Canton Dog Park named after Alan Duncan
By John Fitts Staff Writer
CANTON – With a unanimous vote by the Board of Selectmen this week, the town’s dog park will officially be named after the late Alan Duncan, who spearheaded the effort to build the facility.
The park, set on a 6.89-acre, town-owned parcel on Commerce Drive adjacent to the Farmington River Trail, opened in the fall of 2020 after five years of exploring sites, fundraising, securing approvals from numerous town boards and commissions, additional fundraising and lining up contractors. It was a complicated process that involved a land-swap, forming the non-profit Friends of Canton Dog Park, town approvals and raising some $55,000 to fund the construction and the first few years of ongoing maintenance.
“It seemed like a great idea, but making it all happen was a monumental task and driving it all was Alan Duncan,” Natalie Travers, board member and past president of Friends of Canton Dog Park, said at a recent public hearing about the naming proposal. “This park was his baby and even when his health started to fail – when we undertook the actual construction of the park – I could always turn to the magical Alan Duncan binder. In it he had painstakingly collected plans, bids, potential contractors, bylaws, proposed rules. I marvel at the time and organization that man invested in this project.”
“It’s fair to say that we all love this town and most of us love the dog park. What set Alan Duncan apart is that he actually made it happen,” Travers said. “He worked tirelessly toward this goal and without him it just would not have been built. I believe it’s only right that it be named in his honor.”
While the idea of such a facility had surfaced over the years, Mr. Duncan, who moved to town in 1972, proposed one after visiting an area dog park.
“He was inspired by going to the Granby Dog Park,” said his wife Anne. “I remember the day he said ‘why doesn’t Canton have a dog park? I’m going to talk to the Recreation Department, see what they have to say.’”
Mr. Duncan first approached the Parks and Recreation Commission in 2015 and quickly gained support for the effort, including from then Director of Parks and Recreation, Dr. Joshua T. Medeiros.
“Josh was just as enthusiastic and that really buoyed Alan’s spirits – I would say – tremendously because if you have somebody on board with you, what a difference it makes," Anne Duncan said. "He didn’t want to in any way appear that he was bucking the system or anything like that. That’s not Alan’s nature. He was a gentle soul. He just wanted to get it done. And honestly, I think he thought it would be done in about three months.”
Anne, who is also very active in volunteer efforts, knew it might take a bit more time.
“I kept saying ‘Alan, hold on. It’s going to take a little longer than that,’” she said.
The bit longer ended up being approximately 5 years. A self-taught woodworker, teacher and tennis and golf enthusiast, Mr. Duncan was also familiar with volunteering. He had served in the Peace Corps and participated in other efforts, particularly the Canton Land Conservation Trust Board of Directors, and the North Canton Fire Department. He worked as a school psychologist in Suffield.
And while his health was faltering and he had to step back a little, Mr. Duncan was present on the day the park was officially dedicated in 2020.
“He knew that he had Alzheimer’s, and he knew he couldn’t run the show anymore and he’s not a run the show kind of guy, but he really wanted to see it to the end,” Anne Duncan said, adding that she is so thankful for the wide array of volunteers who joined Alan in the early days of the effort and took over the reins.
“What a nice group of people. They picked up the pieces and kept on going,” she said. “Aren’t we lucky to have a dog park in our town? And I think it’s well appreciated.”
Jan. 10 , 2024 Board of Selectmen meeting
To that end, some of those who spoke at the Jan. 10 board of Selectmen Public hearing said the dog park has truly become a popular destination drawing from the area – and even out of state residents.
“We have people coming from Torrington… Litchfield County and all the other towns in the Farmington Valley,” said co-president of the Friends of Canton Dog Park, Barry Deutsch, who in October of 2023 made the application to name the park after Mr. Duncan. Deutsch said one of Mr. Duncan’s goals to create the best dog park in the area that would not only be in town but also a true asset to the area.
“I’ve talked to many of these people, and they say that by far this is the best dog park in the area, that’s why they come," he said. "It has proven to be an asset.”
Resident John Black said he has counted 10 out-of-state cars at the site.
“This has really been an asset and it’s really gone over quite well,” he said.
Jim Carpenter, a neighbor and close friend, also talked of Mr. Duncan’s efforts, his volunteerism, his work helping others and of course, his love of dogs. He especially loved poodles.
