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Michigan man helps others with his dog

November 11, 2018

PLYMOUTH, Mich. (AP) — It’s a late Monday afternoon and a small tavern on a remote side street in downtown Plymouth is packed.

Hundreds of folks are there to celebrate the birthday of arguably the biggest star in town: An 8-year-old Bernese Mountain Dog named Stella.

“I’m the township supervisor and Stella’s bigger than me,” Kurt Heise told the Detroit Free Press . “I couldn’t get a crowd like this for my birthday. She’s got a book and a restaurant named after her.”

Stella is the namesake for Stella’s Black Dog Tavern, a once-struggling bar that is now a dining destination.

The man behind Stella’s fame and the tavern’s turnaround is Bob Ostendorf.

He’s a turnaround specialist who spent about 30 years rescuing companies, including auto suppliers, from financial ruin. Five years ago at age 63, Ostendoft abandoned retirement and bought Doyle’s Tavern. He rebranded it and made it so successful that he plans to move it to a bigger venue in Plymouth before year-end to accommodate its growing popularity.

But it hasn’t been all triumph for Ostendorf. Along the way, he endured personal tragedies, and it was this 125-pound black dog, Stella, who would ultimately rescue him.

Now they both help others. They raise money for a local humane society and Stella is a certified service dog who visits former war veterans at Veterans Affairs Ann Arbor Healthcare System. She also doles out daily empathy to everyone she meets at the tavern, in some cases changing lives.

Here is the story of a man, his life’s work and the dog who’s touching a town.

Bob Ostendorf is a reserved man who’ll shake your hand with genuine warmth. He has an avuncular presence that belies his deep military discipline and financial acumen.

And he loves two things: People and dogs. He credits the former for making him a successful businessman. He credits the latter for making him a better man.

“I think God was ingenious when he created dogs,” said Ostendorf. “Stella and I spend a lot of time together and we do benevolent things.”

Before benevolence came business. A 1972 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Ostendorf served in the Navy and earned an MBA from Troy University in Alabama. In 1978, he joined French tire maker Michelin as an engineering manager.

He learned to speak French and by 1985 he ran daily operations at tire maker Michelin’s manufacturing facility in Dothan, Alabama. While in charge of manufacturing, Ostendorf fostered a team mentality and the plant won supplier quality awards from Ford, General Motors and Chrysler, he said.

“I involved the people in all the decisions and I was very visible on the shop floor,” said Ostendorf. “I pulled the opaque wallpaper off my office windows so that people could look into my office.”

He learned his management style from his father, who he worked for while growing up in St. Louis. He later honed that style while in the Navy.

“My father was a construction foreman and a hands-on guy,” Ostendorf said. “In the Navy, I was mentored by some senior officers who always took care of their people first.”

At his farewell party in 1988, 2,000 of the 3,000 plant workers showed up, he said.

“A lady composed a song for me,” he said, “and they gave me roses.”

Ostendorf left to start what would become a long career rescuing financially distressed companies, many of which were suppliers to the Detroit 3 automakers.

He found the work rewarding, but in the midst of his success, came deep sorrow. His wife, Judy, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the late 1990s. So in 1999, he moved from Novi to take a job at Morgan Corp. in Morgantown, Pennsylvania, about 50 miles west of Philadelphia. He led a turnaround at Morgan, which makes freight truck bodies.

“It was a hard time, but you go through a lot of stuff at the Naval Academy,” he said, that helped prepare him to manage a demanding career and cope with his wife’s illness. Besides, taking the job was a requisite.

“I needed the money. She was using experimental drugs to fight cancer,” Ostendorf said.

Ostendorf said his wife was his “childhood sweetheart” since age 7. He finds it difficult to talk about her suffering even now, but he finds comfort knowing she received the “best care in the world” for the three years she fought the disease. She died at age 52 in 2002.

Ostendorf pushed on and his job with Morgan brought him back to Sturgis, Michigan, on business calls. Sturgis is about a two-hour drive southwest of Ann Arbor and Ostendorf decided Michigan was his future.

“I bought a home in Plymouth thinking someday I’d relocate here,” said Ostendorf. “I liked the climate and I liked the people and the Midwestern mentality.”

It would be awhile. Ostendorf spent the next decade working for various private equity firms before retiring in 2010, and finally moving to that house he owned in Plymouth.

“I hadn’t lived there in 10 years, the home had bats in it,” Ostendorf said. “I had to get rid of the bats.”

As Ostendorf cleared his home of one critter, he decided it was time to get another. Remarried with grown kids, Ostendorf missed his beloved Golden Retriever, Nugget. She was his family’s dog in the 1980s when he worked for Michelin, but she was really his dog.

“She and I were very close,” he said. “When she died at about age 10, I said no more dogs. But in 2010, I was retired and I thought maybe it’s time.”

He’d read about Bernese mountain dogs, a versatile working dog that originated in Switzerland. The dogs are known to have endearing personalities.

He found a good breeder in Missouri whose dogs’ bloodlines had longevity, often living to 12 or 13 years old. He saw pictures of a puppy there and fell in love. He paid $600 for the puppy, Stella, and $300 for a person to fly her to Michigan. Thanks to a growing popularity, Bernese mountain dogs today can cost $2,000 or more.

Stella and Ostendorf took to each other quickly. She would accompany him just about everywhere, and within a year she’d be his emotional savior.

