America’s Greatest Gun Dog Men
By Tom Davis
Presented by Bernard+Associates
Twenty years as a Sporting Classics columnist has enabled the author to share unforgettable moments with some of America’s greatest dog men.
Columbia, SC –-(AmmoLand.com)- Among the milestones that seems to have flown under the radar of just about everybody is the one marked by the current issue of Sporting Classics Magazine: my 20th anniversary as the Gundogs columnist for Sporting Classics.
It was in July/August 1990 that my debut column, a piece on the renaissance of the hunting cocker spaniel, appeared in these pages, and while my memory’s a bit hazy, my recollection is that it was originally set up as a provisional arrangement with the editor – then as now, Chuck Wechsler – and I agreeing that I’d do it for a few issues and we’d “see how it goes.”
Well, here we are 20 years later, so I guess it’s gone okay. While Chuck and I have had our disagreements, as all writers and editors do, I don’t recall us ever quarrelling about the substance of the Gundogs column. On the rare occasions he’s tried to nudge me in a certain direction in terms of content, he’s been able to make a persuasive argument; otherwise, he’s given me carte blanche to take the column in whatever direction interests me.
Or, to put it another way, he’s given me all the rope I need to hang myself.
Just for the record, at this point I also have the distinction (if that’s the right word) of being the longest-tenured columnist still writing his original column. Of the five other columnists on the masthead when I started, two – Shelly Spindel (Answers) and Joe Wilcox (Books) – have gone to the Great Beyond; two – Cliff Hauptman (Fishing) and Terry Wieland (Rifles) – no longer write for this magazine; and one, Michael McIntosh, handed off Shotguns to another writer so that he could launch a new column, Tales to Tell, and enjoy the freedom to muse upon whatever floats his boat.
So I’m the Last Man Standing. The safest conclusion to draw from this, I think, is that I quickly rose to the level of my incompetence and, against all odds, managed to stay there.
Of course a hell of a lot of water has run beneath the bridge in the past 20 years. When I penned that first column I hadn’t yet met my wife – and as I write this I’m counting down the days until I escort her beautiful daughter, freshly graduated from the University of Wisconsin, down the aisle, where I’ll give her away to a handsome 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Army, an exemplary young man whose last name, concidentally, is Davis. Tempis fugit, indeed.
Needless to say, I’ve reaped any number of rewards from writing this column. It’s opened professional doors, helped get my name on books like To The Point, The Orvis Book of Dogs, and the entire Why Dogs Do That series . . . The list goes on.
By far the best part, though, has been the opportunity it’s given me to meet and spend time with some of the greatest, most accomplished breeders, trainers and all-around dog men of the 20th century. The living legends, the Hall-of-Famers and history-makers on whose shoulders today’s pointer, retriever and spaniel people all stand. To me they embody a Golden Era, a time when giants strode the earth – whether they did it on two legs or four.
There’s also this:
Invariably, the older generation of dog men have much better stories to tell. For example, when Joe DeLoia, the revered professional trainer from Duluth, delivered the future Hall of Fame Labrador retriever Massie’s Sassy Boots to the kennel of Frank Hogan in the late-1940s, he and Hogan got into a dispute over the price that had been quoted for the dog.
How did they settle it? By shooting a round of skeet!
One of DeLoia’s clients was George Murnane, the head of the august investment banking firm Lazard-Frères. (This was back when investment bankers actually cared about making money for their clients, not just lining their own pockets.)
“Mr. Murnane never dialed a phone in his life,” Joe recalled. “He always had his secretary do it.”
Early on, Murnane told DeLoia “When you do something for me at my suggestion or direction, you are my guest portal-to-portal. But understand this: I don’t want you eating wieners and charging me for steak.”
Joe repaid this trust by buying a black Lab puppy on Murnane’s behalf that would become Spirit Lake Duke, a two-time National Retriever Champion.
Then there was Orin Benson, who made his name as a retriever trainer (and is in the Retriever Hall of Fame) but could, and did, train literally any critter he could get his hands on. Bears, otters, wolves, you name it. One year while he was hunting in Wyoming he took a day off and visited some of the watering holes in Sheridan – with a cock pheasant perched on his shoulder like a parrot. He didn’t pay for a drink all day.
