I SELDOM do stories about children’s books, but the circumstances behind one recently penned by a businessman from a well-known Falmouth family moves me to do so today.

The first-time, unlikely author is Frank Payne, who spent many of his youthful weekends staying at the riverside home in Falmouth Bottom of his grandparents, George “Slickpot” and “Miss Julia” Payne.

The former was known as a store owner and fisherman on the Rappahannock, famous for some of the finest salt fish and grape wine around. The latter was depicted in a famous Gari Melchers painting, and was known for her gentle spirit and unequaled hospitality.

When I caught up with the author—who now lives in Richmond and is a partner in the P.D. Brooks traffic control business in Mechanicsville—he said that the Falmouth connection figures into the tale.

Because, you see, it was that love of the outdoors and the rabbit hunting he did occasionally with his Payne uncles that put him on a path that, decades later, led to him deer hunting in the woods near Waverly in Southside Virginia.

Payne said he was sitting on a downed tree when a beagle jumped right up on it “like a gymnast and started kissing me.”

“He went away after a minute, but came back and just wanted to stay with me. I didn’t realize at that point that he’d been out and lost for two days,” Payne said.

By the time Payne used the beagle’s tag to get him back to the kennel where he lived with other hunting dogs, he realized that the small beagle named Webster wasn’t really much of a hunting dog.

“I could see from his friendly spirit and his disinterest in hunting that he was really more of a lap dog,” said Payne, who added that the dog’s owner agreed with that assessment. “I asked the owner what he wanted for Webster and he said I could have him. I ended up buying him for two bags of dog food.”

When Payne got Webster home and introduced him to his wife Caren, the sweet, friendly dog immediately became a part of the family. And soon enough, the couple realized that Webster was special to a host of folks.

“Wherever we’d go with him, Webster would just connect with people,” said Payne, noting that at a cottage the couple owns in Richmond County on the Rappahannock River, Webster quickly became loved by neighbors he’s sneak out to go see.

Payne said that eventually he could see “that we needed to make this special dog a therapy dog.”

So they did. Payne took a class and worked through a group called Caring K9s to get Webster into programs that had him visiting nursing homes, hospitals, rehab centers and more.

“He was such a special dog that he loved being with people wherever we took him,” said Payne, noting that it helped that Webster was small enough to get right up in bed with patients young and old.

The saddest thing about dog stories is that they can’t last forever, so the day eventually came when the hunting dog turned therapy dog passed away.

Payne said he spent weeks coming to grips with the loss. But when he finally got his emotions under control, it occurred to him that the story of Webster the beagle might be one worth sharing.

After a visit to the appropriately named Mascot Books, Payne began writing the story of the dog’s life in “Webster the Beagle,” working with illustrator Romney Vasquez.

“He asked me if he wanted to make my character in the book look like me and I said heavens no,” said Payne. “So he made him more of a hunting-looking fellow with a full beard.”

Early on the process Payne said he decided that this wasn’t a money-making project, and that it felt right to give all the proceeds from the book to charity. To date, he’s donated several thousand dollars to MCV Children’s Hospital, Homeless Animal Protection, Placement & Education (HAPPE), Peaceful Passings Senior Animal Rescue and other groups.

Payne said he’s gotten marketing ideas from business students at his alma mater, James Madison University, and has done book signings at Jabberwocky in Fredericksburg and spots all over Richmond. He’s got one coming up at 6 p.m. March 20 at the Barnes and Noble store located at Libbie and Broad Street in Richmond.

“I stay busy at work but try to do as many events as I can to spread the word about Webster and raise more money for these very deserving charities,” he said, noting that he has pictures and a short video of Webster that he shares in those settings.

Payne said he’s already thinking about a second book, possibly focusing on things such as Webster’s love of the water that would allow him to touch on oyster growing and other aspects of the outdoors.

Payne noted that he has two dogs now, a black Lab and another rescued beagle, this one named Deacon. He’s sweet, but he’s no Webster.

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Rob Hedelt: 540/374-5415

rhedelt@freelancestar.com

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