Stephen Huneck | Here In New England
A mile down the road from his home, Stephen created his masterpiece: a 150-acre dog park, free and open to the public, with trails, forests, and a swimming pond. He dubbed it “Dog Mountain.” At the center of it he erected a classic Vermont chapel dedicated to the memories of lost pets. “Stephen wanted a place where people could find closure,” Gwen explains. “He also wanted to create the perfect spot to bond and have fun with your dog while your dog’s alive.” It’s become a pilgrimage site for dog lovers, drawing visitors from around the world.
Despite Stephen’s success, the recession took its toll on his business. Usually jovial in public, Stephen began showing signs of strain. Just before Christmas 2009, Gwen and Stephen had lunch with Jim and his family. Jim noticed Stephen’s hands shaking and asked about it. “I have to get through this winter,” Stephen replied. “I just have to get through this winter.”
Then in January, Gwen got a call from Stephen’s psychiatrist, saying that he’d never arrived for his appointment. She went looking for him and found his car parked in front of his doctor’s office. From a distance it looked as though he were sitting in the front seat reading the newspaper, but as she approached the car, the truth became clear. Stephen had shot himself. “I think he was trying to spare me that,” Gwen recalls. “It ended up I was the one to discover him, but I think he was trying to spare me that experience.”
The interior of the Dog Chapel glows in the late afternoon. The sunlight catches in a row of stained-glass windows that celebrate the qualities of canine companionship: loyalty, play, trust. On every inch of wall there are remembrances, two or three layers deep in places: pictures of lost pets, with notes–some heartbreakingly raw and sincere–trying to put into words the complex bond of love and friendship we feel when we say, “Good dog.” It’s a peaceful, disarming space. Of all the small tragedies that befall mankind, the loss of a pet may be the most universal. It’s a pain that binds us together, and here in this chapel Stephen created a safe place to heal.
Gwen sits in one of the five small pews. Her own dogs–Molly, Daisy, and the current incarnation of Sally, the third one and the first male (his full name is “Salvador Doggie”)–mill about the chapel. Occasionally one of them nudges at Gwen’s hand for a scratch.
“I was surprised after he committed suicide when I talked to some people and they were totally shocked,” she says. “People who knew him very well, I thought. He just never shared that with anybody.”
Stephen had suffered from depression most of his life, although he’d grown adept at hiding it. Behind his jovial exterior was a man who could grow despondent at times, Gwen says. Like many artists, he had trouble internalizing the praise he received for his work, she feels, and he harbored a low self-image.
Gwen thinks it’s possible that some people just saw what they wanted to see in Stephen: a self-made man living his dream in the beautiful Vermont countryside. “People would say to us, ‘You’re so lucky. You have the perfect life,’” Gwen recalls. “And we were thinking, Are we going to make payroll this week?”
Certainly Stephen’s art didn’t provide any clues to his depression. Gwen jokes that maybe if he’d painted morbid things, people wouldn’t have been so surprised. Even through tears, she finds her laugh easily. Gwen has small, bright eyes and round cheeks that dominate her face when she smiles. Sadness doesn’t suit her, and it’s easy to see what she and Stephen saw in each other.
As the recession grew worse, Stephen began working less. He would close himself into the media room and watch cable news obsessively. “It was probably a bad business move, but we tried to keep people on as long as we could,” Gwen says. “It just sucked all the money, basically. And then we came to a point where we couldn’t anymore, and that was the breaking point for him.” On January 5th, they let go 10 of their 12 employees at the workshop and gallery on Dog Mountain, many of whom they’d known for years. They thought of them as family, and Stephen felt personally responsible. “He was all alone,” Gwen says, “watching CNN in the morning and thinking he was a failure.”