Known as the Master of Melbee, Mel Schlesinger, a Midwest oil equipment supplier, always considered himself a dog lover. No one foresaw the direction his life would take when his wife, Bee, fell in love with Kerry Blues at a local Cleveland show shortly after WWII. A few years later, they acquired their first Kerry pup and their mentor, Helen Larson. Helen founded her Kansas-based Sharonellen Kennel in 1934, and the Schlesingers’ Melbee breeding program was based on her stock.
By 1954, Bee had bred, trained and handled their first big winner, Ch. Melbee’s Blue Buster, to nine BIS and 58 groups. Mel didn’t share her knack for handling and grooming, but he was equally fascinated by the sport. While attending the 1946 International Kennel Club of Chicago show, he decided that Kansas City needed a similar grand event. Chicago International weathered many storms to achieve its prominence, but Mel wasn’t deterred by challenges. He admitted his complete lack of experience in a 1962 Dog World interview: “When we went to Chicago, we didn’t know the difference between a show superintendent, a judge and a handler and probably talked when we should have listened.”
Mel recognized the importance of effectively showcasing purebred dogs to the public and envisioned the potential benefits of a major benched show. From a business standpoint, a show would boost the local economy and spark interest in the sport on every level. Unfortunately, back in Kansas City, the reactions to his plan ranged from skepticism to disinterest. Undeterred, he formed a citizens’ committee to lobby for a dog show and founded the Heart of America Kennel Club. In November 1947, he became its first president, and the club’s inaugural 1949 show attracted 761 entries in 65 breeds. By 1960, entries rose to 1,385. Mel utilized the same methods and principles that had made him a successful businessman. He hired the best judges, kept politics out of his decisions and kept his customers satisfied. Group judging was an extravaganza, with music, spotlights, formal attire and narration by Will Judy, then editor of Dog World. Heart of America became part of the Missouri weekend cluster and remained benched through the 1980s.
“When we started this club there were six or seven champions in all breeds in this area,” Mel told Dog World in 1962. “Now we have that many in every breed.” His efforts led to the formation of local specialty clubs and attracted talented novices to the sport. “Mel enjoyed taking newcomers under his wing and helping them get off to a good start,” says AKC judge Loraine Boutwell who, with her late husband, Vic, met Mel and Bee when they started attending shows in 1954. “They were two great people who influenced our lives so very much,” Boutwell says. “The Schlesingers were wonderful mentors and friends.”
During these years, the Melbee breeding program never took a backseat. Bee finished 32 Kerry champions. Her biggest winner, Melbee’s Chances Are, handled by Ric Chashoudian, became 1968’s top dog, winning 36 BIS, Group Fourth at Westminster 1969 and siring more than 50 champions.
Mel also served as president of USKBTC and utilized his position as Heart of America KC AKC delegate to publicize the problem of puppy mills. “His crusade to stop the puppy mills in Missouri and Kansas was probably his only unsuccessful venture,” says Boutwell. “He had very high principles and was a guiding force in many lives.” Mel died in March 1982.