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Woman and dog graduate together
Hamlet served as guide, 'soul mate' to blind student

By Bill Scanlon
Denver Rocky Mountain News Staff Writer
From the Rocky Mountain News

Thirteen hundred people and one dog will wear caps and gowns Sunday when Metropolitan State College of Denver celebrates graduation.

The dog is Hamlet, a 6-year-old Labrador-shepherd seeing-eye dog, who has attended nearly every class, lecture and lab with Lee Zuberer.

"She's my soul mate," Zuberer, 59, said Tuesday, as she fitted Hamlet for a cap and gown. "She deserves it as much as I did."

Hamlet, or Hammy, is used to the indignity of human apparel.

Zuberer, who lost her sight in 1993, did her student teaching with 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds at the Lowell Annex Early Childhood Center in Englewood.

"The kids put Band-Aids on Hammy when they're playing doctor," Zuberer said. "They give her bottles when they're playing baby. For a while there, she was Chewbacca. For Christmas, she was Santa Claus."

The year after retinitis pigmentosa robbed her of most of her sight, Zuberer did little but sit on her couch and vegetate. "The doctors more or less told me, 'You've had a good life, now go home and try to enjoy the rest of it."'

Enjoyment was tough, though, because with just a cane to guide her she kept running into things. Once, a kid on a bicycle yanked her cane from her.

Her husband, Barry, urged her to enroll in the Colorado Rehabilitation Program, and when she finished that, she went to the Seeing Eye Program in Morristown, N.J.

That's where she met Hammy, smart, loyal, with a wry sense of humor.

"I said, 'Where's my puppy?' and she put both paws on my shoulders," Zuberer said.

Hammy quickly learned the nooks and crannies of Metro State and the Auraria campus. Zuberer would say, "Find the elevator," and Hammy would lead her to the nearest one.

Classmates swear that Hammy's timing is impeccable.

When the lecturer had gone on long enough, Hammy would yawn or groan, everyone would laugh, and sometimes the teacher would agree and cut the class short.

If Hammy is upset with Zuberer, she'll walk her into the men's restroom instead of the women's and then laugh in an understated canine way.

If Hammy decides it's time for a walk in the park, she'll walk Zuberer into a low-hanging branch.

For every door that her blindness closed to her, Hamlet opened one, she said.

Kids and parents at Lowell were skeptical of a blind student teacher. "But by the end of a couple weeks, she and I had their seal of approval. The kids were so proud that they had a guide dog in class with them."

"We were all crazy about Lee and her dog," said Betsy Georgitias, her teacher supervisor. "She did a great job for us."

Zuberer's dream is to open her own school in inner city Denver with her husband.

Barry said he's almost as proud of Hammy as he is of his wife.

"I call her a miracle," Barry said.

Zuberer and Hammy will walk across the stage at Currigan Hall Sunday. She'll get a bachelor's degree in English; Hammy will get a dog bone.

It's difficult for Zuberer to talk about Hammy without getting sentimental.

"She's the best thing I ever did for myself," Zuberer said. "Since I've gotten her, being blind isn't so lonely."

Contact Bill Scanlon at (303) 892-2751 or scanlonb@RockyMountainNews.com.

May 11, 2000


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Date last modified 6/4/2000