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A peculiar cat, coincidental love, and a life worth living

  • Buster loved the sights, sounds and smells of the holiday season. COURTESY LORI HOLDER-WEBB



Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 28, 2017

NORTHAMPTON — Lori Holder-Webb remembers the day she first met Buster, a short-haired, white-and-gray rescue cat with a few missing teeth and a big personality. He was locked in a crate kept separate from the other cats at a shelter in Madison, Wisconsin. Holder-Webb learned why when Buster was released.

“He made a circuit of that room and he beat up every other cat in that room and stole their toy until he had basically stolen them all,” she said. “And he wasn’t hurting them, he was just making a point.”

Holder-Webb donated to the Sidney F. Smith Toy Fund last year in memory of Buster who, despite being a bully, “never met a stranger in his life.” He was a fearless cat, curious and friendly with a personality closer to that of a dog, said Holder-Webb.

“He would sit in the windows and greet everybody as they walked by,” she said. “He loved the kids next door and he was basically everybody’s friend.”

And he loved Christmas.

Named after a former business manager at the Gazette, the Sidney F. Smith Toy Fund began in 1933 to help families in need during the Depression. Today, the fund distributes vouchers worth $40 to families for each child from age 1 to 14.

Holder-Webb remembers Buster’s affinity for the holiday season, and how he loved guests, decorations and scented candles. He’d get so close to the candles, he’d nearly singe his fur.

Their story began unexpectedly, back on that day in 2004.

Reeling from the loss of her last cat, Holder-Webb visited the shelter to fill a hole in her heart, with no intention of adopting another feline. When she learned Buster’s story — that he was a stray that had been found on the side of the road with a broken jaw after being hit by a car — she decided to take him home, that very day.

At the time, Holder-Webb was splitting her time between Madison, where she taught accounting at the University of Wisconsin, and Amherst, where her fiance, Jeffrey Cohen, lived and taught accounting at Boston College. They had met in 2003 at an accounting conference in Boston. They got engaged atop the Eiffel Tower at midnight that same year.

“I just proposed to him because it was simply the most romantic place we would ever be,” Holder-Webb said.

Fate tried to derail her plan. After getting lost on the way to the Eiffel Tower, Cohen did not hear her question.

“And then he starts giving me this academic lecture on conjunctive probability,” Holder-Webb said. “And that’s just like our marriage, it’s really this combination of high romance and this zany sort of not-quite sitcom kind of interactions.”

They bought cheap rings for each other from a street vendor the next day, got married in October 2005 and celebrated their 12th anniversary last month.

Buster was like the couple’s “four-legged child.” He liked to follow Holder-Webb around the house, greet her when she came home and even let her take him on walks around the neighborhood on a leash.

Buster even proved to be a perfect travel companion. Before Holder-Webb moved to Northampton with her husband in 2008, Buster was a familiar face to airport security employees who had never seen a cat so content in transit.

“Buster hated it when I left him alone, so I just started taking him with me, and he loved to travel,” Holder-Webb said. “When I got his cat carrier out he would run and just get in the cat carrier and sit there, waiting.”

Then one fateful evening three years ago, the couple returned from an evening out and found Buster dead at the bottom of the basement stairs. He must have had a heart problem — undetectable, the veterinarians explained — and there was nothing they could have done.

“It was devastating when we came home and found Buster’s body,” Holder-Webb said. “It was just a horrible, horrible moment, but that’s the price if you want to live a whole life, and to have a rich one that is packed with joy and wonderful things. You have to recognize that not everything that comes is going to feel great.”

Soon after, Holder-Webb adopted two cats from the Dakin Humane Society. Sometimes she sees them sniffing the bottom of the stairs where she and her husband found Buster, and she says house guests have said they’ve seen a gray-and-white cat wandering the halls.

“I tell my friends that I can’t bring myself to think of him as a ghost, because ghosts are scary, and he’s just Buster,” said Holder-Webb. “He’s the most expansive soul out there.”

The Daily Hampshire Gazette’s Sidney F. Smith Toy Fund provides certificates redeemable at participating local retailers to eligible families who can use them to buy holiday gifts at participating stores through Dec. 31, 2017.

Eligible families must live in any Hampshire County community except Ware, or in the southern Franklin County towns of Deerfield, Sunderland, Whately, Shutesbury and Leverett.

Berkshire Children & Families at 220 Russell St., Suite 200 in Hadley, MA 01035, verifies families’ eligibility and the Gazette covers costs associated with the drive, so all donations go directly to the families.

The following stores are participating this year: A2Z Science and Learning Store, 57 King St., Northampton; Deals & Steals, 1 Pearl St., Northampton; JCPenney, 341 Russell St., Hadley (store only); The Toy Box, 201 N. Pleasant St., Amherst; Target, 367 Russell St. Hadley (store only); Sam’s Outdoor Outfitters, 227 Russell St., Hadley; Odyssey Bookshop, 9 College St., Village Commons, South Hadley; Wilson’s Dept. Store, 258 Main St., Greenfield; World Eye Bookshop/Magical Child, 134 Main St., Greenfield.

Donations to the Toy Fund may be dropped off at or mailed to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, P.O. Box 299, Northampton, MA 01061, or made online at www.gazettenet.com.

Checks should be made payable to the Sidney F. Smith Toy Fund.

Sarah Robertson can be reached at srobertson@gazettenet.com