The story of a man and his dog, together again


Thursday, August 17, 2006

By Lynne Jensen

On a broken chair with a big plywood seat, Henry H. Toney sits as a lumberyard watchman, surrounded by a few simple needs: menthol cigarettes, a cell phone and a bowl of dry cat food for his finicky but faithful dog, Chelsea. She guards her master from beneath the makeshift throne where he holds court, conversing with customers.

Toney, 81, has been working at Riverside Lumber Co., now in eastern New Orleans, for 47 years. He's as much a part of the family-owned business as brothers Rusty and Michael Hayden, who oversee the 86-year-old operation with cousin Bruce Hayden.

"I'm the black sheep of the family," Toney said, contrasting his skin color to the Haydens' and recalling decades of living on the lumberyard grounds, where the Hayden brothers and Toney's daughter, Anita, played side by side.

Michael and Rusty Hayden's father, Bobby, helped pay for child-care and then transportation to and from school for Anita, who was 3 when her mother died of cancer in 1968, Toney said.

"I said I'm going to keep my baby," Toney said. "And Mr. Bobby, he said we're going to help you raise your baby."

Toney, who for years drove the company delivery truck, helped to raise the Hayden boys, they said.

Summers away from school meant riding with Toney on deliveries and stopping for ice cream, Michael Hayden said. They'd stop for ice cream cones that cost 26 cents, he said. "Mr. Toney would bring the quarter and we'd bring the penny," he said.

"When I started working for the company, Rusty and Mike were sucking bottles and wearing diapers," Toney said. "And now they say I'm wearing diapers."

Toney, who described himself as "a country boy from Columbia, Mississippi," is someone "we all love," Rusty Hayden said. "I've been knowing him since I knew myself."

Michael Hayden described tearful days of worrying about Toney, who refused to leave his post at the lumberyard for Hurricane Katrina.

"My brother and I cried like babies," Hayden said. "We thought you were dead," he told Toney.

Rusty Hayden recalled a cell phone conversation with Toney as he and Chelsea rode out the flood that followed the storm. The call ended with a loud noise and Toney saying, "Oh my Lord," Rusty Hayden said.

A "big wave" temporarily knocked Toney and Chelsea from the stack of birch plywood where they had ridden out the flood for five days, Toney said. They'd been sharing soft drinks from cans that floated by.

It would be a few more days before the Haydens learned that Toney was rescued by boat, then plucked by helicopter and eventually taken to San Antonio.

Toney was rescued by George Laird, an area businessman who was picking up people by boat in the area when he heard Chelsea, a black Lab, barking.

Debris made it impossible for Laird to maneuver the boat inside the lumber yard. Toney said he struggled and made his way out, but Chelsea "wouldn't get off the plywood and come to me . . . She doesn't like George at all now because he took me away from her."

After spending some time with National Guard personnel, Chelsea wound up in Arizona. Thanks in part to her implanted microchip, she recently was reunited with Toney.

Together again, Toney and Chelsea spend days at the lumber yard entrance. Nights are spent at Anita's house while the lumberyard is being restocked and its buildings replaced.

"The rest of this stuff you can rebuild, but you can't get another Mr. Toney," Michael Hayden said.

"They said I got a home here as long as I live," Toney said about the Haydens. "I take care of the place as if it was mine."

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