One of my favorite aspects of being part of purebred dogs is remembering the people who inspired me, when I was young, to continue in the sport.
As a kid who grew up around the Terrier rings, of course there were lots of great Terrier men who were inspiring, but there was one woman that I really admired who duked it out with the “old boys’ network” in Terriers every weekend and often enough came away the victor.
I’d be surprised if you could find a single Terrier person who knew Dora Lee Wilson that didn’t think well of her. She was among the first women who set out to be successful in the big rings as a Terrier handler and succeeded, a daunting task in the 1960s and ‘70s, when Terriers ruled the rings and the likes of George Ward, Cliff Hallmark, Ric Chashoudian, Peter Green and Bobby Fisher, and shortly after Eddie Boyes, Dan Sackos, Michael Kemp, Wood Wornall and Clay Coady, among others, were tough competitors and even tougher to beat.
From their home and kennel in Joplin, Mo., Dora Lee traveled to shows, primarily in the Midwest, with her husband, Wendell. He worked like the most devoted assistant, leaving it to Dora Lee to be the star. She was so unassuming that it’s a wonder she did as well as she did in the Terrier rings, but Dora Lee and Wendell were what you might call just plain “good people.” They were hard workers and good trimmers, Dora Lee did a thoughtful job of handling, and she was honest and straightforward as a competitor and businesswoman. Maybe most importantly, she was always a lady. That combination spelled success.
I was so fortunate to work for Dora Lee at a handful of shows in my late teens, when she came for some of the big Texas shows. They’d carry a big load of Terriers, and I was lucky to be one of their helpers. Wendell, although one of the nicest guys you’d ever hope to meet and a man who laughed often, was an exacting taskmaster and never easy to please when it came to getting the dogs ready for Dora Lee to show. Dora Lee, on the other hand, was a kind and patient teacher, always with a gentle smile and a complimentary word when it was warranted.
Dora Lee showed all the Terriers, but there were a couple that I remember in particular. The Welsh Terrier, Ch. Golden Oak Jim Royal, was bred by Dora Lee and Wendell. He was owned by Susan FitzWilliam Lawrence, in California, and she owner-handled him to some nice wins, then returned him to Dora Lee for a campaign. In three years, beginning in May 1970, ‘Jim’ won 28 Best in Shows to become the top-winning Welsh Terrier of all time, a record he held until the end of the decade. Jim’s best year was 1971, when he won 46 Groups and 17 Bests – the best winning record for a Welsh to that date – and won the “Kennel Ration Award” for Top Terrier. In 1979 the bitch, Ch. Copperboots Wee Blaste, won her 29th Best in Show, handled by Clay Coady to break Jim’s record.
I was just an adolescent when Dora Lee showed Jim Royal and not at all savvy about who the top dogs were, but I read about him in the dog magazines and I thought he was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Eventually, when I was a teenager, my mother let me have a puppy by him, a daughter that I called ‘Wendy,’ after Wendell. She was the first Terrier I ever really learned anything about trimming on, and she was among the best little dogs I ever remember having.
But the most famous of the Terriers Dora Lee showed was the magnificent English import Westie, Eng. Am. Ch. Ardenrun Andsome of Purston. ‘Andy,’ owned by Dr. Alvaro Hunt, won the Group at the Garden in 1975 and Best in Show at Montgomery County in 1976. What you notice when you look at the list of Montgomery County BIS winners from the first show in 1929 is that in its first 50 years only two women handled the Best in Show winner: Jane Kamp (later Forsyth) in 1966 with the Farrell’s Smooth, Ch. Foremark Ebony Box of Foxden, and Dora Lee 10 years later with Andy.
The Westie’s win at the Garden in 1975 was significant as well, primarily due to the brutal competition. Peter Green and the Wire Fox Terrier, Ch. Sunnybrook Spot On, had won the Group the year before. Ric Chashoudian had the Lakeland Terrier, Ch. Jo-Ni’s Red Baron of Crofton. But judge Peter Thomson awarded first to the Westie, second to the Lakeland, third to the Spot On and fourth to the Ch. Melbee’s Feeling Groovy, the Kerry handled by Eddie Boyes.
Interestingly, the following year the first two places were reversed. Anne Rogers Clark gave the Westminster Terrier Group in 1976 to the Lakeland, Red Baron, who went on to Best in Show. Andy and Dora Lee were second, Peter Green handled the phenomenal Sealyham, Ch. Dersade Bobby’s Girl to third, and Feeling Groovy was again fourth. That was only the second time I had ever been to the Garden.
It was the late 1980s when Dora Lee decided to retire from handling. One of my fellow assistants when I worked for Houston and Toddie Clark, Mary Beth Brown, was then my roommate, and we went to visit the Wilsons in Joplin. Mary and I were both contemplating showing dogs for a living at the time, and Dora Lee offered to let us work from her kennel, teach us to trim a few more Terriers than we’d had experience with, and perhaps take some of her clients.
We eventually decided not to move to Missouri, for reasons that I don’t remember now. Sometimes I wish I had gone on to Joplin and spent a few years learning from Dora Lee. But while we were visiting them that weekend in Joplin, we met and spent an evening with a couple of Dora Lee and Wendell’s grown children and their families, playing board games, as I remember it, long into the night. There was lots of laughter, and lots of kindness, in Dora Lee and Wendell’s home. Yes, I guess it was that combination that contributed to her success as a woman in a man’s world.
True enough it wasn’t long before women stormed the Terrier world in greater numbers and began to win their share against the men. In the late ‘70s and the 1980s, Maripi Wooldridge, Bergit Coady (now Kabel), Margery Good, Sally George and Susie DePew (now Kipp) followed Dora Lee’s lead, and before we knew it the gender gap in the Terrier rings was all but closed. Dora Lee certainly helped set the stage for women to be successful in the Terrier rings.
Dora Lee judged after she retired from handling, and I was happy to show Cairns to someone I knew was so knowledgeable. But it didn’t last long enough. Dora Lee passed away in 1995, in her mid 60s. It’s a shame, for the Terrier world, that she wasn’t around longer to share her knowledge, her fairness and her goodness. I’m so fortunate that I got to know her. She’s one of my all-time favorite dog people.