Richard Gebhardt

Obituary of Richard Gebhardt

Tom’s River - Richard H. Gebhardt, 87, internationally famous cat show judge and tireless advocate for all cats, passed away at home in Tom’s River on Friday September 7. He had lived there with his husband, John F. Bannon, for the last three years. 


Born in Newark, Mr. Gebhardt grew up in East Orange. His parents, Harry and Florence, were divorced, and his mother raised Mr. Gebhardt and his twin brother Harry. A lifelong devotion to cats began at the age of fourteen when Mr. Gebhardt purchased a black Persian female for $10 from a pet shop. "Smokie" was bred to a highly regarded Persian male for the handsome fee of $15.00. Mr. Gebhardt used the money from the sale of Smokie's kittens to purchase two Persian cats--a silver and a white. He also registered his cattery name, Silva-Wyte, with the Cat Fanciers Association (CFA). 


When Mr. Gebhardt was sixteen, he joined the Garden State Cat Club. Six years later he became the youngest-ever president of the club. By then, according to his own account, he had learned the workings of the cat fancy "from the ground up." He served as a steward at cat shows, as a public relations contact, and in other capacities as well. That same year he was manager of the Asbury Park show, one of the largest cat shows in the country at the time; and he also became a licensed CFA judge.


In addition to his unmistakable youth, Mr. Gebhardt brought a gift for flair and showmanship to the cat fancy. His GQ fashion sense and his dramatic way of holding a cat aloft for exhibitors and spectators to admire served notice that cat shows were ready for their close-up.


Betty White, with whom Mr. Gebhardt served on the board of the Morris Animal Foundation, summed up his show-ring appeal: "Dick's many accomplishments . . . are overwhelming. Yet watching him handle cats, and seeing their response to him, says more than words possibly could. Dick not only knows cats, he respects them, understands them, and loves them inordinately."


Although Mr. Gebhardt's passion for cats was rewarding, his "day work" left him unsatisfied. He briefly studied art, then worked as a bank teller and a payroll accountant, occupations that shone a light on Mr. Gebhardt's orderliness and precision yet left his love for animals and his artistic talents unrequited. He knew it was time for a change.


In 1957, while Mr. Gebhardt was working in the office of the Canada Dry beverage company, he met co-worker John F. Bannon. The following year they moved to Denville and bought the Denville Pet Shop. Two years later they opened Blue Ribbon Specialty, a grooming business they operated for the next fifty-five years. If the cat fancy would make Dick Gebhardt famous, John Bannon would make him complete. As Mr. Gebhardt wrote in the acknowledgment to The Complete Cat Book (Howell Book House, 1991): "As I wrote this book, there was never a doubt in my mind about the person to whom it should be dedicated: my lifelong partner, collaborator, and friend John Bannon, whose loyalty and love of animals made possible my achievements. John, who shared my heartaches and highlights, has given me a sense of pride few people experience."


Among the more outstanding of Mr. Gebhardt's achievements are these: president of the Garden State Cat Club for fourteen years, president of the Cat Fanciers Association for twelve years, president of the CFA Judges Association for six years, first international allbreed judge, and first American to judge in Europe. He was a field director for Pet Pride, and he was listed in the 1972 Edition of Community Leaders of America.


Mr. Gebhardt's achievements in the show ring are defined by the two CFA cats of the year with which he was associated: he was the owner of 1959 Cat of the Year Gr. Ch. Vel-Vene Voo Doo of Sylva-Wyte, a black Persian male; and he was the breeder and co-owner (with Mr. Bannon) of 1969 Cat of the Year Gr. Ch. Silva-Wyte Trafari of JB, also a black Persian male. As befitting someone who bred Manx, American shorthairs, and American wirehairs in addition to Persians, Mr. Gebhardt wrote extensively about cats. In addition to The Complete Cat Book  and The Allure of the Cat with John Bannon (Tfh Pubns Inc, 199Th2), he served as a consultant to the National Geographic Special Feature on Cats, 1964, and his work was included in Time, Woman’s Day, and other publications.


Cats were not the only animals to catch Mr. Gebhardt's fancy. He also enjoyed success as a breeder and exhibitor of Japanese chin dogs, winning best of breed four consecutive at Westminster Kennel Club. What's more, horse shows and horseback riding were his other early interests.


After a fifty-six-year domestic partnership, Mr. Gebhardt and Mr. Bannon were married on December 6, 2014. The couple was well known, liked, and respected (though subject on occasion to prevailing social attitudes). Businessmen themselves, they supported local businesses, especially certain dining establishments. Whenever they dined at their favorite Chinese restaurant in Dover, a waiter would announce cheerfully at the end of the meal, "The house would like to buy you a drink." An announcement always well received by Mr. Gebhardt's and Mr. Bannon's dinner companions.


Although Mr. Gebhardt achieved worldwide recognition in the cat fancy, his work on behalf of feral cats was his true joy. He and Mr. Bannon established Blue Ribbon Specialty, a dog-grooming shop, on Diamond Spring Road in 1964. They moved to a two-acre property on Palmer Road eleven years later. That property was surrounded by farm land and plenty of farm cats. The couple set to work trapping, spaying and neutering, and finding homes for as many of the cats as possible—largely at their own expense. They placed as many as forty kittens a year in good homes, and the cats that weren’t adopted lived a blue ribbon life with plenty of food, heated beds, toys, and indoor-outdoor accommodations. The last member of that colony died shortly before Mr. Gebhardt and Mr. Bannon relocated to Tom’s River in 2015.


Mr. Gebhardt is also survived by his brother Harry E. Gebhardt of Whiting, NJ, and his half-sister Debbie Haney of Sarasota, FL, as well as nine nieces and nephews.


Graveside services will be held at Denville Cemetery at a date to be announced later under the direction of Norman Dean Home for Services 16 Righter Avenue Denville, NJ 07834. 


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