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A Korean War veteran was heartbroken when he was separated from his beloved dogs — until a hero stepped in

Korean War veteran James Gearhart, 91, holds toy poodles Andy Gump, left, and Steamboat Willie near Pam Lesko, quality assurance coordinator at the Pennsylvania Soldiers' and Sailors'Home in Erie on Friday, August 9, 2019. Lesko, 55, adopted the dogs when she learned Gearhart would need to give them up in order to move into the facility. She now takes the dogs to work for regular visits with Gearhart.

GREG WOHLFORD, THE ERIE TIMES-NEWS/TNS

By SARAH GRABSKI | The Erie Times-News | Published: August 10, 2019

ERIE, Pa. (Tribune News Service) — James Gearhart was heartbroken.

Gearhart, 91, a Korean War veteran, and his family had agreed it was time for him to enter into assisted living, but he was not willing to give up his toy poodles, Steamboat Willie and Andy Gump.

"It was a difficult decision. He had fallen four years ago and is in a wheelchair and was struggling to take care of himself," said Laura Taylor, Gearhart's daughter. "He didn't want to give up those dogs."

Since Gearhart's wife died 10 years ago, the dogs had become central to his life. He'd had Steamboat Willie, 8, and Andy Gump, 10, since they were puppies.

"I was a little worried because they were what kept him going and kept him active," Taylor said. "He spoiled them so much. I don't think they even knew what dog food was. He'd feed the dogs before he'd feed himself."

But his family had applied for and put his name on the list to move into the Pennsylvania Soldiers' and Sailors' Home.

"He was very, very distraught leaving them," Taylor said. "It broke my heart seeing him like that."

Gearhart's family worked with Because You Care, an animal rescue organization, to see what his options were.

"I made him two promises. I promised him that I'd make sure the dogs would stay together," said Eric Pollock, dog intake and rescue coordinator for Because You Care, 6041 West Road, McKean. "And I also made him the promise that we would go see him with the dogs once they were placed."

Pollock was able to keep both promises thanks to Pam Lesko, a quality assurance coordinator at the Soldiers' and Sailors' home. It was by chance that Lesko came across the two dogs and Gearhart's story on Facebook.

"I have a 19-year-old poodle that I rescued five years ago and she is a joy," Lesko said. "I had recently had a dog that passed away and she was lonely. So it was fate when I saw those two pop up on Facebook. The story really touched me."

Lesko adopted the dogs in early June. She takes them to visit Gearhart at least weekly, if not more frequently for events and other activities.

"He just lights up when he sees them and turns into a completely different person," she said. "It's amazing."

"What kind of person does that?" Gearhart said. "Pam saved me."

Gearhart isn't the only person who benefits from the visits. Other residents get to enjoy the pair, Lesko said.

"There was a woman recently who was just bawling when they were in. She said she had a poodle that had died she missed," she said. "These people don't have a lot to smile about and to see these smiles painted across their faces and when it reaches their eyes, I just melt."

Taylor said she is grateful to Because You Care for taking the time to place the dogs so thoughtfully.

"This has been a dream come true," she said. "Pam is truly a godsend. This is the best possible outcome for him."

Pollock said this is also the best outcome he could have imagined.

"The way this has all come together, it's been a salute to James," Pollock said. "He deserves this."

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©2019 the Erie Times-News (Erie, Pa.)
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