Thinking back on the many events we experienced in 2020 there was one major change that made me think back to my elementary school days. In 2020 we saw a world where "virtual learning" became a catchphrase for our youth. On every level from elementary school, all the way through colleges and universities students were now taking all of their classes online or through virtual teaching via skype or some type of live streaming. I guess in some ways this is a testament to how far technology has progressed over the past half of the century. On the other hand, it may be a reflection on how technology has replaced the hard work and research that many of us born and raised in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s experienced.
Our world today is so focused on immediate results with very little effort on the part of most people. I thought back to my Catholic elementary and high school days. I pretty much had nuns as teachers for most of my education and for those that can relate it was not always pleasant. The dreaded “Sisters” were known to rule with an iron fist or a “hard wooden ruler” if you know what I mean. Our subjects in those days were highlighted by the three “Rs” of the day “Reading, writing, and Arithmetic." We learned our ABC's, how to read and write (cursive and the nuns I had made me write and rewrite until they could read it without any guessing) we had Spelling (no spell check you had to look it up in the dictionary if you needed help) history, geography, civics, math (no calculators just a paper and pencil) algebra, a second language, science, and various other classes many which could be used as a trade if you chose not to attend college.
Catholic school taught me a lot about discipline, hard work, and respect for others especially people in authority. For me, one of the most valuable things I took from those early years was a love for reading. In my elementary years, we had requirements to read a certain number of books throughout the year as well as a "summer reading" requirement. Since we did not have the technology available today we also had to research our work in person at the local library through various sources such as encyclopedias and various other research books and periodicals available. The public library was where you would go to also check out the books you were interested in reading and typically you had about a week to ten days to read and return them. It was through books where one could find a new world to explore and dream about. I always loved history and biographies as they told real stories of people, places, and the events that had shaped the world. Even to this day, I am most content when reading a great mystery or novel and trying to imagine the events in my mind as they unfold.
School also taught me the importance of doing things right the first time. I learned that "short cuts" often would jump out and bite me later. If you were typing your reports you needed to make sure everything was correct or you would get graded down for misspellings, bad punctuation, and so on.
So many of the things I learned in school have prepared me for my professional life as well as my life in the sport of pure-bred dogs.
Starting in dogs I was very fortunate to live in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cleveland public library through the generosity of the Western Reserve Kennel Club has one of the most extensive collections of dog-related books in the world. It housed the AKC studbook as well as the stud books from numerous registries throughout the world. To research a pedigree you could go to the library and trace the lineage of most dogs for many, many, generations. It also housed breed-specific and hundreds and hundreds of canine-related books and magazines. It was a great resource for anyone from a novice to a well-seasoned veteran to learn all there was about dogs from the whelping box to the show or obedience ring, To the field trials, and just about everything ever written about not only the dogs themselves but also the sport of pure-bred dogs.
Since the library housed so many books and periodicals it also had a subscription to the New York Times. Every Thursday and Sunday the late Walter Fletcher had a column in the times that covered the dog show world. Mr. Fletcher's columns carried the most popular events and because of his keen history of our sport, he could take the readers' imagination to the actual show with his high-quality descriptions of the event and what had happened.
Walter Fletcher covered dog shows for more than 60 years and passed away on February 15, 2000, just hours before the 124 th Westminster Kennel Club Best in Show was selected.
In 1979 Walter R. Fletcher wrote on his life in our sport. The resulting book “My Times With Dogs" was first published in 1980 and is still one of my all-time favorite books about our sport. It is a timeless classic that when looking back shows that even though the times have changed there are some things that have stayed the same. The 320 pages cover everything from "What breed for me?", "The first dogs show." "The judging problem", Biographies of judges of the day, Shows, Handicapping shows, breeders and exhibitors, and a plethora of information that any dog lover would appreciate.
I was recently reading my copy again and I thought many of our newer enthusiasts might enjoy a few excerpts from this great look back;
(Note: all highlighted information is from the book; My Times with Dogs by Walter R. Fletcher published by Howell Book House Inc. First, printing-1980.)
“I never ceased to be amazed at the tremendous number of people taking part at the shows. Few sports are as demanding. This is a participation activity for dad, mom and the kids, in which the odds are all against them. Take a show with 3,000 dogs. Only 10 percent are going to do any meaningful winning, whereby they get points toward championships or take the breed to advance to a group. And there is only one best in show. The others get nothing, save a ribbon or two and perhaps a token trophy.
