Neil Joiner: The story of the coon hound judge

Published 10:11 am Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Larry Walker of Perry recently introduced me to a longtime friend of his, Mr. Foster Rhodes.  Foster’s name is already familiar well beyond his home area of Houston County.  Hundreds of thousands of people have visited or passed by the Foster Rhodes Beef & Dairy Arena at the Georgia National Fairgrounds.  Many others know him through the Walker-Rhodes tractor dealership where he’s been hanging his hat since 1974.

But Larry didn’t invite me to Perry to discuss the decades that Foster has spent in business, or to talk about his commendable history of community service.  I went to Perry to hear a story that Larry knew I would enjoy, and to meet the man who tells it much better than I can write it.  If you see Foster, I don’t think he would mind giving you a first-hand account.

I published a recent column titled “A Flat Tire Memory.”  It was about a livestock show from my high school days in the late 1960’s.  Larry read it and was reminded of a story from Foster’s early career with the Extension Service of the University of Georgia.  After working a year or so in Houston County and then Soperton, Foster spent five years in Athens as the Extension’s beef cattle expert.

That was in the early 1970’s, a time when almost every county had some sort of fair or livestock show.  Foster judged cattle all over Georgia, something he had the ability to do with confidence.

The challenging part of judging often followed the main event.  There would be competitions for such things as chickens, pigeons, ducks, and rabbits.  The Extension specialists usually had no qualifications to judge these locally flavored contests, but their help was heavily solicited.  They were basically given only one option, which was to say yes.

Foster’s boss at U.G.A. advised his staff to leave as soon as the judging for their specialty was over.  He said nothing good was likely to happen after that.  His advice was sound but almost impossible to follow.  Foster did his share of judging critters that were far outside his realm of expertise, but he attributes his favorite story to a fellow worker and friend.

The late Bob McGuire was the swine specialist with the Extension Service during Foster’s tenure.  Bob told Foster about a trip he made somewhere in the north Georgia mountains for a county fair hog show.  He finished the judging, presented the awards, and thought he was about to leave for home.  He was, instead, invited to judge the Adult Division Coon Hound Show.

Bob told the local county agent that he didn’t know anything about coon hounds and absolutely could not judge the contest.  The county agent, however, prevailed.  Bob was soon joined in the show ring by seven weathered mountain men in overalls, each of them spitting tobacco and holding on to their best coon hound.  Bob quickly realized that a frivolous approach was not suitable for judging those dogs.

“Get me a yardstick!” Bob told the county agent.  Bob slapped that stick forcefully on the leg of his denim jeans as he did a visual assessment of those dogs.  He stared at those coon hounds with the same intensity as he had earlier focused on the swine.

Then he gave directions to those men, commanding their attention with his emphatically delivered instructions.  “Get him up!  Turn him sideways!  Straighten his head!”  After he had established what was expected, he turned to his trusty yardstick.  He pulled on the ears of each hound, measured them, then wrote it on a pad as he called out the results.  “Seven and one-half inches on the left,” he would say loudly, then nod his head or put his hand on his chin.  “Seven and a quarter on the right.”

Measuring their ears was followed by their tails.  “Twenty-two inches,” he would shout out.  The inflections in his voice and expressions on his face ranged unpredictably between admiration and concern.  The crowd’s respect for the judge’s prowess grew with each turn of the yardstick.

After what he deemed a reasonable time for judging a coon hound contest, Bob heartily congratulated the winner.  He headed again toward the exit gate, but one of the mountain men stepped into his path.  The man spit his tobacco, then looked Bob squarely in the eyes.  He said, “I’ve never known it to be done like that sonny, but it’s the best judging I’ve ever seen.”

Sometimes we don’t know what we’re capable of until we’re pushed into the show ring.  A confident approach can lend credibility to our efforts.  Bob McGuire disguised some subtle lessons with humor.  Those lessons are worth remembering.  We never know when our time in the ring may come.