“He was a (school) psychologist by profession in the Suffield school system and dog psychologist upon retirement,” said Carpenter who also noted Mr. Duncan’s visit to the Granby facility.
“Through that he realized that we should have a dog park here in town and so he, through many years of effort, spearheaded putting this together with many trials and tribulations and I think is very deserving of this ability of it to be named after him.”
Leah Lopez Schmalz is another resident who became closely involved with the effort and has served in various roles with the Friends of Canton Dog Park. Like others, she got involved after seeing one of the many fliers Mr. Duncan posted in the area.
At the Jan. 10 public hearing, she provided many details of the years’ long effort but also to Alan’s drive and personality, calling him a “gentle, kind-hearted, community driven man.”
“What I learned in that initial night was how much a sense of community meant to Alan. He was hoping to build a dog park, of course, but in the process he was also building friendships and deepening the connections to our town.”
She also noted the time he spent talking to area residents, patrons of the Collinsville Farmers Market, board members and others and noted that there were those opposed to the concept.
“Even when the conversations would get heated or contentious, Alan always led with understanding and kindness," Lopez Schmalz said.
“In conclusion, a vision that started with one man talking to parks and rec ended with a community funded, built dog park and too many new friendships to count,” Lopez Schmalz said. “Alan’s open mind and open heart created this park and in my opinion the very least we can do to repay him the gift that he gave us all is to name this park after him.”
When it comes to naming facilities, the town has a policy that involves several steps, including the chance for alternate proposals, one of which the town did receive. That was a proposal to name the park for Blue, a police dog credited with chasing down a felon in 1989.
According to a November 1996 Hartford Courant article, Blue, handled by then officer and later Deputy Chief Donald Hull, served for six years before selectmen cut the budget expenses for the program in 1994, and also expressed concern about a federal law that would have added many additional expenses to what was then a $500 line item.
The article notes a 1996 effort by then selectman Lou Daniels to revive the program.
Sadly, it also reported that Blue had died of a stroke earlier that fall.
It also stated Blue went to 13 towns on some 200 calls and was given props for tracking down four missing kids, 15 felony suspects and dozens of other alleged criminals.
Canton First Selectman Kevin Witkos, a retired Canton police sergeant, said Blue was a German Shepherd.
Jan. 24, 2024 Board of Selectmen meeting
When it came time for the selectmen’s decision on the evening of Jan. 24, board member Elizabeth Corkum Winsor spoke to the nomination of Blue, which spoke to inclusion and honoring the people of color, indigenous peoples and women who often go unrecognized. At the same time, she said she agreed with the nomination of Mr. Duncan but didn’t want the idea of inclusion to be put aside.
“I really appreciated the spirit of the nomination of Blue because, as a board, I think that it’s important that we consider diversity, inclusion and equity. Having said that, there's something to be said for somebody who spent a lot of time creating, funding, implementing the dog park. So, I am in agreement with Alan Duncan, but I do think, as a board – diversity, inclusion and equity is important," Corkum Winsor said.
Selectman Bill Volovski also said he appreciated that nomination and suggested the idea of a plaque within the park for Blue.
Witkos said he was “taken away” by the testimony showing how much Mr. Duncan worked on the project, the hurdles, his kindness, and ability to reach people.
“I think It’s out of respect and with honor that we cast our vote,” he said.
The vote was unanimous.
Medeiros, now Superintendent of Parks, Recreation, Youth & Community Services for the City of Bristol, credited all the volunteers involved and said that the project really stands out.
“That park would have never happened if it wasn’t for his advocacy,” he said of Mr. Duncan. “He came to my office day after day – 'where are we at with this, how can we do this? How do we make this happen?'” Medeiros also noted the long process and hurdles involved.
“Even when [Alan] got discouraged he just kept coming back and staying with it. I just credit his advocacy for why that park is there today. So, the fact that they would name it after him, I think, is just really a great tribute to everything that he did for that park that people are going to benefit from for the next generation.”
Anne Duncan said she is grateful for the honor and said the park was certainly a dream for her husband, who died in September of 2023.
“This was a big dream,” she said. “I’m just glad it came to fruition. Somehow, I hope he knows.”