Tom Eblen

Lexington’s dog-about-town died 60 years ago this month. He’s still famous.

Smiley Pete's human friends collected $66 and the University of Kentucky College of Engineering cast this bronze plaque as a memorial to the town dog. It was installed in May 1958 near the corner of Main and Limestone streets beside what is now the Courthouse Plaza. It has been taken up at least twice for periods over the years during sidewalk repairs and nearby construction.
Smiley Pete's human friends collected $66 and the University of Kentucky College of Engineering cast this bronze plaque as a memorial to the town dog. It was installed in May 1958 near the corner of Main and Limestone streets beside what is now the Courthouse Plaza. It has been taken up at least twice for periods over the years during sidewalk repairs and nearby construction. teblen@herald-leader.com

He was a black-and-white mutt who wandered downtown Lexington for a dozen years, smiling at people and mooching snacks. Smiley Pete died 60 years ago this month, yet his name is still well-known.

There is a bronze plaque in the sidewalk near Smiley Pete’s favorite corner, Main and Limestone streets, with his name, image and the inscription, “Missed By All.” A local magazine publishing company is named for him. The Downtown Lexington Corp. gives an annual Smiley Pete Award to the person or organization judged the best goodwill ambassador for the central business district.

What made Smiley Pete so memorable? I found a few clues in the archives of this newspaper, which gave Lexington’s “town dog” a lot of ink.

Smiley Pete was thought to have been born in April 1943, and he began showing up on Lexington’s streets near the end of World War II. His origins and pedigree were uncertain. Spitz? Shepherd? A little bird dog?

Pete wasn’t Lexington’s first pet-about-town. A dog called Bulger roamed the streets in the 1870s, and another, Ownie, in the early 1900s. Thanks to friendly railway mail clerks, Ownie would get train rides around the region. In the 1930s, a cat named Tom worked the corner Smiley Pete would later adopt.

Pete had countless human friends, but never an owner. He insisted on sleeping outside. Once, in 1954, Pete accidentally got locked inside Hart’s Drug Store at closing time and trashed the display window trying to get out.

The owners of Welch’s Cigar Store tried to shelter Pete on a couple of bitterly cold winter nights with equally disastrous results. Pete spent most cold nights in a cardboard box furnished by Ernest Jacobs, A.A. Bartlett or one of the other city policemen on his beat.

Downtown merchants bought Pete’s annual dog license and made sure he got his shots and medical care. The Welches had him bathed occasionally and each Christmas put a big red bow around his neck, which he seemed to like.

Pete began his mornings at Brandy’s Kitchen at Main and Lime with a hamburger and waffle prepared by owner Robert LeClere. He would then wander over to the University of Kentucky campus, occasionally sitting in on a class.

On hot afternoons, Pete slept in the shade beneath the front window of the Baker Shoe Store on Main Street. Other times, he would just sprawl across the sidewalk, trusting that passersby would step around him, which they always did.

Pete was so good at safely crossing streets that many people assumed he had learned to read the signals. A drunk man made the mistake of chasing Pete one day in 1956. A patrolman arrested the man, and a judge fined him $10, plus court costs.

When movies were playing at the Main Street theaters, Pete would wait outside for popcorn. Each weekday afternoon at 4, Pete would appear at Carter’s Supply Store on West Short Street, where a bowl of water and dog biscuit would be waiting. Pete also was known to take an occasional lap of beer at the Turf Bar on South Limestone.

Human goodies took a toll on Pete. The Herald and Leader published occasional pleas for people to stop feeding him junk, especially chocolate bars, which gave him a skin rash. But Smiley Pete was a hard moocher to resist.

Newspaper photographers recorded Pete’s antics, such as the night he caught a possum on Short Street. They also documented his charity work, posing him with fundraisers for the Red Cross and March of Dimes, which had a Give to Polio for Pete’s Sake Fund. The Humane Society board made him an honorary member.

Pete was rumored to be quite a lady’s man. As a front-page obituary noted: “Smiley’s survivors are legion — and indiscriminate.” But his only confirmed family was a litter of six puppies in 1952 with Patsy, whom he met at a kennel when a rabies outbreak required every dog in town to be quarantined for 60 days.

Five of those pups survived, and they were put on display in the window of Henry Foushee’s flower shop on South Limestone. Patsy’s owner kept the pup that looked most like Pete. He sold the others for $20 each — and said he could have sold 50 more if he had had them.

Despite his kennel romance, Pete didn’t like being locked up. When another rabies quarantine was ordered in 1957, it was hard on him. By then, he was overweight and had a heart condition and a bad foot.

Smiley Pete died at the Del-Tor Veterinary Clinic at 9 p.m. on June 17, 1957. He was buried beneath a sycamore tree beside Fairlawn, a circa 1845 mansion on North Broadway that was then the office of Thoroughbred Record magazine. The Fayette County Fiscal Court denied requests to have his grave moved to the courthouse lawn.

Friends paid for the bronze plaque, which was cast by the UK College of Engineering, and a granite headstone that still marks his grave. It reads: “Smiley Pete — Our Dog — A Friend To All — A Friend of All.”

Many dogs are friendly, intelligent and have a special knack for making people feel good. So why did Smiley Pete become famous? Perhaps because he appeared in the right place at the right time.

“We’ll miss Pete, for it was pleasant to see him strolling along Main or Limestone, or sunning himself on the corner,” an editorial in the Lexington Leader said after his death. “It was somehow comforting and reassuring to know that, admidst all the hurry and bustle of Lexington’s busiest corner, people had time to smile at a dog and let him enjoy the place he had chosen for his home.”

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader

  Comments