At one time Benson had dogs from 31 states in his Wisconsin kennels, and during the off-season he traveled from Boston to L.A. on the sports show circuit. A New York sportswriter, awed at one of Benson’s demonstrations, gushed that his dogs “would bring back anything but a bald man’s hair.” Hollywood royalty beat a path to Benson’s kennel –
Roy Rogers parked his camper in his driveway – but while he had more than a little P.T. Barnum in him, there was steak behind the sizzle. His greatest dog, Black Panther, was for many years the all-time high point field trial retriever, and his success during the formative era of retriever field trials (when British trainers dominated the sport) paved the way for other legendary American-born pros like Cotton Pershall and Charley Morgan.
No one I’ve met embodied more pointing dog history than Earl Crangle. He knew James Avent, Hobart Ames and Nash Buckingham; he competed against the likes of Clyde Morton, Chesley Harris and Jack Harper. When he was only 22 he won the National Pheasant Championship with the pointer Tarheelia’s Lucky Strike (who was later featured on the cover – the cover! – of Life magazine). M.G. Dudley, the owner of the fireball English setter, Hillbright Susanna, gave Earl a check with the payee line left blank and told him that if anyone thought their dog could out-bird “Dot,” he had $1,500 that said they were wrong. There were never any takers.
The great boxing champion Carmen Basilio was one of Crangle’s best friends, and when Basilio fought Sugar Ray Robinson at Yankee Stadium, Earl sat ringside next to Ernest Hemingway and Joe DiMaggio. At the rematch in Chicago a few months later Earl found himself sitting next to Leo Durocher and a guy from Hoboken named Sinatra. Earl trained a hunting dog for Jack Dempsey, and whenever he went into Dempsey’s restaurant near Madison Square Garden, “The Champ” would greet him by name and make sure he got the best table in the house.
It was such a thrill to listen to men like these tell their stories. As someone who’s always felt he was born too late, it was a window onto an all but vanished world.
I was privileged to watch the great spaniel trainer Dave Lorenz handle a dog in competition on one of the last occasions he entered a field trial. He was a hard man to get to talk about his career and his accomplishments, although they spoke eloquently for themselves: four National Springer Championships, 15 National placements overall, 23 Field Champions. After my column on Lorenz appeared, I got a letter from a younger pro who told me that Lorenz – a man he held in awe – had gone out of his way to help him when he was starting out. That’s the kind of class Dave Lorenz had.
Still, no one exemplified class, in every word and deed, like Bob Wehle did. No one hewed to a higher standard as a sportsman and a dog breeder; no one was more generous to those he considered deserving (or had less time for flatterers and bullshit artists).
I treasure the time I spent in Bob’s company, walking puppies (while he flicked his ever-present wing-on-a-string to evaluate their pointing style and intensity), talking about the past, present and future of Elhew Kennels, and simply relaxing in the rustic, cottage-style homes he and his lovely wife, Gatra, shared in Alabama and upstate New York.
There are two honors I’ve received in my lifetime that I’m terribly proud of. One was being asked by Bob to contribute a Preface to his book Snakefoot: The Making of a Champion. The other was being asked by Gatra to speak at Bob’s memorial service. The latter was perhaps the toughest assignment I’ve ever had –nothing I said could have done justice to such a man – but I managed to make it through without breaking down. Then, on the way out (Earl Crangle was with me), we stopped to say goodbye to Snakefoot, and when the old champion tottered out of his kennel and pressed his gray muzzle against the wire, the emotions I’d held in check came out in a flood.
It was the same a couple winters ago when I finally met W.C. Kirk, the trainer and handler of the dog that burns brighter in my imagination than any other: Johnny Crockett, the last English setter to win the National Championship. I’d wanted to meet Mr. Kirk for 40 years – it’s not stretching things to say he was one of my boyhood heroes – and when he opened the door of his home outside Bowie, Texas, and greeted me in his kindly drawl, the words wouldn’t come. I had to turn away, pull a handkerchief from my pocket, and try to compose myself. My eyes, you see, had unaccountably filled with tears.
That’s funny: They’re doing it now, too.
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