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The Percy Roberts Show Dog Collection

By Leandra Little

Click here to read the complete article  Issue - February, 2013 from page 208

Mr. Percy Roberts Judging

Cleveland, a city of nearly 400,000 located on the southern shore of Lake Erie, is the second largest city in Ohio. It is known for Case Western Reserve University, its wonderful Botanical Garden, its museums and of course The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But while some visitors flock to the I.M. Pei designed Mecca of the backbeat to see Jim Morrison’s Cub Scouts uniform or Muddy Waters’1958 Fender Telecaster guitar, others are drawn to a classic building designed by the Cleveland firm of Walker and Weeks. Built in 1925, it is the Main Library. The beautifully renovated landmark houses a treasury of collections including The Dog Collection, over 6,000 volumes on the care and training of dogs, stud books, breed club publications, show catalogs and all sorts of canine related ephemera.

The Library prides itself on the quality and depth of this resource stating “No other public library has so extensive a collection on this subject.” In 2008 it acquired yet another jewel for its crown, The Percy Roberts Show Dog Collection.

The residue of Percy Roberts life had been found moldering in the loft of a barn in Virginia and put up for auction in 2005. The Library acquired it in 2008. Those new to the fancy will not know who Percy Roberts was or why he should be remembered. They will not understand how fortunate the library and we in the fancy are to have some of his effects. But there are still those who remember.

“Legendary,” “In a league of his own,” “Mr. Westminster,” “He did it all,” are just some of the terms used to describe Percy Roberts. He was indeed a legend in his own time, famous as the dog man of his era. He was the consummate professional handler, a dog importer and agent blessed with an impeccable eye. He would ultimately become a sought-after judge. His career spanned over 70 years.

Desi Murphy remembers showing to Roberts in the early ‘60s. “He could be very intimidating. He was a very thin fellow, small mustache, wiry character.” Percy gave Murphy the first points he ever earned on a dog he’d bred himself. Just 13 years-old at the time, Desi was showing his Norwich Terrier puppy Desmond’s First Edition at the Philadelphia Kennel Club when Roberts pointed to him for Winners Dog. Young Desi was so excited he scooped up Duke and raced to receive his ribbon. Percy admonished him, “Young man, this is a terrier. Put him down! You don’t run. You walk.”

There are many who recall etched moments of time like this with Percy Roberts as a prominent figure. He is a leitmotif of the 20th century in dogs, a recurring theme bridging the 19th to the 21st. He knew those who participated in the first years of the fancy and there are many here today like Desi Murphy who knew and learned from this dapper icon. His life span, 1891-1977 links the Victorian to the post-modern.

His personal style was strictly country gentleman. Sports Illustrated writer Robert H. Boyle described his custom-made wardrobe as “given over to paddock boots…odd trousers and checked sport coats with nipped-in waists.” Roberts instructed his tailor to make the pockets extra-large to accommodate a show catalog as well as bait and the odd grooming tool. As he progressed in his career, he enjoyed leading on reporters with various custom personal tales as well.

Robert H. Boyle was told that Roberts was born in Liverpool. Other reporters learned he harkened from London or Wales or Cheshire. Peter Green relates, “A lot of those old judges they used to call him “the Gypsy” because he was from Shropshire which is on the Welsh border and they believed that he had some gypsy blood in him.”

Regardless of where he was born, it is probably true that Percy Roberts’ first employment was with the J.J. Holgate Kennels in Doncaster, a town in South Yorkshire, England. J.J. Holgate was renowned in the canine world at the time as a globe-trotting judge, dealer and breeder. Here Percy honed his natural aptitude, learning from the ground up. He also found a role model.

Although accounts differ on whether he was 12 or 16 at the time he entered Mr. Holgate’s employ, Percy himself is quoted as saying, “I was radiant when he accepted me. It was like going to college. Holgate told me I would learn more from him in six months than I would from anyone else in six years. It was true. I cleaned out the kennel. I exercised the dogs. When I had a spare hour, I learned to trim.”

Once the foundation was firm, Percy lost no time in building on his knowledge. Sent to the US to deliver several poodles to the Misses Lucile Alger and Louisa Grace, the latter of the famous Grace Steamship line, Roberts accepted their offer to work for them. But after a short while, the poodles began to pall, “I was used to a variety kennel. This was poodles, poodles, poodles.”

He then moved to Vickery Kennels in Barrington, Illinois owned by Mrs. Augustus V. Crawford and her nephew, Charles Perrin. It was a truly over-the-top establishment. “When Mrs. Crawford came to visit the dogs on weekends, a red carpet was unrolled for her.”

