Retired Putnam CEO Had Stunning Year of Adventures, Change
They say every dog has its day. Well, starting last July, Harley – a beloved 10-year-old Golden Retriever owned by Kim Findlay and her husband, Rick Brackey — had quite a year.
Findlay, 60, retired last June 30 as president/CEO of the Putnam Museum & Science Center, which she led for 12 years. She also was formerly president of United Way of the Quad-Cities, for nine years.
With Harley, Findlay and her husband set out July 7, 2019 in their new RV for a cross-country adventure, all west of the Mississippi. They put 12,000 miles on the motor home, gave Harley the time of his life, mourned his death, endured changes due to the Covid-19 crisis, and by the time they arrived home in May, Findlay wrote and self-published her first children’s book — retrieving golden memories of their canine and delivering important life lessons on the way.
“It was the first time I’ve had butterflies in my stomach in I don’t know how long,” she said recently of releasing “Harley’s Great Adventure: “Meeting Change With Courage and Kindness” this month on Amazon (available free on Kindle and $9.90 as paperback).
“I’m pleased; Harley was a wonderful dog. He was such a great companion, such a loving dog,” Findlay said. “To have this lasting tribute to him is pretty touching. It brought tears to many eyes in the family.”
She didn’t plan on writing a children’s book, but after Harley (named after Rick’s Harley-Davidson motorcycle) passed away in early November, Findlay sat down in the captain’s chair in the RV, “and it came to me as stream-of-consciousness,” she recalled. “I wrote the whole thing in one sitting, it was all there.”
She wrote from Harley’s point of view, who for his 10 years (75 in dog years), lived in the same house in Durant, Iowa, the same neighborhood, the same fenced-in yard, with the same people his entire life.
“The most he did was walk around the neighborhood,” Findlay said. “I didn’t know how an older dog was going to adapt to this tremendous change in lifestyle. We watched and he never seemed to have any hesitancy about it. When we started going into national forests, camping by lakes, on the ocean front in Oregon, rock climbing, he was in his height of happiness.”
A great adventure in more ways than one
Harley was the fourth dog they’ve had in 30 years of marriage, and the couple has nine grandkids, so Findlay has shelves full of children’s books she enjoys reading to and with them. Brackey retired in 2018 after a 30-year career at Shive-Hattery, mainly as a land surveyor, and brought home the RV from Colorado that August. He’d been itching for his wife to retire so they could explore the vast U.S.
“We all had to adapt to the RV,” Findlay said, noting it’s a good size, but their Durant home isn’t huge — just a two-bedroom ranch. “It wasn’t like going from a four-bedroom, two-story house,” she said.
The biggest adaptation for Harley was, they have a fenced backyard, and he could be out and roaming if he wanted to. On the trip, he was usually on a leash outside.
Brackey was great about finding roads and trails in national forests, and they made it a point to seek out nationally recognized sites. Findlay carried her National Park Service passport to get stamped at 20 NPS sites in the past year.
“We realized fairly quickly, the first weeks we were out, you’re not on vacation,” she said. “You don’t need to move from one place every day or every other day. Diesel fuel will eat up your whole budget. We started out going too fast, then slowed down significantly.”
The highlights and natural wonders of their meandering, carefree exploration were frequent and varied. One, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, is in the Chihuahuan Desert of southern New Mexico.
“They’re gigantic; I was awestruck with it,” Findlay said. “For me, being out and seeing these aspects of nature is, there’s science behind it, it’s spiritual. It’s just awe-inspiring. We went the first day, and went back the next day, it was just unbelievable.”
They went to nearby White Sands, which just became a national park last December, and had been a national monument since 1933.
In Oregon, they admired old-growth forests, moss hanging off trees. “The trees were alive, like in ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ you start to see faces, fingers and hands, fuchsia-colored flowers and thistles,” Findlay said. “When you get on a forest road, don’t encounter anyone else. Rick has an ability to find things, he’s a land surveyor. We traded our SUV for a Jeep, we towed behind the RV, to get off the beaten path.
“I love national parks, also love getting into places,” she said. “I was so enthralled with a lot of the geology, land formations, things I just didn’t know were there.”
The biggest surprise to Findlay was Big Bend National Park in Texas, which she hadn’t heard about before. “Texas is huge, and Big Bend is a huge national park. It has a lot of variety. We canoed the Rio Grande, that was a pretty great experience.”
“There are so many, just so many amazing places,” Findlay said. “I love the high desert.” She loved spending a week at Ghost Ranch, where artist Georgia O’Keeffe lived, in Abiquiu, N.M. That proved fateful.
Infection, surgery, bleeding, loss – then inspiring tribute
They were there in early November, and it was a couple weeks earlier, in Arkansas, where Harley was diagnosed with a large tumor on his spleen. The vet there said with surgery at his age, the longest he’d live was six more months. “That seemed worth doing,” Findlay said, noting the tumor was removed.
Harley didn’t need a blood transfusion, and they stayed overnight there.
