Sarah MacQuiddy shows off Bogey, her champion Otterhound. Courtesy Sarah MacQuiddy

Sarah MacQuiddy: out to pasture? No, more likely into the dog show ring

Axel practically trips over himself to greet you as you rise from the couch. Sarah MacQuiddy’s already warned you about his tendency to leave a lint roller’s worth of fur on you, or how he will crawl into your lap and smear you with kisses.

“Oh, Axel,” MacQuiddy says with a hint of embarrassment as her dog smothers you like a teenaged boy in his first make-out session.

She and Rusty Mellon, her husband who roamed Greeley’s streets as a beat cop, a detective and a beat cop again for more than 30 years before he retired a few years ago, love Axel because Axel is doing exactly what he’s supposed to be doing. He’s being a dog. He plays with the cats (even if they don’t want to be played with) and sleeps on the couch and is a friendly, slobbery mess who loves you even if he has just met you.

Axel, Sarah MacQuiddy’s clumber spaniel, is also a champion show dog. Courtesy Sarah MacQuiddy

MacQuiddy loves Axel, too, because she can relate to him: There are two sides to Axel. Axel is a show dog. Axel, in fact, is a champion who’s competed at Westminster, the top dog show in the world.

When MacQuiddy slips on his show collar, he snaps to attention. You could say the same thing about MacQuiddy when she puts on one of her power suits: She knows how to have fun, relax and show off her offbeat sense of humor. But when it’s business time, she’s ALL business, whether that means keeping close to the Colorado Legislature, welcoming small business owners in a medium-sized town that can feel unwelcoming or tactfully critiquing Greeley’s painful faults, such as The Smell, in front of the city council.

MacQuiddy plans to retire in June after 15 years as the president of the Greeley Area Chamber of Commerce. Before that, she was president of the Greeley Convention and Visitors Bureau, but the job she will leave, quite possibly the last one she will hold, fits her the most. She doesn’t have to gloss over Greeley’s problems to get people to come for a visit, drop their money and leave. She could join the fight to make it a better place for people to call home.

“Business owners want someone who will speak out on their behalf,” MacQuiddy said. “Right before I was hired, I think that person wasn’t as vocal. But you’ve got to be honest and upfront and willing to deal with those issues. We used to have a difficult time recruiting board members. Now we have people on the wait list. They see that we are doing something proactive.”

MacQuiddy had to learn how to do that, but it helped that she had the kind of capital you can only get by being a longtime member of a community. She came to Greeley in 1975 from Nebraska to attend the University of Northern Colorado and become a gym teacher. She found out she didn’t want to be around kids that often and studied outdoor tourism instead. That prepared her for a career of service and selling a place, which she did in her first job working for Weld County Employment Services and then in her role as campaign coordinator for the United Way of Weld County. At United Way, she had to use her connections to convince business owners to donate to a city with a population that needed the money.

Greeley’s blue-collar, cow-town image presented challenges to attract visitors and businesses that she wouldn’t have experienced in, say, its Northern Colorado neighbors. Rather than ignore Greeley problems, something previous presidents had done, she chose to tackle them. She campaigned hard with business leaders to convince Greeley residents to approve a tax increase that would give its poor school district some cash and improve its comparably weak test scores. She also went before the council years ago to talk about her experiences walking downtown with a prospective business owner and praying that the wind wasn’t blowing the wrong way. Greeley’s cow odor was such a taboo subject that its city manager, Roy Otto, would yell at anyone who brought it up, even on days that would still wrinkle your nose. But MacQuiddy didn’t flinch.

She was strong enough to deflect criticism away from businesses to herself. Her father died in a plane crash when she was 8. The experience was sad, and she would have preferred having a father, but she said she benefited from it because she grew up independent and strong. She had to, say, replace window screens, not watch her father do it for her.

Now Greeley’s schools are much stronger, especially after residents finally did approve a tax increase a couple years ago, and the smell hasn’t really been an issue — honest — in years.

“She was coming off a time when the chamber board hired folks from outside the area, but the fact that she was from here is one of the things that made her really successful,” said John Gates, mayor of Greeley. “Rusty was a cop. They were both really entrenched in Greeley. I just think she brought a trustworthy sense about her.”

You could argue that west Greeley was always going to do well, given the way growth was creeping toward Interstate 25, but not many thought the same about downtown.

“”I remember coming down here years ago,” said Amiee Hutson, who opened Aunt Helen’s Coffee Shop two years ago with her husband, Bob. “It was scary. Not really scary, but scary, you know?”

