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Robert Slay: The Consummate Gentleman

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120 – March, 2020

By Joan Harrigan

When he entered Westminster’s Best in Show ring in February, judge Robert Slay of Cary, North Carolina was thinking not just of the splendid dogs arrayed before him—but also of all the legendary dogs and handlers who have come before.

He speaks enthusiastically of Westminster’s history. It all began in 1877, at Gilmore’s Garden in New York. Even then, it was an international event drawing the best in purebred dogs. “There were 1,201 entries,” he says. “General Custer’s staghounds and deerhounds bred by the Queen of England were shown. In 1889, the Czar of Russia owned one of the entries! Judging Best in Show at Westminster is the biggest honor and privilege in my life in dogs. I can’t think of anything I would rather do than this assignment.”

Slay spent his early years on a family farm in Wayne County, Mississippi; his parents moved to the “city” (population: 3,800) when he was 13. “I was the youngest of five children,” Slay says. “And there was quite an age gap between my siblings and me—my older sister graduated from college the year I was born. I think I may have been a surprise.” With his father and brothers, Slay enjoyed bird hunting; his introduction to the dog world were the pointers and setters kept as hunting dogs.

After graduating from the University of Southern Mississippi, Slay went to work at Yosemite National Park in California, where he’d also worked each summer during college. “I waited tables for room and board and a small salary,” Slays says. “Lots of students wanted jobs like this, and never had the chance—it was one of the best experiences of my life.”

However, Slay had graduated during the Vietnam War and knew that his options were limited: “sit still” and be drafted, or join the branch of his choice as an officer. For Slay, the choice was clear, and he left Yosemite to attend Naval Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island. It was a quite a transition for the southern-born Slay: ““I never saw the ground the whole time I was there—there was that much snow!” He came out of OCS as an ensign, and spent the next five years on active duty. His first assignment was to an aircraft carrier, the USS Lexington, stationed in Pensacola, Florida. During the two years he was on the Lexington, the ship was never in combat, as it was used as a training ground for new pilots learning to land on a carrier and experienced pilots qualifying for night landings. From Pensacola, Slay was sent to Charleston, South Carolina, where he spent the rest of his active duty as part of the 6th Naval District Intelligence Unit.

“We Were Lucky”

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120 – March, 2020

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