Charlie Hays had a dog when he was a kid, a cocker spaniel named Butch. He loved that dog, and at night he and Butch curled up in bed together, best friends forever.
Charlie would own other dogs — many of them — before he died Oct. 12 at 82. Or, perhaps more precisely, the dogs would own him during a lifetime that saw Charlie become perhaps the best competitive amateur retriever trainer and handler this country has seen.
Born June 17, 1936, in Minneapolis, Charlie graduated from Hopkins High School and the University of Minnesota. He was 21 when he married the former Yvonne Edwards, the love of his life, and not long afterward, while cruising the classified ads of Sports Afield magazine, he bought a black Labrador puppy over the phone.
“That dog arrived by airplane,” said Yvonne, speaking from the south Georgia home where she and Charlie have for many years spent their winters, training dogs. A nationally acclaimed retriever trainer and handler in her own right, Yvonne added, “We named him Rufus. He wasn’t a great working dog. But Charles found a reason to love him.”
This was in the late 1950s, and ducks, duck hunters and duck dogs were deeply ingrained in Minnesota culture, so much so that the dates, times and results of local field trials were broadcast by WCCO Radio.
“Charles wanted in the worst way to enter Rufus in a ‘Hunter’s Special’ trial, which was open to novice dogs and handlers,” Yvonne said. But he was nervous about being embarrassed. So he and Rufus trained continually, until Charlie finally mustered the nerve to sign up.
“They ran the trial and when he was named the winner, the judge shook his hand and said, ‘Congratulations, you’re judging next week.’ That’s how it all started,” Yvonne said.
Today, American Kennel Club licensed retriever trials attract a relative sliver of the millions of people who own Labrador, golden, Chesapeake Bay and flat-coated retrievers. Trials are held nationwide and draw professionals and amateurs alike.
The most accomplished field-trial retrievers are athletic, disciplined, possess great eyesight, have elephant-like memories, can judge long distances to within a few feet and are driven by a strong desire to please their human partners.
For more than a half-century, Minnesota has been a hotbed of competitive retrieving dog breeding and development, and similarly a place where some of the nation’s best trainers and handlers learned their craft, including Dr. Leslie Evans, Louis Fritz, Tony Berger, “Lorney” Martens, Bob Wolfe, Wells Wilbor and Rick Van Bergen, among many others.
Into this lair of champions, Charlie and Yvonne forged a successful path ahead. Their first big break came in South Carolina in 1974 when they saw a male yellow Labrador named Candlewood’s Mad Mouse race into a pond ahead of its kennel mates while chasing “fun bumpers,” or retrieving dummies, thrown at the end of a training session.
“Mouse,” just 14 months old, was always first to the bumper.
“I’d like to buy that dog,” Charlie told the man who owned him.
“I think he’s sold,” the man said. “The check is supposed to be in the mailbox today. If not, you can buy him.”
Charlie replied, and typically for him: “Mind if I check the mailbox?”
Bought by Charlie and Yvonne for $700, Mouse ran his first National Open as a 2-year-old, a feat rarely attained, and completed his field championship and amateur field championship at 3. When he died in 1984, Mouse was the all-time high-point yellow Labrador.
Dave Rorem of International Falls was a Department of Natural Resources conservation officer for 27 years, who on the side honed a national reputation as a professional retriever field-trial trainer and handler.
“Charlie and Yvonne put me on the map. I can’t say enough about them,” Rorem said from his winter training home in Texas. “I handled their dog, Marty, to the Canadian Open national championship in 1989, and Charlie won the Canadian amateur national championship with Marty in 1990.”
Twenty-four years after Marty’s death in 1993, he remains the high point yellow Labrador of all time.
“Charlie was the most competitive amateur trainer I’ve known,” Rorem said. “He had a great eye for what it took to be a winning field-trial dog. If he put 12 or 15 months into a dog and it wasn’t going to make it as a trial dog, he and Yvonne would give it to a friend to use as a hunting dog, where the dog could live in a house with a family.”
Enshrined in the Retriever Hall of Fame in Grand Junction, Tenn., along with three of the Hays’ dogs, Charlie was a past president of the National Amateur Retriever Club, the Minnesota Field Trial Association and the Hennepin County Amateur Retriever Club.
“The hardest thing for me right now,” Yvonne said, “is waking up and realizing he’s not here anymore.”
Carl Ruffalo knows the feeling. Ruffalo, 88, of Rochester, has had Labradors in field trials since the 1950s and was a duck-hunting partner of Charlie’s at their Lake of the Woods camp and in Saskatchewan.
“Not every day, but most days for as many years as I can remember, Charlie would call me at 5:30 in the morning and we would talk about dogs, training problems, politics, whatever,” Ruffalo said. “Then, after Charlie died, I got up in the morning at 5 as usual, brought my dogs into the house from the kennel and sat down. It was then I realized Charlie wouldn’t be calling me again.”
Charles Arthur Hays was cremated. His ashes will be spread at a memorial field trial held in his honor in Georgia, at the National Retriever Championship in Kentucky and on the Lake of the Woods island where he hunted ducks.