A Tribute To John Gilbert: The Founder Of Tucson Rescue Now Leaves Legacy of Hope For Senior Dogs

Story by Colleen Keefe
Ask anyone who knew him. John Gilbert just couldn’t sit still.

So, after retiring from more than 60 years in the shoe business, when John decided to become a volunteer dog walker, no one was surprised. “I’m not a retire kind of guy. I can’t even lay on a beach. I can’t take a vacation. It’s just not in my mentality. I think it’s that ADHD thing,” John said on a 2018 podcast of Purpose Lounge.

Walking dogs soon sparked the idea to create Tucson Rescue Now, a dog rescue specifically designed to rehome senior pups. A fortunate decision for the hundreds of dogs who crossed paths with him and now have families to call their own.

Sadly, after complications following a heart attack, John passed away on June 15, 2021. Shortly before falling ill, John told his best (human) friend and TRN co-founder Jace Powers that he was “having the time of his life.” He was.  It’s worth noting that everyone interviewed for this story laughed often while reminiscing about John.

John was deeply loved by his life partner Kathy Robertson, his children Dustin Gilbert and Carrie Morris, and took pride in being a grandfather to Leo, Maxwell, and Oliver.

“I shared his home, his heart, his love for 40 years. He succeeded in his quest to help senior dogs gain respect and love and new homes through hard work, passion, and determination,” Kathy said.

Retirement is for the Dogs

John and Jace first met when they were neighbors, moved away, and reconnected years later.  It was then the two discovered they’d both signed up for the same volunteer dog walker classes at Pima Animal Care Center (PACC). John helped Jace, who was going through a divorce at the time. “It was healing and bonding with John. He was kind of like my brother/grandfather because he’s quite a bit older. We just had a good time. It was fun. We ended up laughing all the time. And, yes, the dogs healed me, but I think they healed John, too, because he didn’t want to grow old and not do anything,” Jace said.

The pair soon met Bonny Harris, who worked as a volunteer coordinator, then adoption coordinator, at PACC. “John came to me and said, ‘I have this idea,’ and it just kind of jumped from there. Probably the best thing that happened for the rescue was my moving over to that department (adoption), so he and I could work one-on-one together,” Bonny said. There John learned the pet adoption process. “Those are my most fond memories of John – busting each other’s chops,” Bonny shared. “John had a wicked sense of humor, and that’s what made us working together so successful, but we also understood and respected one another’s passion for what we do.”

“We’re both kind of business guys, and we both observed the young dogs would go up to people ‘cause they’re happy, and they greet them. The old ones, a lot of times are sad because they might’ve lost their owner, and they ended up in the shelter. Or they could’ve been abused or need some medical attention. It’s not really fair that these young ones get adopted and these other ones that are really good dogs [don’t]. That’s when we decided let’s just do a show with older dogs and bring them out and do a community adoption event,” Jace said.

PACC’s where they met volunteer Candice Eaton of Capturing EveryBuddy Pet Photography. John helped Candice photograph dogs for their adoption portraits. “John was probably one of my biggest cheerleaders for starting my business. The whole inside of the store (TRN) is decorated with my artwork,” she said. A photo she took of John and Jace was used for the May/June 2019 cover of the TDM and led to her becoming the TDM photographer. “Every time we’d go do pictures, I swear he’d end up taking a new dog home. ‘I love this little dog’ (in John’s voice), and before you know, it’s getting in the back of his little Volkswagen. That I know of, he acquired two or three dogs that way,” Candice claims. “He has his own pack of senior dogs.”

From Two Men and a Couch to Tucson Rescue Now

“I knew that if John was confident in the fundraising ability that they were going to need to achieve, in order to make it successful, I had no doubt that that was going to happen. And it did,” Bonny exclaimed. She is now the director of TRN.

The venue for their first event was enormous, so John and Jace filled it with couches. When the dogs arrived, the couches were filled with dogs. “The people could sit down and relax, and then, of course, the dog becomes more relaxed because you’re relaxed. And then they realize how special those dogs are and that they deserve a second chance — even if it might be only a couple years,” Jace explained.

The dog-loving duo had come up with the magic formula for adopting out hard-to-place senior dogs. They also earned a nickname – Two Men and a Couch.

John’s life-long mission to “bring dogs out of the shelter” came to fruition in 2018.

“One of the benefits to being at La Encantada is that you’re bringing these dogs to an environment where, for many of the people who frequent that mall, the financial concerns aren’t as much of a concern to them. You’re tapping into a dynamic that doesn’t exist at PACC,” Bonny explained. “So, you’re bringing these animals that need the most, to people that have the potential to provide the most to them.”

Shoe Dog Turned Dog Rescuer

“He’s so passionate about what he does, and he does it with such gusto,” Carrie said. Carrie interviewed her father in 2018 for her podcast Purpose Lounge. John’s sales career started in the original Nordstrom’s in Seattle in the 1950s. John admitted he loved the interaction with people. The personal satisfaction of making someone happy drew him to sales. “The high school girls in those days, they really dressed…I’m 16 years old, and I’m starting to sell shoes to all these teenagers, which are my peers. And I was thinking I was making commission, and I was very good at what I did, which was basically getting paid to flirt with girls, which was my calling for sure,” John chuckled. He was so successful as a part-time high school student he outsold full-time salesmen who were married with kids.

Long before ADHD was an official diagnosis, John recognized it in himself. He used his constant “on-the-go” spirit to his advantage to continually propel himself to the next best thing.

“I’m not an adoption person at that point [referring to volunteering at PACC], but I started helping them anyways. It’s in my DNA. It’s my old shoe dog thing – I got to help people, and I got to sell some dogs,” John had said. Carrie noted that her dad used his ADHD as an asset and not a disability. He wrapped up the interview by advising the next generation to “be real.”

Dogs Best Friend

Carrie was about 5 years old when they got their first family dog, Clyde. “We were watching this sleek black dog running around. The next thing you know, my dad is talking to the owner of the dog – and that’s our dog,” she said. Over the years, John had about a dozen dogs, including rescues and “surrogates” of his own.
“This whole dog mission, you know, he and I talked about it when I was little. He’d say, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could create a sanctuary and bring dogs out of shelters. They’d be in an open environment, and people could come and see the dogs playing and carrying on, and then they’d adopt them.’ So, he’d been talking about this for many, many, many years,” Carrie added.

John shared the same enthusiasm and excitement about rescue and adoption as our founder, Ann Harrington, does. “You rarely see men in rescue, and to see these two guys, businessmen, both of them having that kind of passion to help animals, is very rare in the rescue world. I thought these guys need to be on the cover of The Tucson Dog. I thought they were an incredible inspiration to not only everyone who cares about animals, but to men,” Ann recalled.

John was a very personable guy. He loved dogs. The consensus is that John would most definitely be “surrounded by dogs” right now. “I’m sure all the dogs that he had any attachment to over the years, adopted, or whatever would be there. His idea of heaven would be all dogs. I think he’d be very happy,” Jace said. “It’s a round circle. I’m sure they’re helping him up there. I’m sure many of the dogs he’s adopted out have passed by now and are putting him on the couch trying to get him adopted out,” Jace laughed.

Tucson Rescue Now – NOW

“I think John is happy where Tucson Rescue Now is going with Bonny and Jeri (TRN volunteer),” Jace continued. Jeri helped John transport the dogs to and from the shelters and rescues. “They are taking the reins from here.”

Three hundred dogs have been adopted since TRN began. About 20 since John’s passing. TRN plans to continue John’s mission to focus on older dogs, the ones that are more difficult to place.

“I think he’s left a legacy to this community to help senior dogs and not let them be left behind or forgotten. He has left an indelible mark on this community,” Ann noted.

What message or legacy would John like to leave?

“Don’t give up on the senior dogs. Keep them in the forefront,” Kathy said. “And don’t take life too seriously,” she continued.

“He would want the mission to continue and people to not overlook the senior dogs – as a senior dog himself,” Carrie said as she laughed. “It’s like those are his people,” she explained.

“He wasn’t really a man of ego. He just wanted homes for those dogs. That’s all he wanted. He wanted them to have a good life,” Jace observed. Jace has decided to name his next dog “Gilbert” after John, “Johnnie” if it’s a girl. And, of course, that new family member will be a senior dog from Tucson Rescue Now.

And so, with that adoption, and every other through Tucson Rescue Now, John’s story will continue to be written…and to “be real.”



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