Gold-Rush Charlie's Show Career -
Contributing to Breed History

June 11, 2000

In the early seventies my husband and I used to read Walter Fletcher㠣olumn, which appeared in the New York Times, with great interest because it often mentioned the remarkable wins of our Golden Retriever, Charlie. I wrote Mr. Fletcher a letter about his column, and recently came across that letter, which was never mailed, but which contained a history of Charlie. I thought it might be interesting to rewrite that letter for readers with an interest in the history of the breed.

The story of Gold-Rush Charlie is a Cinderella story that I楠had the unique experience of actually living. I often wonder if readers would like to know how this top winning Golden ever came to achieve that status. It is a story that demonstrates how a great dog can achieve his rightful place in history, and I think it should serve to remind the fancy that the impossible dream of owning and guiding a great dog to his deserved Best-in-Show record is potentially not beyond one㠧rasp. The limiting factor is always the dog, but the human element is part of the equation, too.

We bought Charlie at the tender age of five and a half weeks. Immediately, anyone who knows anything about puppies knows that we were incredibly lucky that day. But it was not all luck. Charlie was one of a litter of twelve owned by Dr. and Mrs. Lynn H. Cummings. His dam was their great foundation bitch Am. Can. Ch. Cummings Golden Princess. They bought her as a puppy from the Cragmount Kennels, which had produced some of the top winning Goldens in the 1960s, and, indeed, Princess was directly descended from these dogs. Charlie's father, Ch. Sunset Happy Duke, owned by the Cronheims, was a son of Ch. Cragmount's Peter. Duke had already become famous as a great producer by siring the top winning golden in 1970, Misty Morn's Sunset, the winner of 15 groups. The Cummingsвincess was a double first cousin to Misty Morn's Sunset, so there was evidence that this breeding would produce good dogs. The breeding was basically an outcross but combined all the great winning Cragmount dogs. A second factor that was not one of happenstance was this: The Cummings maintained their dogs in top-notch condition, and the early environment of the puppies was superb. We saw this litter for the first time at four weeks and the quality was obvious. In 10 days we returned and picked out Charlie. Of the 6 males, we selected one that was middle of the road in size and was flawless and had the best coat. Little did we know that the promise we saw in that puppy would blossom beyond our greatest expectations.

From the moment we left with baby Charlie, it seemed to us that we had something special. In the early days it was not only his cute furry body and bright face but his open, happy disposition that amazed us. Having raised many litters of puppies through the years, from mongrels to champion sired German shepherds, we expected some crying, some fearfulness of new surroundings. Charlie to the contrary: His first night alone in his new home was peaceful. He greeted us in the morning with a wagging tail and a moist kiss. So, Charlie grew up with our old Shepherd, our older female Golden Retriever, and our two boys, ages 12 and 6, in an old house with a 1/8 acre lot in the center of Princeton. A common enough beginning that certainly did not predict what was to come.

As I look back it seems to me that we spent most of Charlie㠦irst year just admiring this dog. While other families watch TV while enjoying a second cup of coffee in the morning, we would enjoy watching this beautiful growing puppy. He always exhibited a natural poise that we never grew tired of watching. He was the center of our family life, and I find it difficult to explain to those who have never experienced it how a dog can be loved as much as Charlie was. I think it begins when a dog is excellent in body and spirit so that one realizes how grand he is and then it grows with experience much as a family loves a new child born to that family. We enjoyed Charlie to the point that we could enjoy nothing without him. Every trip, every vacation was planned as to whether Charlie would like it. We went North in the Summer where it was cold, and camped where Charlie could swim. We always felt it was he who was enriching our lives for he made everything fun and exciting. We adored him and he flourished in our family㠬ove.

People ask us when we first knew what we had in Charlie. 沯m the beginning,ɠanswer. But we did not know in the beginning that there were no others like him. I first realized this when Charlie was a little over a year and my older son and I decided to go into New York City to watch the 1971 Westminster show. I remember my disappointment that I found no other Golden there that was as handsome as Charlie. From that day on I have personally felt the weight of responsibility. It has changed my life. We reported our experience to my husband, and we began for the first time to seriously consider showing Charlie. Our first step was the Princeton Dog Training Club for some basic obedience. For the first time in his life, Larry began the difficult job of teaching himself how to train a dog. Charlie never did manage the long sits and downs, but it reinforced our opinion of Charlie as a born showman for he enjoyed every minute and the noise and confusion of obedience school, and Larry began to build his own self confidence. Charlie graduated only as the class favorite, and I remember the instructor㠣onsoling remark䨡t Charlie was at least the best looking Golden he had ever had. He did not know, Iure, how true that statement was.

