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Long IslandHistory

A shaggy dog's war story

Butch Premier at Glen Cove. Mayor of Glen

Butch Premier at Glen Cove. Mayor of Glen Cove, Arthur Aitkenhead, has the task of keeping Butch happy on the trip to the theatre. Of course Butch's 247 or some odd pounds didn't leave too much room, but both passengers arrived uneventful. Credit: Newsday/Herbert McCory

By the end of World War II, many Americans sensed that nothing would ever be the same again. But in Glen Cove, there was Butch - and everyone hoped that Butch would never change.

Butch was normalcy. Butch was the epitome of everyday life. Butch was everyone's favorite character. He hadn't even noticed the war go by.

Butch was a 240-pound St. Bernard. When peace came in the fall of 1945, Butch was still on his own tour of doggy service. When he needed to snooze, he'd take a nap on the sidewalk at the corner of Glen and School Streets, one of the town's busiest intersections. When he needed to escape the bustle of afternoon shoppers, he'd slip into the lobby of the Cove Theater and take another nap.

When hungry, he'd stroll over to the Big Ben Market, where the butcher always had a handout ready, even in the grim days of meat shortages and ration books. When restless, he'd get on the Long Island Rail Road for a ticketless ride to Oyster Bay, where another of his favorite butchers was never surprised to see him. Butch was fed by everyone, sheltered by many and, so it seemed, loved by all.

He was a big floppy monster of a St. Bernard, a forever-puppy-ish canine. Owned by a young sportswoman named Ann Miller, Butch was allowed to roam, to sleep where he wanted, to scrounge snacks to his heart's content. And as he went his own way, he captured the heart of his town.

For many a member of the armed forces who returned to Long Island after the war, Butch was, perhaps, a reminder of the small-town America they had left behind.

In the evening, stepping off the train at the Glen Cove station, there would be Butch, sleeping beside the potbelly stove in the ticket office. Shoppers at the local five-and-dime store would have to step over Butch, resting in the doorway.

He might be spotted at the Village Tavern, having a cool dish of water. Or he might be snacking at the Blue Ribbon Restaurant or O'Rourke's Diner, just across the street from the Big Ben Market. At night, he might choose the Western Union Office.

On March 25, 1946, six months after the end of the war, Butch made Life magazine. A weekly at the time, Life devoted three pages of photos to Butch and his wanderings around Glen Cove.

One of the headlines read: "Glen Cove's favorite beggar is a huge St. Bernard named Butch." Describing Butch's life, the magazine reported, "He prefers a vagrant life in town, making his own living from his regular round of meat markets, grocery stores and bars."

Even Mayor Arthur Aitkenhead was sought for a comment.

"Butch is a most unusual dog," the mayor responded. "He has the keys to the city. He has been our town character for some years now. He is very gentle and is loved by everybody." Certainly, it was hard not to love Butch. Even if he almost killed you, as Edward Russell attested.

Russell was a movie projectionist in Glen Cove in the 1940s. Years later, he told this story to his grandson, Dan Russell, Glen Cove's current town historian:

One summer evening, after work, he had gotten into his open convertible without glancing into the back seat. Driving along a wooded street, he was startled by a groan from behind him. And in the mirror, he saw a giant form rising up - a giant form in a fur coat.

It was Butch. He had simply chosen another spot for a nap and was just stretching his sleepy bones after being so rudely awakened. The car swerved off the road and just missed a tree, but neither car nor driver nor St. Bernard was injured. Butch just strolled away, perhaps looking for the nearest diner and heading back to the depot.

At the station, on another occasion, Butch had almost become the target of a police team. Believing that burglars had holed up in the ladies' room at the depot, officers stormed the place with guns drawn, broke down the door and were ready to use reasonable force. But it was just Butch who strolled out into the sunlight.

On the streets of Glen Cove, Butch remained a fitting and reassuring symbol, a reminder that peace was at hand - and the Cold War had not yet begun.

Butch's tradition was carried on by Teddy, his son, also known as Butch II, according to historian Russell. And years later, the Glen Cove Lions Club put up a 20-pound marker honoring the memory of Butch, who died a few years after the war's end. With a profile of the St. Bernard sculpted in bronze, it was inscribed, simply enough: "Our Butch . . . He belonged to all of us."

It had been placed - where else? - at the railroad station.

But in 1969, some heartless soul stole the marker and its theft remained a mystery until 1981, when it turned up in the basement of an old house in North Merrick. It was found by the new tenants, who returned the tarnished plaque. Deciding to take no chances, the Lions Club donated the memorial marker to the Glen Cove High School, where it know rests in the school's main office - recalling a time of war when a big St. Bernard remained a small community's steadfast symbol of the simple, happy life.

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