MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Cathy Ridling passes Blount Park all the time and sees the dog park that will bear her daughter’s name slowly taking shape along Vaughn Road.
Then she goes about her regular rounds, which include a trip to the cemetery where her daughter, Hannah, is buried. There, she brings fresh flowers then feeds the squirrels and birds nearby.
It seems an appropriate way to remember the 16-year-old who spent her short life caring for pets and riding horses.
“She always loved animals,” said Cathy Ridling, a former leader of the Montgomery Humane Society’s board of directors. “She couldn’t help it, I guess, with me being her mother. We were always out to save something.”
On Hannah’s headstone, there’s a passage from an essay she wrote the year of her death: “Whenever I put aside my own needs and put someone else’s before my own, I feel like a better person.”
That philosophy inspired an outpouring of support after she fell from the back of a moving vehicle and was killed shortly after finishing her sophomore year at Trinity Presbyterian School.
Cathy Ridling and her husband, Jim, the state’s insurance commissioner, set up a memorial fund in Hannah’s name that drew a wide range of donors and helped fund the dog park’s construction.
“It was very touching,” Cathy Ridling said. “People I don’t even know, certainly lots of friends, but then people from all over the country (have contributed). And we’ve been raising some additional money on top of that. We’ve had some very, very generous friends really come through in helping to make that final push to get all the things paid.”
Gary Williams, the current head of the Montgomery Humane Society’s board of directors, said others have stepped forward as well. Alabama Steel Supply donated two gazebos, and one of the board members agreed to match any donations made by the board.
Plans for the about $150,000 park include separate areas for big and small dogs, an agility course and other features.
“It’ll be one of the finest dog parks in the Southeast, if not in the nation,” Williams said.
Williams also praised the city’s contributions to the effort and Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange’s role.
“Our game plan is to have a grand opening of the park in the March or April time frame,” Strange said. “It’s all part of this new urbanism, trying to attract younger people to Montgomery.”
It’s also the kind of place that Cathy Ridling said her daughter would have liked to take her dog, Neville, a border collie she got for her eighth birthday and named after a character in the “Harry Potter” books. Hannah became nationally ranked as a show horse rider on Pippin, a horse she named after a hobbit in “The Lord of the Rings.”
“She loved fantasy books, and all the names came from those kinds of books,” Cathy Ridling said. “She was very creative and loved reading.”
Pippin was still a competitive horse after Hannah’s death, so her mother found a home for him in Michigan where he can be ridden. But Hannah’s other pets are still around, including her two cats, her pony and her dog, who also has struggled with her death. “It’s tough because he doesn’t understand,” Cathy Ridling said of Neville.
Sometimes the loss is still too much for her parents. They’ve spent Christmas overseas each year since their only child’s death, returning this year not long before another milestone — her birthday, which was on New Year’s Day.
Cathy Ridling can’t help but think of what her daughter might be doing with her life right now, recalling how she was planning to attend Auburn University.
“The holidays are . “ Ridling faltered. “It’s kind of a double whammy with Christmas and her birthday. She’d be 19.”
Yet she beams as she shares stories of Hannah’s compassion, including how as a child she befriended a monarch butterfly with a bad wing, named him Buddy and carried him with her to a wedding in Louisiana. He spent much of the wedding nestled in Hannah’s flower headdress, and she comforted and fed Buddy for the rest of his three-week life.
That’s why those who knew Hannah understand that the dog park will be a fitting tribute, Strange said.
“She was a very caring, giving individual,” he said.