David Lauderdale

How a dog saved from a Bluffton trailer fire helped the hurting re-ignite their spirits

In this file photo from September 2011, a resident at Palm Meadows Village on Hilton Head Island gets a kiss from Smokey, a trained therapy dog owned by Rich Czark.
In this file photo from September 2011, a resident at Palm Meadows Village on Hilton Head Island gets a kiss from Smokey, a trained therapy dog owned by Rich Czark. Staff photo

Smokey the rescue dog gave a lot to mankind.

It was a most unlikely contribution — 5,600 visits by a dog to cheer the sick, aged and dying, or to encourage young children learning to read, all across the Hilton Head Island, Bluffton and Beaufort area.

Sometimes, a person’s last act on this earth was patting Smokey’s head resting on the bed.

For almost a decade, Smokey made the rounds with his owner, Richie Czark of The Crescent in Bluffton. They were regulars at Hilton Head Hospital, Memory Matters, Hospice Care of the Lowcountry, the Boys & Girls Club of Bluffton and nursing homes across Beaufort County.

He visited families after the Emmanuel 9 murders at the church Bible study in Charleston.

But this fall, Smokey started having seizures. Under the care of veterinarian Ben Parker of Bluffton, he slowed down. His last day of work as a card-carrying, scarf-wearing, certified Service Dogs International volunteer was Oct. 2. He visited Bloom at Belfair and Belfair Gardens that day.

Smokey got sicker and sicker, until he was put down on Nov. 30.

Czark sat in my office and said, “I consider it an act of God.”

Smokey was a stray, living under a mobile home in Bluffton when it caught on fire in January 2008.

The family had to find another place to live, and they told the first responders that the two puppies that poked their heads out of the lattice work around the trailer didn’t belong to them.

They were about 8 weeks old.

The one with a mangled paw went home with Bluffton Township Fire District firefighter Tony Pavilonis. His leg was restored through the kindness of many. They named him Phoenix.

Czark was on the scene as volunteer disaster services chairman for the local American Red Cross office. He took Smokey home, against the wishes of his wife, LuJean. The dog needed a bath and food, and Dr. Parker told Czark the dog had every worm and parasite he’d ever seen in vet school.

“I couldn’t let him stay there,” Czark said.

Smokey quickly won his LuJean’s heart. The tan and white husky mix seemed to always be smiling. He was gentle, and he seemed to have empathy for others.

When he went through the Alpha Dog Good Citizens class at Petco with trainer Abby Bird of Bluffton, she suggested Smokey become a trained therapy dog. Smokey took the 12-week class and passed all 15 exams to get his card.

He was soon started getting citations, like the award from Life Care Centers of Hilton Head for his “commitment, dedication and performance.”

He earned a 500-hour pin for volunteerism from the Hilton Head Hospital Auxiliary. He went with Czark as he participated in building 89 Habitat for Humanity Houses, and, by happenstance, responded to 89 house fires.

He “spoke” to a Rotary club on the value of therapy dogs.

He was given a name plate at the Red Cross board meetings. He made a TV commercial. His story was told in newspapers and magazines as he built up a large following.

When Czark got home from the wrenching event of holding Smokey as Dr. Parker humanely put him down, a get-well card had arrived in the mail signed by staffers at Hospice Care of the Lowcountry and accompanied by dog treats and toys.

Smokey never complained, even though he had Addison’s disease and was treated from age 3 with two steroids.

“I couldn’t stop doing it,” Czark said. “The dog just wanted to do this.”

He knew Smokey was special the day they visited an ALS patient. This man had been an avid bird watcher before the disease slowly took away his movement. When all that he could move was his head, Smokey laid down and rested his head on the man’s feet in the wheelchair.

“I didn’t tell him to do that,” Czark said.

Smokey would get people to open up or smile when they said very little, and had nothing to smile about.

One 86-year-old man had carried with him for 80 years the angst of seeing his father shoot a dog. He shared it with Smokey. Another elderly woman told Smokey about buying a puppy for a quarter in an act of disobedience to her mother. For 16 years, that dog taught her responsibility.

“That was the magic, if you would, of Smokey,” Czark said. “He could break through with people and give them a little relief from their trials and tribulations. They would see his face and his smile and they would drift off with him. It was a happy place.”

Czark said if people want to make a tribute to Smokey, they could give a donation in his name to Palmetto Animal League, 56 Riverwalk Blvd., Ridgeland, SC 29926; or Hospice Care of the Lowcountry, P.O. Box 3827 Bluffton, SC 29910.

David Lauderdale: 843-706-8115, @ThatsLauderdale