The Rest of the World Could Learn a lot
From a Day in Elementary School
Rosie: Hello, Richard. You and your wife Kathy have traveled the road from your roles as rural Virginia parents to that of parents of two professional baseball athletes. Your older son Justin plans to continue his MLB career once we reach our “new normal” in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Your first book, Rocks Across the Pond (2012), is a beautiful, grand book. I say grand because it is large, like a coffee table book. The subtitle says it all: “Lessons Learned. Stories Told.” Dogs seem to be part of those lessons. The Mutt Mysteries authors learned you were authors and dog lovers. You’ve met other RVA writers on your trips to talk to children at schools. It’s through one such author that I connected with you, and we are grateful that you and Kathy wrote the foreword to the newest Mutt Mysteries book, To Fetch a Scoundrel. Your first book gave readers a look at your lives. Your second book, The Shelter Gang and Their Secret Adventure (2017), goes in a different direction. As a children’s book, it is geared to grade schoolers. How long have you been making school visits?
Richard: We have been making school visits since 2012 when our first book was published. Rocks Across The Pond is geared toward a little bit older audience than the Shelter Gang.
Rosie: Your children’s book is a charming “tail” of a group of animal shelter pets. Tell us about the lessons you convey through your Shelter Gang story.
Richard: The Shelter Gang and Their Secret Adventure is a story of hope, acceptance, perseverance and love. It really evolved from a cute little story about the dogs and cats sneaking out of the animal shelter and playing a secret game of baseball every night into something very meaningful. We love to engage the students in a discussion about teamwork and all that en“tails”. We talk to them about how the shelter gang is a better team BECAUSE of their differences and how every one of them brings something important to the team. This is often followed by assuring the students that they too all bring important gifts and are unique and special in their own ways.
In the story we use the characteristics of the different breeds and their heritage to highlight the things they are good at. Here’s an example from the book: “Beau the Basset Hound is not very fast, but he has a real nose for the ball!” We also talk about not judging others simply because they are “not like us.” In fact, we spend time talking about how some of the other dogs tried to tell Barney the Beagle, our main character, that he should not be making friends with Cleo the cat. After thinking about this all the children agree with Barney who says we should get to know someone and not discount him or her as friend material just because he or she is different from us. Then there’s Titan the German Shepherd, who despite his physical challenges (he only has 3 legs) still brings his qualities as a leader to the group. And finally we realized after visiting schools where many children face their own struggles, that these little dogs and cats provide a great example of how by banding together in the tough times and having friends to lean on, they are all able to make the best of their situations. They look forward together for better days ahead. In closing we ask the kids to think about and talk to their teachers about all the different types of teams such as family, school, church, work, etc., that these lessons apply to.
Rosie: What surprises you about the children at the school events?
Richard: We really didn’t know what to expect at first, but what we quickly learned is that the elementary age children in their school settings are such a joy to be around. The smiling faces and random hugs can make your day, and this experience is pretty universal, from the Title I school in a poor rural area to the best private school. Kids are kids. Same goes for our impression of teachers and administrators, wherever we have been. Their passion and dedication is so inspiring. The rest of the world could learn a lot from a day in elementary school. It has been our observation that dogs and kids bring out the best in all of us.
Rosie: Your son Justin, as Houston Astros pitcher and two-time Cy Young Award winner, is a celebrity. Do school students ask about him, or it more the adults that want to know about both your sons and their baseball careers?
Richard: Of course with our first book, Rocks across the Pond (which chronicles our family journey), Kathy and I get a lot of questions from parents and youngsters about our boys, and there’s much discussion about the many life lessons we learned along our way. With Shelter Gang it’s all about the dogs and cats! That is actually refreshing for us. It’s the teachers who are usually our sons’ ages, and they are much more aware of who are sons are. LOL.
Rosie: Rocks Across the Pond is really a lovely book and a thorough chronicle of Justin’s and Ben’s baseball journeys. On page 93 you list thirteen family principles titled: So What Do We Believe? I almost cried when I read “We believe in dogs” in that list. At the back of the book, your Verlander Family Scrapbook of photos shows your sons growing up with dogs Barney and Zach. I see a photo a dog named Riley, too. In an introductory page to Shelter Gang, there’s a photo of you two and three dogs. Please tell me something about your family pets and/or sons’ attachments to dogs.
Richard: We currently have two rescue dogs. Zoey is a Catahoula Leopard dog. Boomer, our couch potato, is a pit bull. They are both characters in the Shelter Gang; Zoey is pitcher, Boomer is an outfielder. Riley was one of our dogs as well. In the story he digs under the fence and opens the gate so the gang can get on the baseball field. Riley was Justin’s dog who stayed with grandma and grandpa (Kathy and me) in his elderly years. He was 17 when he recently passed. Our family loves dogs, and they have always been a big part of our life. So, it was natural to base many of the characters in our book on them, and we have included “real life” photos of them in the final pages of Shelter Gang. The kids LOVE that.
Rosie: You and Kathy both volunteer with Goochland Pet Lovers in Goochland, Virginia. What does that group do and how long have you been involved with them? Also, I hear Goochland Pet Lovers played a key role in a partnership with the county in planning for a new animal shelter. When will that open and how well have county residents responded to the need?
Richard: We first started volunteering at the Goochland County animal shelter several years ago as dog walkers. In fact, our experience there was the inspiration for Shelter Gang. That facility was sadly in need of replacing, so we were happy to get involved with Goochland Pet Lovers when asked. Goochland Pet Lovers, a non-profit, is engaged in a unique public /private partnership to first build and then support a brand new shelter in our county. Kathy and I were co-chairs of the giving campaign that raised $1.5 million dollars in a year and a half towards realizing the dream of Becky Dickson, our mentor and former county administrator. The team spirit and giving nature of our fellow citizens has been truly amazing. Goochland Pet Lovers has added a pleasant chapter to our lives, and we continue to walk the dogs! Grand opening of the new facility is this June.
Rosie: Richard, we’ve touched a few bases. Your journey raising your sons and the roles of baseball and of dogs in that journey, your commitment to sharing with students the life lessons from all your experiences, and your involvement in animal welfare are inspiring, and frankly, a great American family story. Your two books succeed in conveying that story and your elemental messages about family, teamwork, and respect. Thank you for supporting the Mutt Mystery authors as they celebrate reading, mystery fiction, dogs, and animal welfare.
Richard: Dogs, cats, and kids bring out the best in all of us!
About the Interviewer:
ROSEMARY SHOMAKER writes about the unexpected in everyday life. She’s the woman you don’t notice in the grocery store or at church but whom you do notice at estate sales and wandering vacant lots. In all these places she’s collecting story ideas. Rosemary writes mystery, women’s fiction, and paranormal short stories. Stay tuned as she takes her first steps toward longer fiction. She’s an urban planner by education, a government policy analyst by trade, and a fiction writer at heart. Rosemary credits Sisters in Crime with developing her craft and applauds the organization’s mission of promoting the ongoing advancement, recognition, and professional development of women crime writers.