ROCKY MOUNT, N.C. — All 88-year-old Walter Bryant Jr. wants for Christmas is a place where he can live with his constant companion of the past 11 years, a mixed-breed dog named Koal.
That doesn't even have to happen by Christmas. He would happily move at any point from his small, subsidized apartment where no pets are allowed to somewhere that allows his dog. He and the brindle-colored dog have lived together since Koal was about 3 months old.
"He's like my child. He's like my son," Bryant said one chilly morning in December, as he sat on the front steps of the home where he lived in for most of his life until he moved last month.
Bryant left the house under duress that began about three years ago, when he says he received a letter from the city of Rocky Mount suggesting it could procure the house through eminent domain for a redevelopment project. It didn't help that relatives who own the house stand to profit if it's sold. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he said the heat didn't work.
The exact reasons for his leaving vary depending on whether you ask Bryant, his relatives or the city. But one thing is certain: He believed he had to leave, and the dog couldn't go with him.
Bryant's father, also named Walter, built the house 109 years ago. He has lived in the home for much of his life and took care of his parents there until they died. He lived there alone since 1982 when his mother, Bessie, died. She left the house to Bryant's relatives — not him — but stated in her will that he had the right to live there for the rest of his life.
The security of the living situation began to fray about five years ago. A report shows the Rocky Mount Fire Department found a small heating oil leak on the property in January 2007. Firefighters disconnected the valve to the storage tank and advised Bryant to have a technician repair the leak, which was coming from a line under the house. It was never fixed, Bryant says.
Then came the letter from the city about the house, which sits in an area that Rocky Mount intends to rebuild as the Beal Street Redevelopment project with new homes and apartments that are energy efficient and use alternative building materials.
Feeling his days in the house were numbered, Bryant began last month trying to find a place where he could move with his dog. Firefighters were called there again on Nov. 2 because of a kerosene odor inside the house. Bryant told them he had been using a heater, and they determined that's where the smell was coming from.
He decided he had to leave before winter set in. "The cold — that's what really made me move," he says.
So on Nov. 4, a few days after animal control picked up Koal, he packed up and moved. "I cried over it and I cried over it," he says. "Finally, I said, well, I might as well do it because I had to do it. I couldn't carry him with me. I applied for assisted living and all that stuff, and they told me I couldn't carry my dog with me. So I told them if I couldn't carry my dog with me, I didn't want that."
But Bryant, who has survived colon and prostate cancer, eventually relented to the threat of another winter in a house where he says fumes from a heating system or oil under the house made him sick. Bryant, who trained at the New York Institute of Photography in the 1940s and opened one of Rocky Mount's first black-owned photography studios in an area then known as The Block, moved into an apartment provided by the Housing Authority. Koal went to a shelter, where staffers kept him alive well past his euthanasia date until volunteers found him a foster home.
One of those volunteers is Sandy Holt of Rocky Mount. Since about Thanksgiving, she and several friends have worked to find a home where Bryant and Koal can live together again. Armed with a note from Dr. Martha Chestnutt that says Bryant is suffering from the loss of his home and his dog, the women are raising money for a new place — $2,000 so far.
The home comes first, but Holt also hopes an attorney steps forward to help Bryant pro bono through what she foresees as a certain legal morass.
"Poor Mr. Bryant is still out of a home and his best friend," she says. "We are just going to find them a home and work on the legalities later. We want these two best friends back together before something happens to either one."
Peter Varney, assistant city manager, said the city is negotiating to buy the house from Bryant's 13 relatives, and he would get some money to reimburse him for his lifetime occupancy rights. But that won't happen until the purchase is complete.
Varney says the city couldn't run Bryant out because he has the right to live there until he dies. Also, the city can build the project around Bryant's home, he said. "He didn't have to leave," Varney said. "We had told him that he could stay if he wanted to stay and that we would build around it. We were interested in buying the house, but we were not going to force him to move out. That's his call to make."
Still, one of Bryant's nephews, R. Baxter Miller of Athens, Ga., says the city should have found a place where his uncle could have lived with the dog.
"... the city needed to come up with an option that allowed him to have continued occupancy until he died and keep his dog," said Miller, an English professor at the University of Georgia. "They needed to replace what he had. And that's all that had to happen."
Animal control officers Belinda Harper and Willie Boykin picked up Koal from Bryant, who was very upset, Harper said. "He did not want to have to his dog up," Harper said. "Our hearts went out to him."
When the two got back to the office, they decided they would do all they could to save Koal. Shelter policy allows an owner-surrendered dog to be euthanized right away, but Koal stayed at the shelter for more than a week until someone could rescue him, Harper said.
Lynn Price of Rocky Mount now keeps Koal and brings him to meet Bryant at their former home about two times a week. Koal, who's lost 15 pounds since being separated from Bryant and now weighs about 85 pounds, galloped toward him during a recent visit.
Shortly after his arrival at the house on a recent day, Koal does one of his favorite things: he backs into a nandina bush in the front yard and uses the branches to scratch his backside.
Bryant tells stories of their life together, such as how Koal would stop at the front door and wait for Bryant to wipe his feet. Koal ate his dinner beside Bryant and would wipe his face with paws, signaling to Bryant that he wanted his master to wipe his face with a napkin. Koal also would put his face on Bryant's lap as Bryant watched TV from his recliner, pulling Bryant's hand alongside the chair so he could scratch his belly.
When Price takes Koal away, she moves quickly. "Mr. Bryant, we're leaving now," she says. Koal gets too upset when he knows they're being separated again, she says, so she doesn't allow a long good-bye anymore.
Bryant walks unsteadily to the older model Toyota that's parked in front of his former home.
"I wanted to live here again, but I know it's something that won't happen. ... I don't have to stay here because I know I can't stay here. I didn't think I was going to be able to stay anywhere with him again but they are helping to provide someplace for me," he says of his new friends. "I really appreciate that."
Martha Waggoner can be reached at http://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc