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Sean Kirst: To understand shooting victim Rosemary Billquist, meet her dogs

Until last year, Lisa Hitchcock had never met Rosemary Billquist. On a spring afternoon, a car rumbled up a clay driveway on a hill in Friendship, on the Southern Tier, where Hitchcock maintains a home-based rescue operation for dogs.

Rosemary and her husband, Jamie, climbed out.

"She was wearing a dress, this beautiful pretty dress," said Hitchcock, who watched as dogs and puppies, all rescued from hard places, went running to Rosemary. Some jumped on her, with their dirty paws.

Rosemary wasn't worried about her dress. She laughed and beamed in a circle of dogs of all sizes, of all kinds.

"I want the oldest, least adoptable dog you have," Rosemary told Hitchcock. "I want the dog that needs a home the most."

If you go by fate, that is the pivot. That moment, that selfless moment, is why Rosemary, 43, was walking two dogs in a field at dusk in Sherman 11 days ago. A neighbor, Thomas Jadlowski, a guy she'd known casually since he was a child, was 200 yards away. He told investigators he fired his gun into the distance, believing he saw a deer.

He shot Rosemary in the hip. She died from her wounds. Jadlowski, 34, was charged Thursday with manslaughter.

Rosemary's dogs ran back to the house, where Jamie was waiting.

When they came home without her, he knew something was wrong.

Rosemary loved animals. Their family dogs typically came from shelters.

"If she could have done it," Jamie said, "she would have had 100 dogs."

Hitchcock, the animal rescue specialist, offers this advice.

If you want to know who Rosemary was, follow the story of her pets.

The way her community knew Rosemary Billquist: With Sugar and Stella, in her car. (Photo courtesy of Jamie Billquist)

Jamie is from the small hamlet of Kennedy. He and Rosemary met 27 years ago this week, at the Chautauqua Mall in Lakewood, "when we were just a couple of kids playing around," Jamie said. She was 17. He remembers the moment he saw her, her beauty and her energy, "her big ball of curly hair."

That night, she gave him her number. Six years later, they were married. For about 10 years, they lived in Jamestown, until they moved into the house where Rosemary grew up in quiet Sherman, in the Chautauqua County countryside.

In no small part, Jamie said, they went there to better suit the needs of their dogs.

There was Oscar, their first dog, a black Labrador Retriever "we had from puppy to adult," Jamie said. There was Wally, another black Lab, and their beloved Katie, a Shar Pei and Lab mix they brought home from the Chautauqua County Humane Society in Jamestown.

Katie had been abused. She was jittery. Rosemary won her over.

"She went from the worst five years of her life to the best nine years," Jamie said of Katie.

Fourteen, for a dog, is a long life. When Katie's body gave out, when she grew too ill to walk, Rosemary  found the courage to kneel with her in their living room as a vet euthanized the animal. Rosemary promised the dog she would see her again as Katie offered that great sigh, then dropped into a last sleep.

"She was so strong," Jamie said of Rosemary. "She was that way with all our dogs. When the time came, I'd be a mess and she'd be right down there, talking to them."

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The couple could not go for long without a dog. The house seemed awfully empty without Katie.That is what brought them to Rescue Pups, in Friendship. Rosemary learned through Facebook about that rescue operation. It is a two-hour drive from Sherman, a long journey along Interstate 86, past the green hills of Allegany.

Lisa Hitchcock, who runs the place, has two major passions. She is a SUNY Alfred math professor. At work, she loves to change the minds of young people who come to her thinking they hate math.

At home, she provides a refuge for animals in trouble.

Hitchcock liked the Billquists right away. When Rosemary asked about a dog that no one wanted to adopt, Hitchcock thought she knew the ideal choice. She led the couple to Cinnamon, a shy and timid pit bull mix who'd been with Hitchcock for a long time.

The Billquists were thrilled. They brought Cinnamon to Sherman. Yet Cinnamon, it turns out, had bonded closely with Hitchcock. From the minute the dog arrived, she seemed homesick and depressed. One day, she bolted out the door and took off across the same fields where Rosemary, last month, walked her dogs.

Jamie and Rosemary, frantic, searched for Cinnamon. When they had no luck, they called Hitchcock. She drove all the way to Sherman to help in the quest.

They walked through the field, calling the dog. From far away, they saw Cinnamon appear, a little dot that grew larger as she heard Hitchcock's voice and hurtled in their direction.

Hitchcock realized her connection with the dog was too strong. She decided to keep Cinnamon, as her own pet. But she knew she had a perfect option for the Billquists. She said to them:

"I've got a litter of puppies."

They were yellow Labs.

Rosemary and Jamie Billquist, with Stella, at Rescue Paws in Friendship. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Hitchcock)

Rosemary and Jamie drove back to Friendship. The hardest part was trying to choose between two fat and happy puppies. Rosemary, so torn she began weeping, finally settled on a pup they called Stella. They drove home, another two-hour trip past Salamanca, Olean and Falconer.

They had only been gone a few hours when Hitchcock's phone buzzed. It was Jamie. His wife couldn't stop crying. They had made a decision.

The next day, Jamie came back to pick up a second puppy, the one they named Sugar.

Rosemary bought "the girls" a big dog bed for the living room. It was a nice thought, but they rarely used it.

At night, they slept at the foot of the couple's bed.

Before long, Jamie said, the puppies seemed to mirror the warm, outgoing nature of his wife. She worked as a health information specialist at WCA Hospital in Jamestown. At the end of the day, she had a routine.

"These dogs, she'd get home from work and jump out of her dress and put on a pair of sweat pants and throw them  in the car," he said.

Lisa Hitchcock at her home-based animal rescue operation in Friendship, where the Billquists found their puppies. She is holding Cinnamon, a dog that stayed with the Billquists briefly. (Derek Gee/The Buffalo News)

Maybe they'd go to a pond, where they'd throw sticks and the dogs would chase them for hours. Maybe they'd go to a boat launch in Mayville, where the dogs loved to leap into Chautauqua Lake. Maybe "the girls" would join Rosemary, an accomplished runner, on long walks on woodland trails.

They also accompanied Rosemary in the evening, if she went to do some spinning, or swimming, or simply to visit with good friends.

She and Jamie understood an elemental truth. If your destination is a place where your dogs need to wait quietly, they're happier if you let them burn off energy, beforehand.

That's why, before she left, she'd often take them for a walk in the field beyond her house.

Eleven days ago, as she prepared for a spin class at dusk, she went there with her girls.

Barking, they ran home without her.

Christmas is a few weeks away. Jamie intends to drive into Sherman and buy a tree at a service station lot, as the couple always did. The dogs will be with him, watching intently, as he hangs a gold-plated ornament with two matching hearts, the one he and Rosemary bought at the mall for their first Christmas together, many years ago.

Jamie tells these stories for a simple reason. His wife, he said, was an extraordinary person, and people ought to know about her one-of-a-kind life. She spent years, on her own time and in an informal way, visiting longtime residents and patients in nursing homes and medical centers.

Not long before her death, she sat with an elderly woman who rarely received visitors, a woman caught up in sickness and depression.

"Rosemary came home and told me, 'I got a smile out of her,'" Jamie said.

She had been preparing Sugar and Stella to take part in those visits, making sure they had the right shots and the right training. Rosemary understood the impact dogs can have on the human spirit, the way they can help to mend the worst of broken hearts.

Right now, for this hardest Christmas, Jamie's glad she wanted two.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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