This gravestone caught my eye, and not just because of the noble German Shepherd dog whose photograph graces it. It was the inscription, “Mack Famous Seeing Eye Dog of George Ramey,” that got my attention. I wondered just how famous this dog might have been. I found the answer in the pages of three local newspapers of the period, The Washington Post, The Evening Star, and The Alexandria Gazette.
This story begins in 1929, when George Ramey of Alexandria, Virginia, only 17 years of age, attended Herbert Hoover’s inauguration. The next day, he traveled to Charlottesville to watch a basketball game. On the train ride back home, his eyes began to hurt. He washed them with cold water that night. The next morning, he woke up unable to see. It must have been quite a shock to him and his family that this once active teenager was so suddenly stricken with blindness.
As George Ramey became a young man, his disability left him unable to find employment. But in May of 1937, the Postmaster of Alexandria, Virginia and the Alexandria Lions Club pitched in so that George could support himself. Postmaster J. Owen Lynch interceded with the Federal government for an exception to allow George to sell newspapers, magazines, candy, and cigarettes in the lobby of the Post Office at 200 S. Washington Street. The Lions Club helped George set up the newsstand and stock it with merchandise.
Still, George had a problem. He had to get from his home on Duke Street to the Post Office, navigating sidewalks and street crossings and possible hazards such as puddles of water and open manholes. For a while, he had a young boy who would guide him on his way. It was not a complete solution to George’s predicament, although he must have been grateful for any assistance at all.
Relief came in the form of a local businessman who would not allow his name to be revealed. This generous man contributed $150 (roughly $2,600.00 in 2018 money) to allow George to acquire a Seeing Eye dog and receive training on how to work with him. He traveled to Morristown, New Jersey where he was trained along with several other blind people, both men and women, including a rabbi, a piano tuner, and a radio entertainer. George learned to sense his new guide dog Mack’s movements: a stop, a turn to one side or another, even a slight cock of his head. Mack, in turn, learned to take feedback from his owner. If he did something wrong, such as walk George into a low-hanging tree branch, Mack would hear George say, “phooey!” If he did something right, Mack would hear “attaboy!”
George was thrilled to have Mack as his companion. When he returned to Alexandria from his training, he said, “This is the happiest moment of my life. You can’t imagine how good it feels to have ‘Mac’ with me. I’ve never been really lonesome, for people have always been good to me … but now I have a pal.”
At the time that George and Mack were matched up, Seeing Eye dogs were still relatively new. The idea of training dogs to work with the blind originated in Europe, and the first one showed up in the United States in 1928. Ten years later, Federal and local laws still hadn’t caught up with this new phenomenon. George was confronted with yet another obstacle: animals were not allowed in government buildings. Postmaster Lynch petitioned Postmaster General James Farley for another exception, but this time it was denied. Thanks to the historian at Seeing Eye, Inc., I learned that it wasn’t until 1974 that Seeing Eye dogs were permitted into post offices.
Mack could accompany George to work, but a family member had to take the dog home when he arrived at the Post Office, and bring him back when it was time to close up shop for the day. Seeing Eye dogs were supposed to stay with their owners at all times, causing George to worry that being separated from Mack all day would undo weeks of training. Fortunately, the two continued to work well together.
Sadly, after a partnership of nearly eight years, Mack died from a brief bout of kidney disease. I do not know whose idea it was to bury Mack in Aspin Hill Memorial Park, but I’m glad they did. Otherwise, I might never have known about this remarkable dog.
Inscription: MACK FAMOUS SEEING EYE DOG OF GEORGE RAMEY Oct 20, 1938 - April 21, 1446 Location: Aspin Hill Memorial Park N 39° 04.764 W 077° 04.602
“Blind Youth Gets ‘Seeing Eye’ Course.” Alexandria Gazette, Sept. 3, 1938. A1.
“Seeing-Eye Gift Aids Blind Man in Alexandria.” Washington Post, Sept. 4, 1938. pg.4.
“Blind Man’s Dog Barred by Officials.” Alexandria Gazette, Sept. 13, 1938.
“Farley Decision Is Awaited On ‘Seeing-Eye’ Dog in Office.” Evening Star, Thursday, Sept. 15, 1938. A2.
“Friends of Blind George Ramey Offer Plea to Farley for Dog That Has Lifted a Burden.” Evening Star, Sept 18, 1938. B1.
“‘Mack,’ Seeing-Eye Dog, Dies.” Alexandria Gazette, Apr. 22, 1946. pp. 1, 5.