Obit: A man who died, and the dog who took care of him

Some friends find it odd, but I really liked writing obituaries. I considered it an opportunity to sum up someone’s life in a way that might have a powerful and positive impact on friends and family, as well as on people who never knew the diseased. This was a pretty good one because it was also about the diseased man’s dog. Everyone loves a good dog story. This obit appeared in the St. Petersburg TIMES.

It is hard for the people at Countryside High School to remember former student Chris Britt, who died Saturday from the effects of muscular dystrophy, without also thinking about Mr. Britt’s best buddy, Sherman.

Mr. Britt rolled around Countryside High in a wheelchair. Sherman, his golden retriever service dog, was with him constantly. When Mr. Britt needed to go somewhere, Sherman pulled the wheelchair. When Mr. Britt dropped his pencil, Sherman picked it up. When Mr. Britt rolled his chair into a dark room, Sherman would stand on his hind legs and turn on the light switch with his teeth.

When Mr. Britt graduated from Countryside in 1990 and rolled across the stage to get his diploma, Sherman was there. In fact, Sherman had become so much a part of Countryside High that the school granted Sherman a diploma of his own.

“They gave him his own little diploma which I believe Sherman then chewed up,” said teacher David Haines, who was Mr. Britt’s case manager.

The year after graduation, Mr. Britt and Sherman moved with Mr. Britt’s parents, John and Judy Britt, to Townsend, Tenn. Last Saturday, Mr. Britt died at the age of 23 at University of Tennessee Hospital in Knoxville.

This Saturday, Mr. Britt’s family and friends will gather at Bayside Funeral Home in Safety Harbor, the town where Mr. Britt grew up, to say goodbye. Sherman will be there, too.

No one was sure what would happen when Sherman first came to Countryside High. Mr. Britt’s parents got Sherman for Mr. Britt and then asked Countryside Principal Roy Sullivan to allow Sherman to accompany Mr. Britt to classes. Sullivan had reservations, but agreed to a two-week trial.

“There was no law at that time about (service dogs),” Sullivan said. “We went ahead and allowed it based on the behavior of the dog, and it worked out fine.”

Other than slipping Sherman the occasional illicit snack in the cafeteria, students left him alone. Things generally went well, with a few unexpected lapses. There was the day, for example, when Mr. Britt and Sherman encountered Coach Joe O’Neill on hall duty, absently bouncing a ball on the floor.

“The ball got away from him and bounced down the hall, and Sherman went after it, with Chris hanging on in the wheelchair,” Sullivan said. “The kids loved that one.”

Natalie Nubani was Mr. Britt’s friend and classmate. She said anyone who wanted to be Sherman’s friend had to be Mr. Britt’s friend first.

“If Chris loved you, then Sherman loved you,” she said. “But he and Chris were best friends. Chris was always hugging Sherman, and Sherman would lie on Chris’ bed. Sherman would get jealous if I was getting too much attention from Chris.”

Michael Baty, owner of Bayside Funeral Home, said Mr. Britt’s family wanted assurances that Sherman would be allowed to be a part of Mr. Britt’s funeral.

“They wanted to make sure that I didn’t have a problem with having a dog in the building,” Baty said. “I told them of course not – that Sherman was a part of Chris’ life, and that (having Sherman there) is important.”

Besides Sherman and his parents, Mr. Britt is survived by two sisters, Audra Britt of Safety Harbor and Edie Hartwig of Huber Heights, Ohio; and his grandparents, Francis and Blanche Fox of Townsend.

Services will be Saturday at 11 a.m. at Bayside Funeral Home, 737 Main St., Safety Harbor.