pond. Looking closely, George saw one egg was only partly open, whereas the rest were wide open and their occupants long gone. Inside that broken shell was another duckling, left behind. When they tried to put this little duck back with its mother she rejected it because it smelled of humans. This left the little duck all alone. To help the orphan, Dorothy quacked, and the baby duck waddled over to her. She brought it inside to protect it until it was big enough to be on its own. When Dorothy knew it was time for the duck to return to the wild, she brought it outside. This time, its mother accepted it.
At another time, George came home with a goat. They brought it inside just as one of their dogs ran by and hopped on the couch. The goat immediately followed the dog up on the couch, and there they were, both pleased to be part of the family.
Dorothy says perhaps her first exposure to animals was when she was 4 and proudly collected eggs from her grandmother's hen house. "The hens weren't always happy about that, and sometimes I would have to slip the marble egg my grandmother told me to use under the hen when I took her real egg out."
Orange residents sometimes recall Rotary Rooter, the pig the Whitneys adopted. As Rotary grew bigger and bigger, Dorothy said George decided to research the lifespan of a pig. He never found it - she thinks that is because pigs never have a chance to live their lives to their natural end. One of her own childhood memories was, for a little girl traumatic: neighboring farmers would bring their pigs to her grandparents' farm to be slaughtered, and she vividly recalls the cries of the animals. She never ate pork after that. Rotary Rooter lived to be more than 17!
Even before meeting George, Dorothy was interested in animals, especially dogs. She spent approximately 50 years rearing dogs. She was 28 when she got her first Gordon setter. Their distinctive black-and-tan coats make them easy to spot. At that time, she was living in the Adirondacks and loved to camp and canoe. She and her first husband decided to give their dog its own backpack to carry its own food - a novel idea at the time. When they arrived at the end of their trip, a group of people had gathered at Lake Saranac to see this dog with its own backpack.
Dorothy became involved in Field Trials (a hunting dog equivalent to indoor dog competition) when her first Gordon setter was 4 years old. At that time, the trials were called "shoot to kill," a requirement that kept many women from participating because they didn't want to do that. Later, the American Kennel Club allowed Field Trials to be held without killing. Instead, blanks were fired, and the dogs were sent to find a bird (already dead) and bring it back.
At one of the field trials, Dorothy met a New Jersey breeder whose championship dog had puppies. Dorothy bought one she named Liz. She later became a champion as well. Liz became the first of her breed elected to the Field Trial Hall of Fame. She was "a natural," Dorothy said. Well-mannered, she always seemed to know what to do and had a good disposition. When a visitor brought her baby to visit and let the baby crawl, Liz crouched down next to the toddler and crawled across the room alongside her."
As a breeder, Dorothy enjoyed the process of birthing puppies, especially when they would first open their eyes to find themselves in the hand of an odd looking creature. Dorothy said that when Liz once birthed a large litter of pups, she stayed in the whelping box tending to her babies. When Liz had to relieve herself, she first shredded newspapers lying nearby and covered the pups to camouflage them from predators
She said field trials were fun, and breeders were interesting people to associate with. At home, her setter " pretty much had the run of the house." One breeder told her why she liked a Gordon setter's dark coat: "It makes it easy to spot their hair if they've been sneaking a bite of your mashed potatoes."!
Some breeders always keep their field dogs away from human living quarters. Dorothy said she learned from a pro "a good gun dog is either in the bed or under the bed," and she gave her dogs homespun attention.
Neighborhood children were sometimes curious about Dorothy's dogs, and she helped a number of Boy Scouts meet the requirements for their dog badge.
Dorothy said she didn't learn to drive until she was 41 and once more single. After she passed her test, she could commute from Newtown to a position in Danbury on what was then the newly opened Route 8.
Dorothy says she first met George when she had divorced, was living in Newtown, and had learned to drive. A fellow breeder told her what a wonderful veterinarian he was. When Dorothy started bringing her own dogs to him, she liked the fact that when he did not have an answer to a question she asked, he would say so and then research the answer. Dorothy and George were married on a New Year's Eve 44 years ago at the home of nearby friends, the Lattanzis.
Not long after she moved to New Haven and began married life with George, Dorothy walked by a New Haven jewelry store. In its window was a small statue of a Gordon setter. She wished she could buy it, but the cost was too great. Today the statue sits in her china cabinet - George went back to the store, bought the statue, and surprised Dorothy with it for her birthday.
For the past 25 years, Dorothy has been legally blind.. Aided by a video magnifier, she has not let that keep her from an active life. She admits however, that it is hard to introduce speakers at the study group she sometimes leads, The Institute for Learning in Retirement. She is an active member nonetheless. She says it provides the opportunity to make new friends, and as one ages and loses old friends, it's good to get exposed to people with similar interests.
Despite her limited vision, George has helped Dorothy continue to enjoy one activity, Scrabble, despite her limited vision. She said he disappeared into his workshop a number of times and finally emerged with a gigantic Scrabble board and tiles big enough that she could see them. They play almost every night.
One thing continually surprises Dorothy as she gets older: how vividly she can recall very early experiences such as the birthday party when she was 3 and a little girl gave her a gift she was disappointed in. Her aunt took her aside and told her the girl was probably unable to afford a more expensive gift.
Born in 1913 and brought up in Schenectady, N. Y., Dorothy was the oldest of three girls. As a very young child, she was injured in an accident that required a long recuperation. Her mother took the opportunity to teach her to read while she was convalescing. By the time she was 4 and well again, she was reading everything.
Dorothy began her business career after attending Butler Business School in Schenectady. When she took her place in the working world as a bookkeeper, wages were about 40 cents an hour. Her first job was at the American Locomotive Train Company, where she did the payroll. As she read the names of those on the payroll, she got an informal lesson in immigration. Most of the names on the payroll list were neither Dutch nor English, but instead were those of people newly arrived from other countries such as Italy and Poland.
After several years there, she was ready for a change and began working for Schenectady's largest employer, General Electric. At the time, the company was innovative in offering benefits to the workers it hoped to retain. There were English and citizenship classes available for newly arrived Europeans, and at mandatory breaks at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., workers were to step away from their machines, open the windows, and do calisthenics and deep breathing.
Back then, Dorothy notes, if a retired worker couldn't afford either travel or hobbies they were apt to die within two years of their retirement. These days, she says, retirement is much more interesting because many people can afford to travel and do things they enjoy when they are no longer working full time.
Dorothy enjoys hearing about what people can do to live well as they age. She ran across an article from a Harvard medical newsletter, offering advice on how to live to the age of 100. The article didn't mention how pets contribute to their owners' longevity. In Dorothy's view, that was an unfortunate omission: they were overlooking all the benefits that dogs and cats provide to their owners - not only companionship but also a reason to step outdoors and go for walks with their pets. They have been shown to lower a person's blood pressure, Dorothy says, but they are also wonderful because "they give you things to think about, other than yourself."
The first dog Dorothy got after her dog breeding days was a rescued poodle called Emma. When Emma, then 5 years old, arrived at the Whitneys, Dorothy said she refused to sleep in the crate they had gotten for her. Instead she staked out her own preferred place for sleeping - on their bed. There she still sleeps. Dorothy seems to subscribe to the philosophy of Roger Carras: "Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole."