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Television success is sweet for Juneau cat named Sugar

TV show tells tale of how cat came back

Posted: Tuesday, July 17, 2001

Judy Nelson and Sugar have hit the big time.

Nelson, a Juneau woman, was reunited with her cat Sugar through a series of strange coincidences last Thanksgiving. Their story, reported in newspapers nationwide, caught the attention of producers at the Lifetime Network, a cable TV channel geared toward women. Several weeks ago, they gave Nelson a call.

"That was a little bit of a shock to me," Nelson said. "I told Sugar yesterday, 'You know Sugar, I think you're a little celebrity. ... They're going to come and take your picture.'"

Filming for the segment on the series "Beyond Chance" took place over 11 hours Saturday.

"It was mentally and physically draining," Nelson said. "They were just re-enacting everything from step one right straight through to getting the cat back."

The story is a complicated one. Nelson got Sugar in November of 1997, a little more than a year after the Aug. 19, 1996, death of her son, Calvin E. Nelson. Her husband, Calvin A. Nelson, died in Arizona on Aug. 1, 1998, just under a year later. Sugar, who was staying with friends in Juneau, ran away on the same day.

"That's why I hate the month of August," Nelson said.

Nelson returned to Juneau and offered a reward for Sugar's return. The legally blind woman was duped once, paying two children for a cat that wasn't her beloved pet. No one else came forward, and Sugar's picture eventually joined those of Nelson's husband and son on her memorial wall.

That's where Dan and Donna Cornwell spotted the photo after they drove Nelson home from a Thanksgiving dinner last year at the house of her church friend Dick Winchell.

Winchell owns the Airport Mini Mall and Apartments and the Cornwells, his sister and brother-in-law, manage it. Sugar turned up at the apartments soon after her disappearance, and for two years the family fed and sheltered the pet. But after recognizing her picture on Nelson's wall, they rushed Sugar home.

"Dan brought this cat out in his arms," Nelson said. "I looked and said, 'Oh my God, that's Sugar.'"

The Lifetime special recreated the Thanksgiving Day events, right down to a catered Thanksgiving dinner.

"That was funny, to have Thanksgiving on July 14," Nelson said.

Sugar was generally cooperative, but balked at going out into the yard, just as she has done since being returned to Nelson.

"Everybody was behind her clapping their hands, stomping the porch, and she would not go," Nelson said. "She knows when she's got it made."

The Cornwells and Winchell were also interviewed for the special, which will be part of Lifetime's fall schedule.

"Beyond Chance" segment producer Dana Leiken described the show as a mesh of news programs such as "Dateline" and "Unsolved Mysteries."

"We concentrate on stories that involve some sort of twist of fate or remarkable coincidence," Leiken said. "It's a feel-good show. Maybe you'll shed a tear while you're watching but at the same time, there's always a good message at the end."

Nelson's segment should air in early December, Leiken said. The series currently airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. on Channel 28 in Juneau.

"It was wonderful for me," Nelson said of the filming. "Just reliving ... all of that - to me it was just so touching. It almost made me cry many times. I still believe in miracles and fate and I still think my husband had something to do with it."

Genevieve Gagne-Hawes can be reached at geneviev@juneau-empire.com.



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