For those fortunate to have a top winner, there are headaches as well as prizes. Skyrocketing motel prices, food, rising gasoline costs, high insurance rates, entry fees, basic veterinarian expenses make it an expensive hobby. Should there be a professional handler, and the owner attend the shows, it runs into big money. Peggy Westphal, whose Ch. Sagamore Toccoa was the top winning Cocker Spaniel in history, told me she never again could afford to campaign a major victor.”
Here we are 40 years later and the above statements still ring true.
Shortly following the previous entry Mr. Fletcher talks about The Judging Problem:
“Meanwhile each year we see more shows which necessitate more judges, and there is an ever-increasing problem of obtaining sites. Fortunately, the AKC in 1978 selected as its president a man acutely aware of the situation. He is William (Bill) Stifel. When I asked him what AKC proposed to do, Bill responded, “Since 1971, entries have increased 36 percent. We are re-evaluating our stand on all-breed clubs holding shows on a common site. There is no problem with specialty clubs, since the AKC can approve up to 20 specialty shows to share one common site.”
When I pointed out how exhibitors are constantly complaining about the judging, he replied, “Approving judges is one of our most important jobs. We are having personal interviews with all applicants. We would like to expand the whole program, with more testing – both oral and written.”
We all know the judging problem still exists and as long as judging is subjective there will always be those exhibitors that complain. The only question is does the current system really work?
One of the more interesting sections in the book deals with short informational biographies of judges at the time, here are just a couple of insights;
The first woman veterinarian graduated from the University of Pennsylvania was Josephine Deubler. She can also be called Doctor-Doctor for she also has her Ph.D. in Pathology. Jo, as she is known to her friends, comes from a family of veterinarians, her father, uncle, brother, and two cousins all holding VMD degrees. Even more remarkable is the fact that since early childhood, Jo has been almost totally deaf and had to learn by reading lips. This courageous and determined woman for many years has been doing research at the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School. All her life Jo has been with animals, her father's practice having been farm animals. Her first love was horses and the Doctor won any number of ribbons, riding hunters over the jumps. Indeed, her thesis was written on the recurrent ophthalmia in the eyes of the horse.
In the dog world, she long was known for her terriers, particularly Dandie Dinmonts. She also had Irish Terriers, Smooth Fox, and Kerry Blues. In 1956 she imported a Dandie, Salismore Silversand, and Jimmy Butler, her handler, quickly finished him. Silver was best of breed at Westminster and three years in a row took the national specialty. In 1961, Ch. Salismore Playboy was Dandie of the year. The same year, Jimmy persuaded her to start judging, which she did on a very limited scale. When Butler retired in 1966, Jo retired from the show ring and she began to accept more judging assignments. She was chosen to name best of breed at the national specialty that year and in 1967 was invited to do the British specialty at Carlisle.
Now she has no dogs but plays a leading role in club work, being show chairman for Bucks County. Each year Bucks grows larger. Located between the Delaware River and the old ship canal, just south of New Hope, it has become one of the most attractive of the May shows in the East. In 1976 Dr. Duebler received a well-deserved Fido from Gaines Research Center, as the Dog Woman of the Year.”
Another entry written in 1979 refers to a man still very well known in our sport today;
“Then there’s the judge I always called a young man in a hurry. He’s Edd Biven of Fort Worth and he’s on the staff of the dean of students at Texas Christian University. When I retired, Biven was 35 years old but he looked much younger. At the time he already had accomplished more than fanciers much older. He had bred champions, handled a best-in-show dog, been president of a major kennel club and judged at such key fixtures as Westminster, International and Beverly Hills. But he still said to me, “I know very little in comparison to the old timers and there’s a great deal for me to learn. The sport has been so good to me, I feel I owe it much. I’m particularly concerned about the youngsters. I try to encourage them not only to show but to work up breeding programs.”
“People started me in the sport when I was a kid.” He said. “They taught me not only the mechanics but also the ethics. You must give as well as take, ‘they stressed.” So involved is Biven in the sport that before he took the post at TCU he had to be assured he would be permitted to take a number of weekends away from the university so that he could judge.