Meanwhile, I was continuing my search through pedigrees, yearbooks, etc. to enlighten myself as to where Charlie㠧reat qualities were coming from. He had the best of all his ancestors, the lucky collection of all their best traits, the fortunate happenstance whereby the best traits all came together both quantitatively and qualitatively, advancing the breed to a higher level. It was the purpose of our research not only to understand where Charlie㠧reat qualities came from but also to purchase an outstanding bitch to breed to him. We were keenly aware of the lack of quality in our first Golden Retriever female. She was ultimately spayed and given away to a lovely family, for the thought of diluting Charlie㠧enes with hers was not acceptable. But our search for a quality bitch was becoming frustrating. We were spoiled by Charlie and everything paled in contrast to him. So we looked and looked and bought nothing. Then in April 1971, I answered an ad Janet Bunce had placed in the New York Times with regard to a litter for sale. She told me it would be a good idea to come to the Long Island Golden Retriever Specialty Match and see her puppies there. I told her I had a male and asked if I could bring him. She replied, 稹 not?ӯ we arrived early and walked about looking at all the puppies and dogs. My heart began to quicken as we realized Charlie was beyond compare. We met Mrs. Bunce and, as she tells us to this day, she knew instantly that Charlie was going to be the BIM winner. Sure enough. With the noted judge and breeder of Goldens, Richard Beckwith, doing the judging, Charlie went all the way. It must be remembered that this was Larry㠦irst real experience at handling. He was a complete novice and Charlie was full of spirit. It was difficult for any novice and doubly difficult to win. Thrilling, of course, but painful in not knowing how to react. After that day we realized we had met a wonderful friend and advisor in Janet Bunce, and much of Charlie㠳uccess we owe to her excellent advice and encouragement, as has been her wise counsel ever since, both to us and others and to the world of Goldens. The following week, Janet phoned to say she wanted to breed her famous champion bitch to Charlie. How many breeders have Janet㍊ ability to recognize a great dog without needing the supported reinforcement of that opinion by having the word champion before that dog㠮ame before they will use him at stud! From that first litter of Charlie㠷e selected our next Golden Retriever, who became Charlie㠦irst champion daughter.

Janet also suggested we go to the Kennelworth K C All-Breed match in Connecticut the next weekend, where the noted English judge and author of a magnificent book on Goldens (Joan Tudor) was judging. We made the trip and Charlie, who was still much more than my husband could handle, was placed BOB by Mrs. Tudor. He went on to win the Sporting Group and BIM. It was an exciting day, really too exciting, combined with a delightful dinner for Joan Tudor at the home of Harriet Hunt. A wonderful way to be introduced to the dog show world. Our third and last match was that of the Garden State Golden Retriever Specialty. Charlie made it a triple crown and went all the way again. Larry was green but Charlie was ready. Charlie was entered in the American Bred class at Bucks County and Trenton. He won his class one day and was second the next. Charlie was obviously outstanding but Larry was still fumbling, stumbling and . . . groan, what pain he suffered.

We remember the remark Mrs. Malcolm MacNaught (Marshgrass Kennels) made to Larry when she saw Charlie that day in Connecticut: 㨡rlie is a great dog but as your handler you are his worst enemy.¯oks helped some. We practiced. But we had so much ground to cover. Larry and Charlie traveled to handling class. The instructor, Bob Stebbins, said to just persevere, so we did. Charlie was entered in Open class. He was never out of the ribbons; he usually won, but not always. The days when we lost, we knew why. The dog was great, but we were not ready. In spite of our failings, we persevered and took him on vacation on the New England circuit. Charlie swam in the icy mountain streams every afternoon to reward him for standing in the broiling heat in the ring in the morning. And soon, Charlie was a champion, and it was a marvelous family vacation we all experienced.

Well, there we were, August of 籬 Charlie still not two and a champion and more than that, we were convinced he was the best. So, we decided to continue, but to limit his showing to no more than two shows per month because we had our own careers in academics, which were demanding too. Still, we were striving to improve Larry㠨andling abilities.

The intrigue was also growing. Long before we realized Charlie㠴rue potential as a top dog, we were startled by the steady stream of slanderous stories that were being reported to us. Once, a reporter called to say he had been told that Charlie walked on three legs. How funny in retrospect. Yet surely one of the saddest aspects of the dog show game, then and since.

And Charlie kept winning. Not always. The Top Golden in those days was no poor specimen himself, winning some seven BIS in his career. Now and then Charlie would come out on top, as he did at Philadelphia, and here and there would be a group placement. Larry was still a nervous handler, but we were content that we were doing well enough. And many handlers were very encouraging. I remember Martha Covington Thorne explaining to Mrs. Warwick, in Larry㠤efense, that Larry was really improving and had come a long way and as a judge she should not be angered by the fact that Larry didn䠴ake the lead off, as she had directed him to do at the Philadelphia Dog Show, for Charlie really would have left the ring. Nevertheless, Mrs. Warwick had then given Charlie Best of Breed anyway. Yes, we were very grateful.

