Bruce Baber's relationships with dogs came easily. His interaction with other humans was trickier.
Dogs were the way to get to know Bruce Baber.
The over 6-feet-tall, skinny and quiet Vietnam veteran could often be seen walking around Gainesville College Park and Duckpond areas, flanked by a band of dogs. They all stood at attention when they were with him.
If Baber made his hissing noise, they would take heed as if they were his soldiers.
Baber, 72, died Aug. 25 after becoming ill with cancer. Gainesville community members reflected on their neighborhood dog-walker of almost 30 years who was described as a beloved, respected “gentle giant.”
Gainesville resident Bhakti Cohen and her therapy dog, Gaura, were two of Baber’s clients. Cohen said Baber was the kind of person who preferred animals over people.
If it weren’t for 10-month-old Gaura walking by her side, off his leash, Baber may not have stopped to talk. From then on, Baber was one of Gaura’s lead dogs in his pack.
Cohen believes her now 8-year-old dog was one of Baber’s favorites, even though he may have told all the dog parents that theirs was his favorite, she joked.
“Everybody who knew Bruce knew him because they had a dog,” Cohen said.
Baber left his mark on Gainesville not only in the streets where he spent countless hours walking but also in City Hall.
Back in 2012, Baber found himself in a two-year battle with the city to be able to continue his pet-sitting business from his home on Northwest Seventh Avenue after a neighbor complained. Supporters came to the meeting wearing buttons with the phrase “Save Bruce.”
Cohen was one of the supporters; her front yard was one of many with a “Save Bruce” sign stuck in it eight years ago.
The Gainesville City Commission ultimately voted 4-3 not to grant permission for his in-home dog-sitting business, Mydogspace.
Susan Bottcher, a former city commissioner, is one who voted no. Bottcher said she voted not to allow the pet-sitting business in residential neighborhoods because it would have created an ordinance for one person.
“My heart broke for the guy because that’s how he made a living,” Bottcher said.
Baber told The Sun in 2010 that he would try a dog-walking service for his clients while the discussion whether to change city code continued.
“I wish to keep working at what I love, from the home I love, with the dogs and customers I love,” Baber said.
And he remained the reliable, trusted dog-walker for many Gainesville residents up until his health declined. Clients enjoyed seeing him driving around town in his car decorated with dog and Bernie Sanders stickers.
Baber looked less healthy as time went on. Cohen said he began to slow down.
Cohen learned in July that cancer was deteriorating Baber’s health and brought Gaura to visit him at the Malcom Randall VA Medical Center. The dog’s arrival transformed his mood.
At the sight of him, Cohen asked if she could call him in a few days to check on him. He declined.
He preferred to be alone or with dogs rather than people. When she made one of her warm soups in winter, she always left a jar outside her house for him. He preferred to pick it up quietly rather than interact.
He would only converse if she initiated. When she asked what was going on with his health, he responded with just two words: “not much.”
That was Baber, she said with a breathy laugh.
“So unique, so beloved, yet so distant,” she said.
Cohen would periodically help Baber at his home. As the two talked about the inevitable outcome of his illness, Cohen said Baber always asked her to retrieve one of his vegan ice creams from the freezer each time she went over.
“He was very childlike in many ways,” she said.
Jacki Levine and her dog Arlo were two more of Baber’s clients. Levine, former managing editor at The Sun, learned of Baber’s illness during the summer when he told her he was beginning treatment and would not be able to walk dogs for a while.
Only a few days ago, Levine messaged Baber asking for his grocery list. She planned to pick up some items for him.
He did not write back.
The news of his passing was relayed to her in an email from Baber’s brother, she said.
“Bruce was one of those people who makes a place,” Levine said. “He made Gainesville, Gainesville in the sense that he was particular to our town.”
Arlo cut Levine’s voice off as he began to bark in the background.
“He probably heard me say the word ‘Bruce,’ and now he is running to the door,” she said. “I’m not kidding. I can’t say the word ‘Bruce’ around him.”
Baber was a part of Arlo’s life for more than 10 years. Levine said no one will replace him.
“A person like Bruce is part of what makes Gainesville special,” she said, “the people you see who are not cookie-cutter.”
Bill Baber, Bruce's older brother, said his brother served in the U.S. Navy for four years as a serviceman. One year of that was spent in Vietnam.
Bill said though his brother was always a quiet and reserved dog-lover, canines became even more important to him after his time in Vietnam.
“That experience did change his life, more introspective and reserved. He was a very kindhearted guy,” he said.
It seemed appropriate to him that his brother's death came one day before National Dog Day, he said.
Baber’s brother is recommending friends donate to a no-kill animal shelter in his brother’s name or do volunteer work with animals. There was no memorial service planned as of Wednesday.
“I don’t know anybody who was more at home or cared more for his dog friends than Bruce. That really was his life," Bill Baber said.