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Recalling her dog days


Betty Sprunger was 70 the last time she hitched up a team of sled dogs and took them for a run.

"I knew then it was the last time," the 82-year-old Murphys resident said. "I remember it well."

At the time, she lived in Michigan with her third husband, Earl Sprunger, a retired veterinarian and dog-sledding enthusiast. Before she met Earl, she'd already experienced plenty of hardships and wonderful moments — she'd nursed two husbands before they died, moved her three sons to Murphys as a young widow and she'd become a dog musher.

After losing two husbands, she had no intention of marrying again until friends told her about Sprunger. He'd built a home surrounded by a glorious landscape of snow in the winter — a place where a musher could hook up dogs at the back door and go for a run.

"I said, ‘Give him my phone number,'" Betty said. "I never expected to hear from him, but he phoned me. He didn't call often, but Earl wasn't a talker."

He drove out from Michigan just to meet her and asked her to marry him and return to Michigan with him right then.

She agreed to go with him, but not to marry him. But after two months she caved in, partly because "he asked me to marry him every time I turned around."

She had a special ring made for him, with a dog-sledding team etched into it, and when he died four years ago — after 20 years of marriage — she had it sized down so she could wear it on her ring finger.

"He turned out to be a wonderful husband," she said.

"I didn't have any dogs until I moved up to the country," Sprunger said. The "country" was Murphys, a small town of about 200 people in the early 1950s. The population is now about 10 times that.

She'd heard there were 500 patients in Bret Harte Sanitarium, a tuberculosis hospital that later became Bret Harte Center and burned down in May 2002.

Widowed after only 10 years of marriage to Ossie Fitzpatrick, Sprunger was determined to move her three young boys away from San Francisco.

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