Then in the Spring we planned another circuit vacation. We traveled to Texas, our home state, and attended five of the ten shows on the Texas circuit. Between shows we visited a cousin in Houston, stayed with our parents in Ft. Worth, or vacationed on Padre Island. Charlie won his first group at Corpus Christi after spending all of the previous day swimming in the surf off Padre Island. Because we were camping on the beach, Charlie was shown full of salt and sand. But he looked grand. Mrs. Van Court 䩳coveredèarlie that day and took him all the way. She certainly played a determining role in Charlie㠦uture, going out on a limb for an unknown owner-handled dog. It was a milestone for Larry, too, and I was equally proud of him as his handling ability improved to another, higher level of proficiency, definitely more polished than in the early days. So we finished our March excursion undefeated in Best of Breed and with a Group One.

As the end of Spring approached in that year of 1973 and into the early summer, Charlie was entered in more shows, and did some winning, and Larry had improved greatly. But we felt we were holding Charlie back, and this was not Larry㠰rofession. Real success, we felt, would still be a long-way off. We were growing impatient, continuing to feel the handicap of the lack of a top-notch handler on the dog. So, we turned to a handler we had admired so much along the way: Bill Trainor. Would he handle Charlie at the Eastern Regional Specialty to be held in conjunction with the N. Shore Kennel Club Show in June? He agreed. We knew Charlie should win. We also knew that Bill did not yet realize all that Charlie was, which was part of our fun. Charlie came to the show with us and slept in our VW camper on the show grounds. Bill was very busy showing his other dogs and Charlie had only been groomed by us, so Bill still had to groom him. We went to the ring to watch and BOB was well under way. Where was Bill? Our friends were asking,稥re㍊ Charlieinally Bill and Charlie appeared over the hill. A sigh of relief. But it was very late. The judge had completed going over every dog, and Charlie could have been refused to be allowed in the ring. Emotions ran high. There was a pause and finally a nod to Bill to enter the ring. The judge, Louis Muir, immediately recognized what he had in his hands. He looked at Charlie and immediately pulled him to the head of the line next to Bob Stebbins, who had the current number one Golden. The judging began all over again. He went over and over the two dogs. Moved one, then the other. Back and forth. It was as if they were the only two dogs in the ring. We held our breath. Louis Muir did not want to make a mistake. Finally Charlie was the winner. The crowd screamed. The underdog had won. A wonderful moment. Great for Charlie. Great for his fans, who believed in him and helped him along the road. But Charlie was not yet through. He then won the Group, and then, Best in show. A small group of supporters was there, Mary Cummings and the Peppers, to watch this Golden bring top honors for the Specialty Club.

That day was a turning point in our minds. Charlie was the greatest. With Larry, it had been an uphill struggle to reach this point. With Bill, there seemed to be no limit. Now, we had people interested in buying Charlie. But what was the answer? We had never been separated from this dog. We firmly believed his beauty belonged to the breed and his light must not be hidden under a bushel. But could we finance a campaign? Our oldest son was only a year away from entering Princeton, and that would be a great expense. We agonized over the decision. We just couldn䠳ell Charlie. Nor could we suppress the momentum of Charlie㍊ career that seemed to have a life of its own. Finally we agreed, with the help of Bill Trainor and Connie Barton, that Mrs. R. V. Clark of Middleburg, Virginia, would co-own Charlie with us. We would continue his campaign with Bill handling exclusively, but only as long as all parties, including Charlie, were happy with the agreement. A perfect solution. But still we were letting Charlie out of our control, and it was a tearful journey we made to Massachusetts to deliver Charlie to Bill. In retrospect, how silly of us. Charlie was even happier for his experiences with Bill. Far better than to spend his life in boredom waiting alone for his family to return from school or work.

From then on Charlie㠣areer skyrocketed: highest scoring dog on the Bermuda circuit; highest scoring dog on the Florida circuit; Best-in-Show and more Best-in-Shows. Finishing the year not only number one Golden Retriever but even number one Sporting Dog, a record that stands even today; and he also set all the other breed records, which stood for twenty years. And he was still our special puppy, the delightful dog he always was. So you see why we were, and are, grateful, and why we always said that we楠been blessed. All that was done by Charlie was not done for us but was done for the commitment to excellence upon which the sport of showing dogs is based, to place the best on top.

There is usually a way for a truly excellent dog to achieve what he deserves. As Bill Trainor liked to say, ፊ dog like Charlie comes along only once every twenty-five years.͹ husband and I were not in any way special people; we were not wealthy and not gifted in the show world, nor did we make friends easily and influence people. But Charlie was and did. And we nurtured well the gift we had been given, and did not at all stand in his way. Perhaps Mrs. MacNaught might have come to see that we weren䠃harlie㠷orst enemy after all, but her comment was well taken and helped us see what needed to be done. There are many who contributed to the record Charlie achieved: Bill Trainor, of course, and his assistants Eliott Moore and Mark Threlfall; Mrs. Clark and her manager at the time, Connie Barton; and many others. The dog world owes so much to all of them, for were it not for the support of each one of them Charlie would never have been known to the world today. There is no substitute for quality, and when quality exists, there are often ways for it to find a way to the Top. Perhaps Charlie㠳tory will be an inspiration to those who also aspire to make the journey.

R. Ann Johnson


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