When in New Mexico, they took him to a vet in Los Alamos, after he was acting strange, and feared that he was having internal bleeding. An ultrasound showed he had massive internal bleeding. “There was nothing they could do,” Findlay said.
“We decided Harley fought hard enough to stay with us; to prolong that, would be selfish, so we let him go, put him to sleep,” she said. “That was extremely difficult, and has been difficult since. I think that reflecting on him, what a friendly, wonderful dog he has been.”
Within a week, Findlay put pen to paper and fetched lessons she learned from Harley.
Golden retrievers are “generally such a people-oriented breed,” she said. “As long as his people were with him, he felt secure, it was fine. Change is difficult and this was massive change, and very quick.”
“I think that resilience is incredibly important to navigate and maintain a level of happiness in life,” Findlay said. “Change is going to happen, more rapidly now than perhaps ever in the history of humans.
“I think this adventure of Harley’s gives kids, and thus adults, a viewpoint,” she said. “It’s done in Harley’s voice; he’s the one telling the story. It’s ‘I know how to do this, just be friendly, wag your tail, offer a toy.’ This is how you meet change — with kindness, and the courage part.”
The only time Harley seemed scared was coming upon the Pacific Ocean for the first time, on the Oregon coast. On the beach, he met a little girl, and she and her Mom petted Harley. He was a 95-pound dog, but was “so approachable, so friendly,” Findlay said. “Courage doesn’t mean you’re not afraid. You have fear about what you’re gonna do, but you do it.”
Harley says, “this is what a great life is – a loving family, great friends, and great adventures,” she said. “Rick and I decided a long time ago, our life was to be about experiences, memories. It’s not so much about stuff and possessions. You can’t take things with you when you go, but you leave your experiences with people you shared them with.
Her book teaches kids it’s OK to be afraid of new things, new situations, of change. “If you meet that with kindness, you’ll get a lot of support.”
“I think fear is one of the things we as humans have to overcome again and again through our life, and change triggers fear,” Findlay said. “Fear results in not experiencing things. Hatred is fear externalized, and this book is about addressing fear and trepidation.
“How did Harley do it? With courage and kindness. We can all learn something- from him,” she said. “He had the best time, doing things he’d never done before.”
“He was just a special, wonderful boy who all the grandkids loved,” she said. They had Harley cremated, and shipped his ashes back to their home.
With new year, coping with new challenges
Findlay put out a request for proposals from illustrators online, for a 24-page children’s book, with illustrations more realistic than cartoonish. She attached a photo of Harley and got 27 proposals. The first one she received, within 90 minutes after she posted, was from Sergio Drumond, based in Texas, and she picked him.
“He had done a sample illustration. I had tears, because it wasn’t just an illustration of a golden retriever, it was Harley,” Findlay said, “That was incredible; I didn’t ask him to do it, He had lots of wonderful testimonials about his work; he had a book he illustrated already on Amazon.” (Drumond has had over 100 books published worldwide.)
They never met in person or even spoke on the phone; all their communication was done by e-mail. It only took him four or five weeks to illustrate the book, she said.
Their son Ryan’s wife Janna was a children’s librarian at Moline Public Library, and Findlay asked her to read it, as well as an uncle who’s self-published books. He’s a graphic designer, and he gave her advice.
He told Findlay there are two important things about a story – that the writing is good and the story translates – that it’s relatable — and he thought her book did both.
When Covid-19 really started spreading nationwide, in early March, Kim and Rick were on the Gulf Coast of Texas, and they had reservations to go into Louisiana, Memphis, Louisville, but they stayed put for a total of seven weeks, and took just three days to get home, in a much different environment.
“The campgrounds, any communal spaces were closed,” she said. She did all the grocery shopping, mostly at Wal-Marts, with her bulk anti-bacterial wipes, picking up everything with wipes on both hands.
They tracked down privately owned KOAs, to park their RV, places that kept campsites opened, which were pretty full.
After they got back home May 7, they parked at Scott County Park, and the next day the campground opened to all campers.
Ryan and Janna (with their kids) stayed at the Durant home while they were gone, and she was due to have their ninth grandchild June 2.
“Because of Covid, she started talking to a home-birth midwife from the beginning, not knowing what the hospital circumstances would be,” Findlay said of Janna. Oliver Charles Brackey was born June 6 at their home in Durant.
The book’s message also can apply to Covid and adapting to that reality.
“The abrupt change in lifestyle,” Findlay said. “Whether children are in school and now not physically in school, preschool or daycare all of sudden, grandparents can’t come over and hug you. You can’t play on playground equipment. This is what it’s about, meeting change.”
Kim and Rick plan to head out on another adventure in July, probably back west, to Washington State, and south to California. In the Golden State, the only place they really visited in the RV was Joshua Tree National Park outside Palm Desert, Calif.
Are they getting another dog?
“Rick’s not ready yet,” Findlay said. “He and Harley were together every day, just the two of them. So we’ll see what happens. It’s challenging to train a puppy in RV life.”
They may get an older dog, who often get left at shelters or humane societies. “They’re all going through some dramatic change as well,” she said. “Older pets need love and care to feel supported.”
Plus kindness and courage.