Roberts stayed at Vickery for two years, leaving to become manager of department store scion Otto Lehman’s kennel in Lake Villa, Illinois. While there he began to suggest the purchase of various dogs he’d read about in the English dog press.

During this time he impressed many with his all-round knowledge. He had a dual talent…he could manage an operation back at the kennel and handle his charges in the ring and on the road while bringing out the best in both. He had a third talent as well: to live frugally. Thus he began to build his bank account. His ambition was to become an independent dog handler, consultant and agent.

Somehow he found the time to court Miss Estelle Finger, too. They were wed in 1917. (According to accounts she was either a grayhound fancier and/or a model but this could be part of Percy’s bonhomie as well.)

What is true is that after World War I he bought land in Noroton Heights, Connecticut, near Darien. Not forgetting Holgate, his early mentor, Percy set out to achieve the same recognition and acclaim; to use his eye for a dog to build his fame and fortune.

He invested the rest of his nest egg in the dog import business. “Holgate sent me an Irish terrier, a whippet and a wire. I sold them all. I realized there was only one kind of dog to deal in: the best. For an enterprising Englishman the U.S. was the place. I started on the big stuff, and I had my pick. The first big deal I had was with Mr. Stanley Halle in 1922. He wanted a wirehaired dog to go with his bitches. I got him the best wire in England, Deykin Surprise. He won five Best-In-Shows here in 10 days. I had a winner advertising for me.”

In 1926 he reached the pinnacle, Best In Show at Westminster, with Signal Circuit of Halleston. Famously, Percy had “just stepped off the boat” from England with the two-and-a-half year-old wire fox terrier. His clients, Mr. And Mrs. Stanley Halle, were delighted as Signal Circuit took the breed over 200 fox terriers and went on to win Best In Show under Judge Winthrop Rutherford whose own smooth fox terrier (Ch. Warren Remedy) had won BIS at Westminster in 1907, ‘08, and ‘09.

Percy did it again the following year with Frederic Brown’s Sealyham terrier, Ch. Pinegrade Perfection, thus helping to popularize a breed which had first been brought to the US in 1911.

Percy Roberts had a winning strategy. Buy low, sell high, then handle the dog he’d imported to fame. Peter Green picks up the story. “He had two people that bought dogs for him year-around and he went once a year. One was named Joe Hitchens in Wales and the other was a guy in Lancashire. They both bought dogs. Throughout the year, they would go to the little dog shows and he’d say, ‘I need Welsh terriers; I need Airedales I need Whippets; I need this’ and they would see a nice one at a small show so they’d buy it for him and then when he came he’d say, ‘all right,’ he’d look at the dogs and he’d say, ‘I want this one, this one; I don’t want that one; this one, this one, this one and so on.”

This proved to be a lucrative arrangement for all involved. Green continues the tale: ‘This fella [one of Roberts’ dog contacts] lived in an old miner’s house. By the end of his career he owned like six houses in a row because he didn’t want any barking. You know he didn’t want anybody to complain so he bought all the houses with all the money he made from selling dogs to Percy.” Roberts concurred. In a 1967 interview he said, “I was money in the bank for him.”

There were many successes over the years. In his role of dog importer and professional handler he was besieged by requests from the rich and famous and those in the know who wished to obtain a winner. It was a time of large kennels, moneyed interests, and outsized personalities. There was fierce competition and great dogs. Desi Murphy reminisces, “Percy was a close friend of my uncle, Johnny Murphy. Percy took him under his wing. He took a liking to my father, too. My father became manager of Mardomere Kennels. They had Whippets and Greyhounds.”

Desi Murphy spent his childhood at Mardomere in Glen Head, L.I. It was the tail-end of the golden age. “There were forty-five full-time employees on that property. You know between the stable, the kennels, the gardens. There were twelve different employee families. I lived there with my parents. My father and two uncles were professional handlers. My grandfather was a breeder of show dogs and it was his brother Tom Murphy that held the all-time Best in Show record in Britain up until maybe just three years ago when the Vizsla, that dog that won Crufts, broke that record. [Sh Ch./Aust. Ch. Hungargunn Bear It ‘N Mind, 2010] Tom’s record was set probably in the late ‘30s or early ‘40s with a Scottie called Heather Realization.”

The crash came in ‘29. Roberts purchased 32 dogs that year. He found himself on the voyage home with thousands of dollars invested in dogs when he got the news. Undaunted, he sold them all but then the Depression took hold and he did not venture abroad again for four years.

