While on a visit from Arkansas, R.P. (as he was nicknamed) found a home at the blueberry farm through a freak accident in February 2001. While sleeping up against the wheel of a car, young Rolly was accidentally run over when the car was started up and moved forward. Yipping and howling ensued. The owner of the pup wanted to ‘put the dog down’ to end its misery. But farmer Cirilo Villa stepped forward and volunteer to patch him up. Sustaining broken ribs, front arm and shoulder, the 3-month-old puppy was immediately adopted by Villa and Amy and Alan Phelps. “We had already fallen in love with him during his brief stay and were thinking of keeping him,” said Amy Phelps. “But with all of his bandages and injuries, he was irresistible. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.”
Born in Conway, Arkansas, in late 2000, Rolly Poley was raised by a single mother, a registered white Labrador named Sadie. He was the bigger of two pups in a small litter that included his sister, Blazes. With a healthy appetite and happy demeanor, the puppy was named Rolly Poley for a bluegrass song written by Fred Rose and first sung by Bob Wills. “People always ask why I chose that name. I just tell them to listen to that song and imagine watching a chubby, happy puppy run and stumble over his milk-bloated tummy!” Amy said, laughing. “It fit him perfectly.”
The pup quickly healed from his injuries and grew into a loyal guard dog, faithfully patrolling the blueberry field for over a decade. Sporting black fur with tan accents, he was a handsome canine, what the local veterinarian called a “black and tan” shepherd-lab mix. With emotive, dark brown eyes, calm character and ever present smile, R.P. quickly became a favorite with the farmers, their many friends and blueberry customers.
Not only did R.P.’s Labrador blood lend him his noble stature, but it also gave him the propensity to be a good worker. “All we had to do was say ‘We have a special job. Do you want to help?’ and Rolly was game,” Amy said. While pruning trees or bushes, R.P. frequently clamped branches in his jaws and helped haul. He could even be counted on to herd cows and chickens and chase away coyotes, hawks and other predators. During blueberry season, he worked twice as hard as the farmers, greeting customers, allowing kids to pet him and shadowing the many pickers in the blueberry field.
The blueberry farmers quickly learned to look out for Rolly because he always followed them everywhere.“If we worked, he worked.” Villa said. It was common to find R.P. trailing behind Cirilo in the Mississippi heat as he disced or bush hogged on the tractor or cut grass on the riding lawn mower. “I would have to stop for water—not for me, I carried my own water—but for R.P. He wouldn’t stop unless I stopped.”
But R.P.’s real calling was his ability to listen. “You could talk to him about anything—love, loss, crop failure, conflict, solutions, the births and deaths of family and friends,” said Amy. “He heard it all.” He listened to kids, teenagers, city folks, the aged and always with an open heart. He had friends of all races, religions, sexes and philosophies. He understood most languages, even the cats—although he didn’t care much for opossums who killed the farm’s chickens.
At times he was the object of discrimination because he was big and black and could look intimidating—a Rottweiler-like fur stretched over a Labrador’s frame. Folks would become afraid and shy away from him. But once they got to know him he was a favorite. He could read people’s hearts and shunned conflicts. Amy said: “He had a gift of making peace, and he shared his gift with others.”
His reputation as the farm’s “therapy dog” was solidified after Hurricane Katrina when the farmers discovered R.P.’s ability to heal folks outside the PRB team. “It was the summer of 2006, and we opened up our hurricane battered farm. We didn’t have a big harvest that year but we knew our people wanted to come hang out at the farm,” Amy said. “People everywhere had lost a lot—homes, schools, jobs, loved ones. Well, we kept finding customers hanging out with the dogs, especially R.P. Several times we found folks crying and petting Rolly. They were telling R.P. their storm stories, and he would just sit and absorb it all.”
As he aged, Rolly slowed down and developed a pronounced limp, but he never got mean. He grew closer to Alan who patiently lifted the dog’s stiffening rear legs so he could walk. Neighbors on Curt Rester Road saw Alan and R.P. making their daily walks with the aging dog lagging behind at ever greater distances in the last few months.
R.P. loved eating dirt on a daily basis and blueberries every summer. He was famous for sitting with his front paws elegantly crossed. He was an easy traveler and enjoyed riding to nearby towns, New Orleans, and the 1,100 mile drive to Washington, DC. For many years he spent Winter months in the nation’s capital and learned to love the city life. During the football season, Rolly proudly wore a black and gold lamé cape with #26 on it. (R.P. loved Deuce McAllister!) Saints fans might remember that for quite a few years a costumed R.P. would walk a pre-game pep-patrol around the New Orleans Superdome with the other farm dog, McGuffin, who wore a cape with #87 for Joe Horn.
He will be remembered for so much: his big bark and his gentleness with baby chicks and bunnies; for the velvety plush fur he wore all his life; for the way his ears flapped when he ran; for his moan when you rubbed his right ear; and, of course, his playful rolling after a great meal. Amy said he had a great sense of smell and could find her no matter how hard she hid. She said she will always be grateful that he never stopped looking for her.
R.P. took his last ride on the tailgate of the 1991 Ford pick up truck he loved, which served as his funeral cortege. A small funeral service was held at PRB where he was laid on a bed of pine needles and camellia blooms and buried under an old oak tree near farm companions who had preceded him in death.
Rolly leaves behind his loving owners Amy and Alan Phelps, Cirilo Villa, his canine companions, McGuffin and Hobolochito; Georgia Bean and Petri the cats; and assorted chickens who shall remain nameless in their grief.