Fifty years ago, with a simple quip, Ross Smith helped put Petaluma on the map and taught a generation that all dogs are worth loving.
Smith, who is widely credited with creating the famous World’s Ugliest Dog contest, died May 24 in Sacramento, where he had lived for the past few years after spending most of his life in Petaluma. He was 91 years old.
It was Smith who, at an Old Adobe Association barbecue in 1971, floated an idea that would turn into a contest that regularly garners international attention.
Members of Petaluma’s Old Adobe Association, which for years maintained Vallejo’s Petaluma Adobe at Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park, were thinking of a new way to generate revenue.
“We were sitting around talking and we all agreed that the Pet Parade never got a lot of response,” Smith recalled in a 2017 interview with the Argus-Courier. “Someone suggested that we have a dog contest instead, and I said we should have an ugly dog contest. Everyone jumped at that idea.
From humble roots, including a $3 entry fee, the contest would capture global attention over the decades. Now, winners can expect $1,000 scholarships and interviews with national media.
Smith, described by a close friend as a bit of a perfectionist, nurtured the program in its early days, hosting the event until 1981 and even persuading famed sculptor Petaluma Rosa Estebanez to commemorate the contest with a status that still resides in Sonoma- Marine. Fairgrounds, which has hosted the program since 1988.
Smith, who was also an avid fisherman, regularly leading trips up the northern California coast, was nonetheless best known for his role in creating the world’s ugliest dog contest. And friends said he still lights up at the occasion to talk about it years later.
“Every time I saw him for the past two decades, he always talked about some of the ugly dogs,” said Fred Schram, former president of the Old Adobe Association. “Everyone loves the contest.”
Schram said he was the director of the Petaluma Chamber of Commerce as the contest first started, and he recalled receiving ‘crazy phone calls’ from all over the world asking him questions. about this strange event.
The early days, Schram said, had many strange entries — dogs with missing limbs, deformities.
“That’s what changed everything,” he said. “It became a movement to protect animals that…were really someone’s friends, but were, in fact, ugly.”
Former Petaluma City Councilman Brian Sobel has served as a judge for the pageant for each of the past 10 years and said he met Smith once but always kept him in mind in the judgment.
“It all started, of course, with a joke about a contest judging dogs ugly,” Sobel said. “In my 10 or so years judging the contest, I have always kept its basic premise in my head.”
Smith, who was born July 9, 1929, is survived by daughters Lesley James, 66, of Sacramento, and Andrea Fisher, 70, of Illinois. His wife Shirley Smith died of leukemia in 1997. And his longtime girlfriend, Elvira Hileman, whom James called “the love of his life”, died a few years ago.
For the past few years, Smith had lived with James in Sacramento and remained in top form, building a greenhouse in James’ backyard last year and diving for abalone at the age of 88.
“At 88, he could hit his abalone limit in one breath,” James said. “He had incredible breath control. And then a few years later, he was out of breath and dizzy.
Smith, an electronics technician who always had a project going on in the big family workshop, was also involved in another Petaluma staple: wrist wrestling. He built a special mat with sensors that can detect if the elbows have come off the mat, James said.
“He could fix almost anything that broke; he could fix a car, rewire a house, he could fix the plumbing,” she said. “Pretty much anything you could name he could fix.”
James said Smith had no idea the world’s ugliest dog contest would take off the way it did, saying he originally intended it to be something largely for children.
“He was trying to, oh, sort of channel Mark Twain, in a way,” James said. “That kind of feeling – small town and idyllic.”
Tyler Silvy is editor of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. Reach him at [email protected], 707-776-8458, or @tylersilvy on Twitter.