Despite an economy still in tatters, Roberts knew he could find buyers for his imports. In 1933 he proceeded to return from England with another great discovery, the wire fox terrier, Flornell Spicy Bit of Halleston. Percy handled her for the Halles to BIS at the Garden in 1934.

In 1935 he became involved with bringing in a fairly new breed just gaining recognition by fanciers, the Norwich Terrier. Looking back, in 1962 he wrote that in the fall of 1935 while in England he received a letter commissioning him to purchase a Norwich Terrier in whelp. Roberts recalled that, “after looking over the exhibits at various shows which I attended, I came to the conclusion that purchasing a bitch in whelp would be too much of a gamble, there being such a diversity of type…”

Instead, he found and purchased a pair of three-month old drop-eared Norwich which he brought over on the Aquitania. After that, he notes that he usually brought a brace back with him on every trip to England, “which had no difficulty in finding owners. All the [Norwich] Terriers I brought over before the war were drop-eared.” He was thus instrumental in establishing this charming, game terrier which was officially recognized by the American Kennel Club in 1936.

He had returned to full swing by that year, coming back on one trip with 25 dogs aboard the Scythia. These included the inimitable Gordon Setter, Barnlake Brutus; the coursing Greyhound, King Son and the white Wire Fox Terrier, Ch. Flornell Spicypiece of Halleston. She rose to victory at the Garden in 1937. There were 3,140 dogs entered that year. Once again Percy Roberts had come through for Stanley Halle and for himself. His name would be forever etched in the annals of dog show history. When interviewed by Walter Fletcher, the eminent dog writer for The New York Times, Roberts stated that she was the greatest dog or bitch he’d ever handled.

In the 1940s it was the Whippet bitch, Ch. Flornell Glamorous. Mrs. Anderson had given Roberts an order for a dog rather than a bitch and as Roberts recollected, he thought to dissuade her. He telephoned and said, “I’ve got a sweet bitch that will do a lot of winning when she’s ready.” She was duly imported and sold at nine months to Mardomere. Just six months later Glamorous debuted with Percy on the other end of the lead at the Rhode Island KC show winning the breed and promptly going on to win the Hound Group. Ultimately she became the all time greatest whippet, winning 21 Bests in Show but she did not win BIS at Westminster.

This was a time when global events again overtook the fancy. World War II turned minds and hearts elsewhere. Gas rationing and travel restrictions affected the show world here in the US; many shows were simply not held. Overseas, the toll on the dogs of Great Britain put an end to many dreams. Whole kennels were put down due to food shortages. Some never recovered and afterward things were not the same for Roberts either. Holgate was dead as was another of Roberts’ best sources, terrier man, Jim Parkington. Times had changed. He was in his mid-fifties and looking toward the logical next step in his career. He set about becoming a judge starting with match shows.

In 1948 he judged the first post-war Norwich Terrier Club’s match and as soon as he was awarded his AKC license he judged that Club’s Specialty. He was recognized as one of the breed’s mentors and aficionados flocked to get his opinion.

In 1951 he retired as a handler, dealer and kennel consultant. His last show was the Eastern Dog Club show in Boston. Ironically, he had shown his first dogs in the U.S. at the same show in 1914.

It is impossible to count his triumphs but the most prestigious of his laurels must no doubt be the four Best in Show wins at Westminster (an unequaled record until Peter Green won his fourth in 1998). And until Peter Green no one else has had such a swift transition from handling to judging. In short order he was the most famous, most in-demand judge in the world. Roberts was voted Judge of the Year in 1951 and 1952 by his peers, an honor which could only be won twice. He related to Robert Boyle that as a judge he retained his sharp buyer’s eye. “When I step into the ring, I have the idea that the handlers are trying to sell the dogs to me. I buy the best.”

In 1967, he was invited to judge Best in Show at Westminster. Walter Fletcher of The New York Times wrote of the scene. John W. Cross Jr., the committee chairman and former client came in person to tell him the news. “Cross said, ‘Percy, the Westminster Kennel Club would like to offer you the invitation to judge Best in Show in February 1967.’ Very moved, Roberts mumbled, “Of course, Mr. Cross, of course.’ There was a pause, and Cross, preparing to leave, said ‘Percy, the club will be very happy to know of your acceptance.’ Percy Roberts pulled himself together and said softly, ‘This is the climax to a career.”

Roberts judged almost to the end of his life. Some might say he should not have.

Judge Stephen Hurt, however, comments, “It was sad at the end but he could tell more blind than most people who can see.”