The Downtown Development Authority, investors and cheerleaders such as Bob Tointon and a prosperous economy changed that, but MacQuiddy had something to do with that as well, said Hutson, who also sits on the chamber board. Hutson lived in west Greeley for 25 years and admittedly didn’t know much about downtown other than its stereotypes. MacQuiddy made sure to alert her about when to expect crowds at odd times of the day, which helped her put on an extra pot as well as have people to serve it, and she gave Hutson an unbiased view of upcoming bills in the state legislature, but she also brought people in three or more times a week with meetings over coffee, and that helped spread the word.

Most of all, MacQuiddy changed the way people view the chamber, and not just as a place for businesses to be heard or understood. Business people went to those gatherings to network, not to enjoy themselves, until MacQuiddy came along.

“She’s funny,” Hutson said while laughing at an untold joke MacQuiddy said, which is probably for the best, given MacQuiddy’s dark but somewhat private sense of humor. “She made it fun to go to events. I actually really enjoyed them.”

MacQuiddy, however, believes it’s time to leave. Downtown is in a good place, as well as the chamber, and she wants more time for herself. She will be 63 when she retires, and she wants some good years with Mellon and their RV and, most importantly, their dogs.

Mellon, her second husband, loves her for the way she welcomed his kids, and later his grandkids (as long as they called her “Nana” and not “Grandma”), but she makes no apologies for preferring dogs to children.

“I’m afraid of children,” she said and laughed. “There’s a reason I didn’t have them.”

She grew up around animals in Omaha, Neb., where her mother had enough acres to own and show horses and her grandparents owned a farm. Her mother began to show dogs after MacQuiddy and her siblings gave her an afghan hound. MacQuiddy got into it, especially after seeing a huge, shaggy dog in the ring. That was an otterhound, and she got her first in 1985. He had immediate success, winning top breed in the country, and that spoiled her, she said. Since then, they’ve rescued otterhounds as well as bred them. She loves otters the best, although Axel is a clumber spaniel. The only dog she’s owned that she didn’t show was a German shepherd that she saw get hit by a car and left for dead. He was one of the best they’ve owned.

“He went to all the shows and just hung out,” she said. “He had a great life.”

MacQuiddy learned how to show by taking classes at the Greeley Recreation Center, where she learned that Greeley had a strong dog-showing community. There were people here who taught her everything she needed to show her dogs well enough to win. They still hire professional handlers for Westminster, although MacQuiddy has a goal to show there, too. Mellon shows as well, but it’s harder than you think to present a dog’s best features. Dogs win shows based on how well they meet the classic standard of what a breed should be, such as Axel’s headpiece, but dogs can lose if they have a mediocre handler who takes attention away from the judges. Mellon, the former cop, said at times he felt as if he’d rather handle a barroom brawl. He’s more impressed with MacQuiddy’s skills instead of his own.

“Like everything she does, she studies it and puts on a professional appearance,” he said.

Greeley, in fact, became known for hosting many big-time dog shows, thanks to her interest and connections and that community. That, and the occasional times she brought Axel to work, were the only times she mixed work with her dog shows.

That made it hard at times to attend shows. She and Mellon could easily do 20 a year, they said, but as skiers will tell you, Mondays are tough enough without a long, hard weekend of fun and travel.

She wants to do more shows, and maybe a lot more. MacQuiddy and Mellon own a nice house, but it’s obvious they’ve devoted their lives to the dogs and traveling to the show and not a fancy kitchen. They have a huge backyard, with a portion fenced off as a dog run and a small, lumpy hill that initially came from the extra dirt leftover from an addition to their home but was left because the dogs loved climbing it and looking from the summit at the cars going by.

There are a few friends who take shows seriously enough to treat their dogs like an endgame more than a pet. But MacQuiddy wants her dogs to have fun. In a couple of months, she will be out in her expansive backyard with them a lot more.

“It’s time to play,” she said.

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Axel practically trips over himself to greet you as you rise from the couch. Sarah MacQuiddy’s already warned you about his tendency to leave a lint roller’s worth of fur on you, or how he will crawl into your lap and smear you with kisses.

“Oh, Axel,” MacQuiddy says with a hint of embarrassment as her dog smothers you like a teenaged boy in his first make-out session.

She and Rusty Mellon, her husband who roamed Greeley’s streets as a beat cop, a detective and a beat cop again for more than 30 years before he retired a few years ago, love Axel because Axel is doing exactly what he’s supposed to be doing. He’s being a dog. He plays with the cats (even if they don’t want to be played with) and sleeps on the couch and is a friendly, slobbery mess who loves you even if he has just met you.

Axel, Sarah MacQuiddy’s clumber spaniel, is also a champion show dog. Courtesy Sarah MacQuiddy

MacQuiddy loves Axel, too, because she can relate to him: There are two sides to Axel. Axel is a show dog. Axel, in fact, is a champion who’s competed at Westminster, the top dog show in the world.

When MacQuiddy slips on his show collar, he snaps to attention. You could say the same thing about MacQuiddy…