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Mark Brown: Requiem for a friend — to his church, the elderly and all those beloved dogs

Tom Vollman dog guy.

Tom Vollman, the dog guy.

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Updated: May 12, 2013 2:20PM

Tom Vollman was a dog guy. For me and many other Chicagoans, he was THE dog guy.

Vollman started his day Wednesday the way he always did.

He rose early, fed the Great Dane and the mutt he was dogsitting, gave them their meds and took them out back to take care of business—just like clockwork, which is how the dogs like it.

Then he brought them inside, sat down in a chair and passed away. He was 54, fit and trim, with no known health problems. You never know.

Vollman isn’t the sort whose death would normally warrant a big write-up in the paper, which is a shame, because he was one of those salt-of-the-earth neighborhood guys who are the backbone of this city.

For three decades, Vollman was the caretaker for the Edison Park Community Church, 6675 N. Oketo, and on the side, he looked after other people’s dogs. He did both with a selfless passion that made you think he never considered either one to be work.

“Tom had a heart bigger than all outdoors. He would do anything for anybody. He never said no,” said the Rev. Kathy Karch, pastor of the church for nine years.

That included watching out for the church’s elderly congregation, whether they needed a fix-it job performed at home or a ride to the hospital.

And the dogs loved him. Just ask my Gilbert, who would bound from the car the moment I opened the door to make a beeline to Vollman’s backyard — excited by the prospect of another sleepover adventure and the chance to make new friends or to just sit on Vollman’s lap.

Finding Vollman was a godsend for us when Gilbert was a puppy. We didn’t really like the idea of putting him in a kennel if we went out of town. I chatted up a woman in a Packers jacket at a dog obedience class in Busse Woods about whether she knew a good dog-sitter, and she recommended Vollman.

Turned out he was a big Packers fan, too, which may have been his only serious character flaw.

Vollman had an unusual setup. He lived next door to the church in a house owned by its small congregation and kept the dogs inside the house.

For a big holiday, he might have 10 to 12 dogs staying there at a time, which probably violated some ordinance, but I always figured Vollman looked after the neighbors’ dogs, too, so they didn’t beef.

Sometimes Vollman let the dogs have the run of the house but mostly he kept them in the basement, where he also had a bed, a couch, a fridge and a couple of televisions so that he could sit with the dogs at night while monitoring multiple sporting events at once.

“He would sit there and talk with them,” said his sister, Jo, who lives in Las Vegas.

Vollman bonded with all his dogs. So did his family members.

Before her death, his mother made a scrapbook from photos of the dogs that were among his regulars. Tom kept it up — the dogs pictured there now numbering in the dozens if not the hundreds.

Jo Vollman said she and her brother spoke daily by phone, and he would always give her a rundown on the dogs in his care.

Naturally, having all those dogs made him popular with kids in the neighborhood, who would stop to ask what kind each one was, and he would patiently tell them.

A couple years ago, the church ran short of money and decided to sell the house in which Vollman lived.

“What about the dogs?” Vollman worried.

“We’ll accommodate them,” the pastor replied.

So Vollman built himself an apartment in the church basement and set aside an area for the dogs, who soon had the run of the whole church.

With less room, he had to cut back on how many dogs he could accept, but if you were in a crunch, he’d find a way. As the lady said, he never said no.

Giving up the house never fazed him a bit, said church secretary Cheryl Mucci, who was sniffling back the tears when she called to tell me the news.

“He didn’t care about possessions or stuff like that,” Mucci said.

What Vollman cared about were the dogs and his commitment to their owners to take good care of them, which is why his sister couldn’t help thinking Wednesday he would still be fretting about how he couldn’t let his customers down.

“I can’t cancel,” he’d say. “These people have plans.”

It’ll be okay, Tom. Thanks for all the times you were there.

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