Some "boy and his dog" stories never get old. Take Key Wester Rusty Appleby and his canine friend Hooper, for instance.
At 67, Appleby has been retired from full-time work for several years, but he's far from content to rest on his laurels. Along with his five-year-old canine Hooper, Appleby is a regular visitor at such venues as the Key West Health and Rehabilitation (KWHR) center on Stock Island, where the pair spread cheer, positive energy -- and sweet treats -- to residents.
If it seems a simple gesture, it is. But it's one that's brought a lot of smiles to faces young and old along the way.
"Hooper's a half great dane, and half golden retriever," Appleby said. "I watched him being born myself. He's a blessing. He just loves coming out and meeting new people, as well as folks he's met before. I take him to lots of places where he can make people smile."
Once during a visit to the Schooner Wharf Bar, Appleby said, Hooper made a point of befriending an elderly quadriplegic woman in a wheelchair.
"She literally had him eating out of her hand," Appleby said with a smile. "I gave her some dog biscuits to feed him. She had tears in her eyes. Waterfalls."
Helping the infirm comes naturally to Appleby, who was born in Trenton, N.J., and grew up on the Jersey Shore.
During 1968 and '69, he served as a navy corpsman attached to Bravo Company in the 1st Battalion 9th Marines, which during the Vietnam War sustained the highest casualty rate in Marine Corps history.
Following his honorable discharge from the Navy, Appleby moved to the Keys in 1971 and became, in his own words, "Captain Waterman," earning a living as a boat captain and commercial lobster diver and fisherman.
"I even bought the first surfboard from Ron [Ron Jon] DiMenta back in '63," Appleby said. "Me and my buddies used to go surfing off New Jersey in 40-degree water."
However, when Social Security kicked in for Appleby on Feb. 18, 2011, the proud father of four happily retired from the workforce. He now spends a good deal of his time helping to use the power of love to bring joy to the sick and aged.
For the better part of a year, Appleby and Hooper have been a familiar sight at KWHR, and are often greeted at the door by admirers of both man and beast. During a recent visit, Hooper was wearing bunny ears on his head, and Appleby was carrying a basket of chocolate eggs and other candies as they approached the entrance to the building.
"Here he comes," said Dona Rosado, the center's director of Admissions, who was standing outside talking to co-workers. "We love Hooper. The residents here love dogs in general."
During a tour of the facility, Appleby and Hooper made their way into the cafeteria, where a number of clients were sitting around watching TV and chatting amongst themselves.
"Oh my God! Hi! Hello!" called out Sandy Roberts, a Key West native who now lives at the center. "Isn't he beautiful?" she asked, of nobody in particular.
Another resident in the cafeteria, Addie Lamberson, was also glad to see Hooper's wagging tail and kind eyes.
"Animals are so beautiful," Lamberson said with a sigh. "I've never met an ugly one yet."
Moving on down the building's corridors, Appleby and Hooper were greeted by other staff and clients who have become used to the sight of Appleby, and Hooper -- even in his Easter bunny disguise.
"At Christmas, I had him wearing reindeer antlers," Appleby said.
Another regular stop for the pair is the room of former Florida Marine Patrol captain Ralph Tingley.
After exchanging pleasantries with Tingley, Appleby explained that their long friendship extended back to the "old days" when Appleby was an energetic, law-bending youngster, fresh out of 'Nam, and speeding along the back country waters of the Keys.
"You never could catch me," Appleby teased Tingley, who obviously stopped caring about such trivialities long ago.
As the two traded war stories, such as Tingley's rescue of a toddler from the bottom of a boating canal, Hooper rested his head on Tingley's knee and listened politely.
After leaving Tingley's room, Appleby explained his motivation for his regular visits to the home.
"I had heard that [KWHR] staff were looking for people to come in here and help entertain the residents," he said. "And we all know the healing power animals can have on people. So I asked one of my friends who works here what was involved. She told me just to bring along the paperwork that shows he's healthy and disease-free. I've been bringing him here ever since. It's a cool thing to do."
Their visit at an end, Appleby removed Hooper's bunny ears and packed his canine pal into his pickup truck for the trip up the road to their Bay Point Home. Appleby was preparing for a trip to the mainland to have some of his own health issues looked into.
But as they rolled out of the lot, Hooper stole a glance over his shoulder, back at the place where he's always so welcomed, as if to say, "Don't go anywhere ... I'll be back."