In 2011, he and his second wife were divorcing when his parents died within three weeks of each other.

Ostendorf, the oldest of four boys, said during that time, “Stella was my best friend. Between the death of my parents and the divorce, she was my rock.”

He buried his mother before his father, and Stella was at the funeral with him, seated under his feet, Ostendorf said.

“She sleeps against me at night,” Ostendorf said. “She pretty much understands everything I say to her. She is my buddy.”

He would often take her with him to a neighborhood pub, Doyle’s Tavern. The staff would prepare a “surf-and-turf” meal for Stella. Ostendorf liked the place and he was bored in retirement. It was in financial straits, so he and a minority partner bought it in 2013.

“That’s what I did all my life, turnarounds and fixing stuff on timelines,” said Ostendorf. So he improved the food and changed the name to honor his number one pal, Stella.

“We were initially criticized with people saying, ‘Who’d name a bar after a dog?’” Ostendorf said.

But then his customers started meeting Stella.

Stella comes to the tavern with him daily. She usually only stays a few hours, but she’s the main attraction. Those who don’t get to see her will come back repeatedly asking to meet Stella. A sign graces the entrance telling patrons if she’s in the house or not that day.

“She’s the draw,” said Ostendorf. “Our food’s good, too, but she’s the draw. People will come in and say ‘I’ve been here three times and I haven’t seen her yet.’”

It’s because she touches lives. Take Chloe Turnham Fleck, who had to quit college due to a severe eating disorder. Fleck read that a service dog could help her, but she didn’t know what kind of breed to get.

About a year ago, Fleck wandered into the tavern and met Stella, who is a licensed service dog who regularly visits sick veterans at VA hospitals. That settled it.

“I got Jude,” said Fleck, referring to the 10-month-old female Bernese Mountain Dog donning a service-dog vest, standing at her feet nuzzling with Stella. The two dogs met for the first time at Stella’s birthday bash.

“She’s a psychiatric service dog for me. She does pressure therapy, she’s grounding and comforting. She goes everywhere with me except for work,” Fleck said. “Today, we just wanted to stop by and say happy birthday.”

Then, there are the children. Ostendorf wrote a children’s book about Stella, with a second one due out in December. He has Stella dolls adorning the entire restaurant that he gives to children. He said he’s given out at least 2,000 in recent years. But it’s nothing like the real thing.

“We had a little girl, about 10, in here once. She was in a neck brace,” Ostendorf said. “I gave her a Stella doll and Stella took it over to her and sat with her. Later, her grandparents told me, ‘That means so much because she just lost her brother and her parents in a car accident.’”

Another time, Stella approached a woman diner. Stella gently placed her paw on the woman’s hand, then leaned on her affectionately, almost, “holding her up,” Ostendorf said. Later, the woman asked him, “How does this dog know I’m paralyzed?”

“She’s just a very empathetic breed,” Ostendorf said in describing Stella.

When Ostendorf takes Stella to the VA hospital in Ann Arbor, he said, staff will announce over the PA system that she is in the building. Soon 50 to 60 veterans, most suffering from chronic illnesses, will come out of their rooms to see her. Some are in wheelchairs having lost a leg to diabetes, Ostendorf said.

“She goes right up to them, puts her head on the wheelchair and looks up at them, not looking at their amputation,” he said.

Stella, who recently had an ACL injury and subsequent surgery, had to suspend her VA hospital visits for a while, but is resuming them.

Walking through the tavern on the day of Stella’s yearly birthday party, her star power is palpable. Wrapped birthday gifts sit on many tables and two men carefully maneuver a full sheet cake (donated by a Stella admirer) through the standing-room only crowd. Each year, the party raises about $2,500 in donations for the Huron Valley Humane Society. Whatever amount customers donate, Ostendorf matches. In total, Ostendorf estimates her birthday parties over the years have raised $15,000 for the Huron Valley Humane Society.

“You’ll feel a lot of love here,” said Pamm Bakley, a regular customer whose 8-by-10 inch framed photo of her Chihuahua, Angel, hangs on the wall amid hundreds of other 8-by-10 inch photos of customers’ pooches. “That’s what Stella’s is, a lot of love.”

Customer Debbie Kinast, who’s lived in Plymouth six years, comes to Stella’s several times a month and said, “We always look for Stella when we come here. She’s a mascot for Plymouth. Everyone knows Stella.”

It’s fair to say that Stella is more beloved in Plymouth than Santa Claus himself.

The first week of December each year, Plymouth opens the holiday season with Santa Claus riding the town’s firetruck into downtown Plymouth to be given the key to the city.

Last year, Stella rode on the truck with Santa. Ostendorf took the stage to enthusiastic applause. But when Stella took the stage after him, the kids “went crazy,” Ostendorf and customers said. She will ride with Santa again this year.

“She’s kind of iconic. She walks down the street and she’s well known,” Ostendorf said. “It’s part of giving back. I saved a lot of jobs in private equity, but there’s a tough side to that too and you really don’t get to enjoy it.”

Ostendorf’s grueling years rescuing troubled businesses were spent on airplanes and analyzing numbers, he said.

“This is a little more soft side,” he said. “Stella is making a difference. Now my work’s not so much financially driven, it’s more esoteric and more benevolent.”

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Information from: Detroit Free Press, http://www.freep.com

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