Ross Smith, creator of World’s Ugliest Dog competition, dies at 91
Fifty years ago, with a simple quip, Ross Smith helped put Petaluma on the map and taught a generation that all dogs deserve love.
Smith, who is widely credited with creating the famed World’s Ugliest Dog contest, died May 24 in Sacramento, where he had lived for the past several years after spending most of his life in Petaluma. He was 91.
It was Smith who, during an Old Adobe Association barbecue in 1971, let fly an idea that would morph into a contest that regularly garners international attention.
Members of Petaluma’s Old Adobe Association, which for years kept Vallejo’s Petaluma Adobe running at Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park, were puzzling over a new way to generate revenue.
“We were sitting around talking, and we all agreed that the pet parade never got much response,” Smith recalled in a 2017 interview with the Argus-Courier. “Someone suggested that we hold a dog contest instead, and I piped up that we should hold an ugly dog contest. Everyone jumped all over that idea.”
From humble roots, including a $3 registration fee, the contest would capture global attention as the decades wore on. Now, winners can expect $1,000 purses and interviews with national news outlets.
Smith, described by one close friend as a bit of a perfectionist, nurtured the program along in its infancy, emceeing the event until 1981 and even persuading famous Petaluma sculptor Rosa Estebanez to memorialize the contest with a statute that still resides at the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds, which has hosted the program since 1988.
Smith, who was also an avid fisherman, regularly leading excursions up the Northern California coast, was nevertheless known best for his role in creating the World’s Ugliest Dog Contest. And friends said he still lit up at the opportunity to talk about it years later.
“Every time I saw him these last couple of decades he would always talk about some of the ugly dogs,” said Fred Schram, a past president of the Old Adobe Association. “Everybody loves the contest.”
Schram said he was the Petaluma Chamber of Commerce manager as the contest was first getting off the ground, and he recalled getting “crazy phone calls” from all over the world asking about the weird event.
The early days, Schram said, featured a lot of odd entries – dogs with missing limbs, deformities.
“That’s what turned it all around,” he said. “It became a movement to protect the animals that…were really somebody’s friend, but were, in fact, ugly.”
Former Petaluma City Council member Brian Sobel has served as a judge for the contest in each of the past 10 years, and said he met Smith once, but always keeps him top of mind in judging.
“He of course started it all with a joke about a contest judging ugly dogs,” Sobel said. “In my 10 years or so judging the contest, I have always kept his basic premise in my head.”
Smith, who was born July 9, 1929, leaves behind daughters Lesley James, 66, of Sacramento, and Andrea Fisher, 70, of Illinois. His wife Shirley Smith died of Leukemia in 1997. And longtime girlfriend Elvira Hileman, whom James called “the love of his life,” died a few years ago.
For the past several years, Smith had lived with James in Sacramento, and had remained in top shape, building a greenhouse in James’ backyard last year and diving for abalone when he was 88.
“At 88, he could get his limit of abalone in one breath,” James said. “He had incredible breath control. And then just a few years later, he was gasping for air and getting dizzy spells.”
Smith, an electronics technician who always had a project going in the family’s large workshop, was also involved in another Petaluma staple – wrist wrestling. He built a special mat with sensors that could detect whether elbows had come off the mat, James said.
“He could fix almost anything that broke; he could fix a car, rewire a house, he could fix plumbing,” she said. “Just about 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, kind 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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 707-776-8458, or @tylersilvy on Twitter.