Woodstock has lost one of the beloved characters that have defined the town for generations. Puppy John, born and raised in Oradell, New Jersey as Donald Hanson, died in his early fifties according to a cousin.
The town, officially and unofficially, will be coming together for the man with a memorial gathering at noon this Saturday, August 8, in the pavilion on Andy Lee Field. Lasher’s Funeral Home is donating cremation services.
Town supervisor Bill McKenna said that Puppy John will be buried in the town’s Artists’ Cemetery, where two plots are kept aside for those who are indigent at the end, donated by an anonymous friend of Woodstock’s “characters” several years ago.
“It is with a sad heart I am bringing you this post,” came the first words via Facebook. “Puppy passed away peacefully in his sleep early this morning. I have confirmed it with his family and the hospital. RIP, our sweet Puppy.”
Within hours a special page, Remembering Puppy John, was gathering eulogies, odes, paeans, elegies. Memories of long talks “outside Cumbys” and recollections of the man’s sweet independence were matched with drawings he’d done, songs he’d sung or just liked. His humor.
Those writing on the page swept the age spectrum, from those who’ve spent a lifetime in the town to newcomers and second0 or third-generation kids of the village green. Others in town raised the specter of others who have defined the town as Puppy did, both now and throughout its past: John Ernst and Silent Marc, Jogger John and Tipi Bob. Father Woodstock. Rick and many retired rock-and-rollers.
“He was a gentle person. I never saw him causing trouble,” wrote Doug. “I only met him a few times, but every time we did he was always petting my dog and didn’t mind hanging out for a little while.”
“A good person to have in a crisis.,” added Runi. “Thanks for being present and helping out.”
“Before the pandemic, I would often give him a lift in my car to and from places as I knew walking was a problem for him,” wrote Michael Stern. “Our connection started when I commented to him that I was impressed with his kindness toward Rocky.”
Rocky Rosario, another Woodstocker of the streets, drawn to town by legend but legendary for their love of the town and its acceptance of them: Photos of Puppy John as most knew him in Woodstock showed up. Earlier prom pictures of him as Donald Hanson. A snapshot of hm and his daughter Indigo by a former partner, permission granted by Indigo herself. A painting of the man, heroic yet wistful.
“At one point in my life, I moved over to Simmons Court. It was a strange move, I had tried to help out my family but that deteriorated really quickly after my mom’s stroke. There was a big fat calico cat, that lived there. Her name was Monkey Head because she had a big forehead with little beady eyes, like a spider monkey. And I’d sing to her,” recalled Noel. “Puppy would come over often. We always traded, or lent each other little bits of money or weed. Sometimes he would only come over just to talk to the cat. She was a very fat kitty. She had a real eating disorder, like when there was a noise she would instinctively jump up and run to the food dish, and start eating.”
The story goes on and on, as such tales do. For anyone who’s spent time in Woodstock, especially when it’s quiet in town, such ramblings are as key to the place as any song, and any leaf-redolent autumn breeze.
“Monkey head went missing. I thought maybe a skunk or dog got her, because she was fat, friendly, and didn’t like to fight,” Noel continued. “I waited a few days and then I went over to Puppy’s place. And there stretched out, happy as a fat kid with all the Twinkies, was my cat, smiling away like she owned the world. Apparently Puppy started to give her straight up tuna fish that he got from the food pantry. She loved food, loved the attention, and Puppy started to give her another name: Pumby.
“It’s kind of funny, because my cat left me for Puppy John. LOL. She passed away a few years ago, and he buried her behind the pizza place in town under that big tree.”
“Fly high, baby!”
People wrote about Puppy’s energy, the way he’d lend what money he had, just as others would lend to him. The classic Woodstock way.
“The Rope is Torn . … The Bird is Free,” wrote Christine. “Fly high, baby!”
“I noticed a decent looking man like out of a Marlboro ad, rugged, with a jean jacket, trinkets hanging from his neck, barefooted, white teeth, and long brown thick oily hair that was brushed appropriately and jamming on an old Gibson nylon string that looked like the side of a barn door. It was the first time I really got a good whiff of patchouli,” came another memory. “He gave me the feeling like I was around an old wise person, same stuff both my grandfathers wore. He would make this guitar sing, like he had it down to where he could make it vibrate with three basic chords, and it would just ring, almost like a harp.”
The man carved antlers. According to his family, he suffered from schizophrenia and died of lung cancer in Hospice.
“Lots of late-night peace patrolling and trading tales of Woodstock gonna be strange knowing my last conversation with you was my last. Suffer no more, PJ. The gray skies reflect the way I feel today,” lamented Ricochet. “It goes without saying we have an exceptionally wonderful kind of people here in our community of Woodstock. The cast of characters is getting thin.”
Those wishing to remember Donald Olson – Puppy John – can join his sister and brother-in-law and many friends in his community at noon this Saturday, August 8 in the pavilion on Andy Lee Fiend off Rock City Road. Wear masks and be sure to social distance.
Look for a Go Fund Me page to help cover the cost of a headstone.