By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
Martha B. Stern, 72, a dog breeder who bred Bo, the Portuguese water dog who resides at the Obama White House, as well as hundreds of other dogs for families in the Washington area, died July 21 of kidney failure at Martha Jefferson Hospital in Charlottesville. She had been declared free of lung cancer two months ago, her husband said.
Mrs. Stern, who for 20 years worked in facilities management for the Justice Department, began breeding dogs after she and her husband bought their first "Portie" in 1987. They went to the Old Dominion Kennel Club's spring dog show that year and decided breeding and showing dogs would be their second careers.
For years, they ran their dog breeding business from Fairfax County, where they lived. In 2003, they moved to Boyd, Tex., and set up Amigo Portuguese Water Dogs. When Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and his wife, Victoria, were looking for their first Portuguese water dog, Virginia dog trainer Dawn Sylvia-Stasiewicz suggested the Sterns. Over the years, the Kennedys bought three dogs from the Sterns, and through the Kennedys, Mrs. Stern became the midwife to the presidential family's dog.
As the 2008 presidential campaign heated up, the Sterns named one 10-puppy litter in honor of their favorite candidate's mottoes, the Hope and Change Litter. A particularly well-tempered curly-haired pup was temporarily named Amigo's New Hope. Kennedy was interested in him, but Mrs. Stern directed him to another puppy that would get along better with Kennedy's two older Porties.
Amigo's New Hope went to a woman in Washington, who renamed him Charlie, but Charlie's puppy playfulness irritated the woman's older dog. He was sent packing in March, just as speculation about choosing a "first dog" reached a fevered pitch.
Victoria Kennedy suggested that Charlie would be a perfect match for another Washington household, where two young girls were dying for a pet. After Sylvia-Stasiewicz's quick training in proper manners and a trial visit to the adoptive family, the deal was sealed.
It was still secret, but a Web site posted a photo claiming that Charlie was the newest resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Asked by The Washington Post to compare that site's photo to her memory of Amigo's New Hope, Mrs. Stern called out to her husband: "It's the same dog! He's got a little paw and a big paw. Same lei. White on the chin."
Bo, which is what the Obamas renamed Amigo's New Hope, a.k.a. Charlie, "was so typical of Martha's breeding. He was just a fantastic puppy. He had a beautiful, lovely coat . . . but it was mostly his temperament," said Sylvia-Stasiewicz, who described her friend as exceptionally responsible. "Martha didn't let you come in and look at a litter of puppies and say, 'Oh, I want that one.' She fitted the family to the puppy."
Mrs. Stern, a native of Waxahachie, Tex., was so outgoing that she talked to strangers on the New York subway and in a Thai airport, her husband said. She worked at the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration in Dallas and in 1977 was transferred to Washington.
She was also a good organizer and became well-known in the dog world as a member and officer of the Portuguese Water Dog Club of America, the Old Dominion Kennel Club and the Löwchen Club of America.
Her marriages to Bob Goolsby and Ray Mitchell ended in divorce.
Survivors include her husband of 26 years, Arthur Stern of Boyd; her mother, Florence Moses Watson of Dallas; three daughters from her first marriage, Susan Diane Estabrook of Pensacola, Fla., Rebecca Lynn Goolsby of Springfield and Janet Kay Byrd of Aurora, Tex.; three stepchildren, Kalya Campbell of Keswick, Va., Eric Stern of Naperville, Ill., and Paul Stern of Woodbridge; a brother; 12 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.