After his death in 1977, Joan Read wrote in a touching obituary for the national Norwich Terrier Club, “As an agent, handler and judge, Percy Roberts brought artistry, knowledge and respect to that far from kingly sport, the dog show.”

But the story does not end with Roberts’ passing. Where does the evidence of a lifetime of achievement go once the applause dies down? Once the lights dim? Once the life is lived? For uninterested family members, it is only clutter. It is scooped up and deposited in boxes, given away or tossed out…so much debris imposing on the living. Percy’s world was forgotten, his memorabilia left to the vicissitudes of time.

What had not been dispersed languished for nearly thirty years in the haymow of a Virginia barn, having migrated there along with one of Percy’s daughters. When the farm fell into the hands of developers after her death the boxed memories had to be cleared out. Descendants put his show-world effects up for auction.

In June 2005, husband and wife dealers tendered the highest bid and were able to take possession of the array. When they opened the boxes they found photographs, correspondence, diaries and ephemera including a presentation book highlighting his career.

Titled This Is Your Life it was bestowed at the President’s dinner at the Blackpool Championship show. By this time, Percy had been judging for many years. A small portion reads, “Probably no one knows the full story of your life except yourself but what you have accomplished in dogs is common knowledge…how from modest beginnings you built up a reputation as the top professional handler in the United States is now a matter of history.” This was but one small leaf in the annals. There were hundreds of photographs spanning seven decades and his priceless diaries. One notation: “Recipe for a Norwich Terrier.” There were marked catalogs and folders of personal correspondence, much of it entreating Roberts to find a dog or puppy of breed X to bring back for show or to be bred. It was a time capsule documenting Percy Roberts’ life in dogs.

Intrigued, the couple researched, archived and sleuthed. Who was this obviously famous man? Why was he now so obscure? At the same time they began organizing the material for sale and seeking a buyer. These efforts took over a year.

It was at about this time that writer and fancier Kerrin Winter Churchill in researching another story happened upon the up-for-sale collection—asking price $100,000. She appreciated what she had stumbled upon but knew finding the funds would be a challenge.

She also began to form a friendship. “I ended up talking to the dealers for about a month. They had one buyer in Australia but they would have broken it up and it would have been sold piecemeal.” Ultimately she got the dealers to reduce their price. Percy had won them over, too. After their many conversations with Kerrin, they had become concerned that the collection be safeguarded.

But who would underwrite the expense? Kerrin recounts, “I felt like Scarlet O’Hara trying to figure out a way to pay the taxes on Tara….I made cold calls, planned fundraisers and spoke daily with the Virginia dealers. They gave me two more weeks to raise the $9,000 they needed to cover their costs. With two days left and no closer to a solution, I called a friend to lament. To my surprise she offered to loan me what I needed with the instruction to, ‘Just go and get it before it’s too late!” Ms. Churchill had found her angel. The collection was hers. The next step was to find it a permanent home.

Enter The Western Reserve Kennel Club. For years this Club has made it part of its mission to support the Cleveland Public Library’s Dog Collection with an annual donation. The Club also has been instrumental in alerting the Library to possible new acquisitions. Mrs. Ann Yuhasz heads the library committee. “Kerrin Churchill came to me and told me that she had acquired the collection, that she felt it should be preserved and that it would be a good fit for the Library’s Dog Collection.” Ann immediately grasped the importance of the Roberts’ memorabilia. She suggested Kerrin write up a proposal that could then be taken to the Western Reserve KC. While the Club could not actually buy the collection, it could certainly advocate for its acquisition by the Library with whom it had a long-standing relationship.

With the WRKC’s endorsement, the Library’s Manager of the Science and Technology Department, Jean Piety, recognized that this would be an important addition to its special collections. Funds were approved and the collection was purchased in January 2008. Kerrin Winter Churchill’s silent angel (who is not a Western Reserve Kennel Club member) was repaid and deserves the collective gratitude of all who are interested in the history of dogs. She is an unsung heroine.

With its thousands of volumes, the Cleveland Public Library’s Dog Collection rivals the American Kennel Club’s library in New York City as the premier resource for dog writers, researchers and historians. It is nothing short of a miracle that much of Percy Roberts recorded life in dogs has come to rest there and will be preserved.

The final lesson for fanciers who have spent a lifetime assembling collections of books, artwork, records and memorabilia is to make plans about how and where those effects should be lodged. The neglected reaches of a dusty barn is not the place.

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Posted by on Mar 27 2013. Filed under Current Articles, Featured. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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