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David Grubb — In Memoriam

By Gerry MacKenzie | Feb 06, 2020

McLeansboro, Ill. — To write a piece such as this is an unenviable task. Yet it is one that I feel obligated to complete for several reasons.

Among them is, first and foremost, because upon his passing his family requested that I do so. Secondly, because Dave was unfailing in paying tribute to friends and colleagues when they passed away.

Doing so is always a difficult task. Yet he never failed to submit a sincerely heartfelt eulogy for the deceased. I always kidded him about how he seemed to weave into his writing how his subject enjoyed watching a dog or two that he had seen Dave run. I told him that The Field should charge him for an ad for at least part of each eulogy.

Thirdly, a few years ago, when advancing age began to make both of us more aware of our mortality, we agreed that whichever of us survived would write the other’s eulogy. I guess David won! The David Grubb I knew would have gotten a chuckle out of this paragraph.

It has been almost three weeks since David’s passing. Since much has already been written about him and by him, I have struggled with what I could write that would not seem redundant. I finally settled on what most would not realize was the cause of his death. Sadly and equally ironically, it was his love for bird dogs and field trials that led to his passing.

About three years ago Dave sent me a letter wherein, the strictest confidence, he told me that he had been diagnosed with chronic kidney failure. He did not know how rapidly it would progress, but at that time he was “dealing with it”.

As his kidney failure progressed his legs began to swell, and finally to a degree wherein made mounting or dismounting a horse more and more difficult. This no doubt played a major role in the accident that resulted in the fracture in his lower leg, which was the first in the series of health setbacks that eventually led to his demise.

Had Dave elected to retire from the field trial scene perhaps two years prior to the accident, it would never have happened, and he would still be with us today.

His passion for his profession has always burned so hotly within him that the thought of a somewhat sedentary lifestyle away from the competitive arena seemed far less appealing than continuing with his career, no matter how much difficulty it caused him. Shoot, after his fractured leg had been repaired, and he had announced his official retirement, he was still contemplating working gun dogs during the summer months.

Having been privy to his seventeen-month struggle with health setbacks via weekly phone calls, it amazed me how stoic and upbeat he remained in spite of his suffering.

His wife Henrietta shared with me that in each of the health care facilities where he was a patient his attending nurses and doctors marveled at his upbeat spirit and uncomplaining demeanor.

I talked to him by telephone once a week and sometimes more often, and his voice grew progressively weaker, with the advancement of his kidney failure, there was always a discernible tinge of joy as we talked about bird dogs and shared memories from the past.

A few years back Dave was kind enough to nominate me for the Field Trial Hall of Fame. I recall that in the letter of nomination he remarked that after we first met he did not like me very well. Truth was, I didn’t care a whole lot for him either.

We first met when he made his annual sojourns to the West Coast to compete in those trials. Think about it. When a guy visits you on your home court and constantly beats your brains out, it doesn’t exactly endear him to you.

Also, I felt that Dave was somewhat unapproachable back then. I became more competitive in a few short years, and we began to share a grudging respect.

When I moved back to the Midwest and our paths began to cross more frequently a casual friendship developed. I guess my stock with Dave grew most markedly when I began reporting a few trials and submitting human interest stories to The Field. He would never fail to send me a letter, complete with its characteristic typos complimenting me on my latest literary contribution.

Such a metamorphosis is not uncommon among field trial handlers, especially among those whose careers have spanned decades.

The bird dog game is a tough business, and competing in trials can be a very emotional experience. It is not uncommon for tempers to flare. A recent conversation I had with Hall-of-Famer Harold Ray addressed those issues. Harold and I have had our moments over the years, but when the smoke cleared and the dust settled and we no longer competed, our friendship grew.

Harold made some profound observations about Dave Grubb during the course of that conversation: “The consummate professional, dogs and horses always fit and healthy looking, equipment and apparel A-1. Dave was one of the best to never give judges or spectators a negative slant on the dog he was running, as he was able to ‘pet’ his dog with his voice as well as with his hand. Blindfolded, if you were in the gallery listening to Dave you’d swear each dog he ran was winning the stake. Also, his versatility was unmatched.”

I would agree with Harold on every one of those points. Those of us who have managed to hang around the game for five decades realize what a difficult task it was, and have the utmost respect for one another.

David Grubb has left us, but his legacy lives on. I will miss our conversations, his calendars, his Christmas cards, his trainers reports, and his frequent letters.

Some time ago I received a manila envelope with his return address thereon. In it was an old Saturday Evening Post that was a commemorative baseball issue. Besides bird dogs, country music, and our Scottish ancestry, Dave and I shared a love for baseball.

With the magazine was a letter he had written. It speaks volumes about the kind of friend Dave Grubb was.

It reads as follows: “Dear Gerry, I do hope this finds you and your lovely wife doing well and feeling fine. (Whichever one it happened to be at the time — a bit of self effacing levity I interject.)

“I trust you have been staying out of the heat? I don’t even want to go outside! Was at a garage sale and saw this magazine and immediately thought of you. He had two of them in perfect condition, so I got one for you and one for me.

“Sorry that our good friend Faye Throneberry is not in there, but there is a great picture of Mickey Mantle . . . who was my hero.

“Take care of yourself, Gerry. Your friend. David.”

The magazine and the letter are on display beneath my Lifetime Achievement plaque for which Dave wrote the text. I will treasure them both as long as I am alive, as well as the memory of the “Big man with the black hat.”

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