Lefty’s Plaza commemorates a remarkable canine friend

Pause at the top of Tower Road to visit the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, and you can’t help but notice its grand entrance — a broad boulevard of paved stone and artfully planted grass and shrubs, flanked by shining stories of glass on either side. The space is at once welcoming and inspiring — inviting visitors to stroll towards the entrance to the college as they admire the reflections of foliage, stone and sky. This is Lefty’s Plaza, made possible by a gift from Judy and Fred Wilpon, and named after their beloved golden retriever. “He was one of a kind, and so is this plaza,” Judy Wilpon said to the Cornell’s Board of Trustees at a luncheon on May 25th. “This plaza is a portal for our future veterinarians to become caretakers and life savers for our pets. I hope students know when they enter the new Veterinary Education Center through Lefty’s Plaza, they are stepping into the wondrous world of discovery, innovation and practical clinical skills.”

Beautiful, outside and in

Judy and Lefty found each other when she, as an avid dog lover, visited a litter of golden retriever pups that belonged to a friend and obedience trainer. “Lefty just kept coming over to me. He just knew,” said Judy. “It was love at first sight. He was my best friend.” From that day onward, Lefty and Judy shared a special bond that was showcased and strengthened by the competitive obedience and dog agility trials they competed in, and often won, together.

Lefty’s talents went beyond winning competitions. The gentle golden was also a dedicated therapy dog. “He was as good inside as he was beautiful on the outside,” Judy said. Together, she and Lefty made routine trips to Ground Zero and the Family Assistance Center in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack, making multiple visits a week to comfort “children, Red Cross workers, firefighters…you name it,” recalled Judy. “He just knew who needed a hug or a warm furry kiss on the cheek, or a head on their lap.  It was just amazing. He was a people dog.” Lefty and Judy also made visits to the Children’s Hospital to comfort children getting chemotherapy. “Little kids would crawl on him or pull on his hair, and he’d just turn around and lick their face. He was that kind of dog.”

Cornell connections

The Wilpons’ love of Lefty and all of their dogs and horses led them to forge a special connection with Cornell. Their veterinarian at that time, Henry “Hank” Travis DVM ’74, was an active Baker Institute Advisory Council member and was “a great advocate for Cornell,” said Judy Wilpon. Through Hank's encouragement, the Wilpons began taking their dogs, many of which suffered from cancer, to the Cornell University Hospital for Animals. Judy would also go on to join the Baker Advisory Council in 1994.

Thanks to Cornell’s “unbelievable reputation,” and motivated by her own dogs’ struggles with canine cancer, the Wilpons chose to give to the college. They donated to the Baker Institute in support of canine cancer research, and endowed the Judy Wilpon Professor of Cancer Biology, a title currently held by Scott Coonrod, who works to find targeted treatments for canine cancers using new sequencing technologies. Wilpon also made a matching contribution that led to the establishment of the Sandra Atlas Bass Endowment for Cancer Research, which also funds cancer research at the college.

Tragically, Lefty himself succumbed to hemangiosarcoma, a devastatingly lethal type of cancer that commonly afflicts goldens. “He died in my arms the night before we were going to go pick up a new puppy,” Judy recalled. “I almost didn’t go — but Fred said that Lefty would have wanted us to. He was making room in our life for a new dog, and his time was done.” While the loss of her beloved friend was immense, it also inspired Judy to commemorate Lefty in a lasting and meaningful way — dedicating the plaza that welcomes the future veterinarians and guests into the college’s expanded and renovated spaces.

“The finest tribute to Lefty is not in the brick and mortar of the buildings and plazas — but in the human effort expended in finding ways to identify, treat and eradicate diseases such as hermangiosarcoma,” Judy said during her remarks to the Board of Trustees.

“While this may be a ceremony to dedicate this beautiful plaza to Lefty, in reality, it’s a tribute to the dedication of the hundreds of talented veterinarians, researchers and professors who created this world-renowned institution.”

-By Lauren Roberts