These are just two examples of Fletcher’s background sketches of the judges in 1979. There are so many more included in the text. Here are just a few mentioned in the book. Percy Roberts, Alva Rosenburg, Billy Kendrick, Michelle Billings, Lina Basquette, Dr. Tom Davies, Lang Skarda, Geraldine Dodge. He also introduces you to some of the husband and wife judges of the day such as the Clarks’, The Stevensons’, Marvins', and Feltons just to mention a few. The chapters are entertaining and full of background information.
There are so many informative and vivid illustrations of the shows and activities through the eyes of the writer. In a section about various popular shows here is an excerpt about Morris and Essex that puts you right there while it is happening.
Mention Morris and Essex to an old timer and it will bring a gleam to his eye. Immediately, he will regale you with stories about the most lavish dog shows ever held in America and about Mrs. Geraldine Rockerfeller Dodge, the mistress of Giralda Farms in Madison, N.J., where the extravaganzas were held.
Once a year, she threw open the gates of the estate and crowds of up to 50,000 flocked to the polo field, on whose velvety-green turf the dogs vied for ribbons. Barnum and Bailey, Ringling Bros. Circus billed itself as the “Greatest Show on Earth,” but it was dwarfed by the 1939 M&E which drew 4,456 dogs, still the greatest entry in the history of shows in this country at this writing. Whereas the circus in 1939 used 70,000 square feet of canvas for its tenting, the “Greatest Dog Show” had 160,000
It was a kaleidoscope of color, with a bright umbrella over each judge’s table in the 57 rings. Flying from the six huge group tents were pennants, whipped by the breeze. There was no silver shortage when it came to the trophy table, for 383 pieces of sterling were offered outright. Mrs. Dodge arranged with a famous catered to provide 4,600 luncheons for the exhibitors, judges and other officials. Then there was a huge cafeteria, so the visitors would have food. To keep the traffic flowing, 90 officers and special police patrolled the roads and manned the gates. It was estimated that it cost around $70,000 to stage this “Show of Shows.”
I know I wasn’t around in 1939 but that description sure can fill your imagination with what it must have been like. Among my cherished possessions is an actual Morris & Essex hat pin that was passed on to me by a dear friend, exhibitor, and judge from those days.
So many other shows are reflected upon with of course the greatest Westminster among those mentioned.
My Times with dogs is a Howell dog book of distinction and the back cover tells you a little more about what you can find inside.
“For years Walter Fletcher has reported the results of happenings inside the show rings; now he lets loose with the often much more entertaining stories of what transpires outside them. The delightful stories of those on the other end of the leash-the people of the dog game
There’s the famous terrier judge who always takes a shower with his straw hat on (to protect his curls); or the lady who hitched a ride on horseback to retrieve a runaway sled dog team; or the dog judge-airline pilot who was confronted with a dog on the runway during takeoff...and even in the process of averting disaster couldn’t help but note and mentally judge the dog’s conformation.
MY TIME WITH DOGS literally covers the world- everything from why Scotland Yard uses only males to the story of how a new breed was “manufactures” in Czechoslovakia in only 14 years. And though far-reaching in scope., it’s always close to my heart and funny bone.
You’re in for a great time with MY TIMES WITH DOGS.”
For me, there is nothing quite like holding an actual book in my hand and imagining the printed word in my mind.
Today in our society it seems most people get everything off of the internet and even read their books on an I-pad or Kindle. Magazine and newspapers are fast becoming extinct. To many of us senior citizens, it is one of the great travesties of technology.
Walter Fletcher was not the only dog columnist of his time but he was the most prominent one with the highest circulation of the day. Max Riddle wrote for the old Cleveland Press-Scimitar as well as being an author of numerous breed books himself. Louise Pugh was a long time columnist at the Dayton Daily News and would also write about the wins of many of the local exhibitors in the area.
One of the things I always find interesting when reading old books and periodicals is that although our world has changed a great deal through modern technology and innovation the sport of conformation dog shows has remained relatively constant. The same issues discussed 100 years ago are still being debated today. The Judges, The high costs related to the sport, Prejudices, accusations of unethical behavior, and so many other things are still hot topics today.
The biggest difference is the technology that allows for instant results and often comments about the judging of the day. I can’t imagine how refreshing it would be to have another Walter Fletcher using his special talent for prose to give me a harmless expression of the days' events.
If you found this retrospective book report fascinating I hope you can find a copy of the book to read. I believe you will enjoy a refreshing and enjoyable look at our sport and maybe even come to enjoy the sport more.