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Doug Clark: Rogers grad’s pet rocked the world

Gary Dahl, Spokane’s biggest Rock Star, is dead.

I know. The name didn’t mean a bushel of beans to me, either.

Not until news broke that Dahl, who died recently in Oregon at age 78, had invented the Pet Rock.

Oh, man!

Like Silly Putty and the Hula-Hoop, the Pet Rock was a ’70s smash fad that sold like flapjacks long enough to turn its maker, a down-and-out marketing man, into a millionaire.

Quoting from the wonderful obituary that appeared in the New York Times …

“Gary Ross Dahl was born on Dec. 18, 1936, in Bottineau, N.D., and reared in Spokane, Wash. His mother was a waitress, his father a lumber-mill worker.

“After studying at what is now Washington State University, the young Mr. Dahl made his way into advertising.”

A Coug, too?

It keeps getting better and better.

Dahl graduated from Rogers High, Class of ’54.

Aye, Pirates!

I’ve never been prouder of my Spokaloonian roots.

How Dahl convinced consumers to cough up $3.95 for ordinary rocks is funny and worth retelling.

But there’s also a much larger question at stake, and that is:

How can we cash in on Dahl?

I’ve always felt Spokane blew it with Bing Crosby.

Sure, we now have a Crosby museum and a Bing theater.

That’s cool. But we should have hopped on the Bing bandwagon right after the famed crooner’s death in 1977.

Every December since, we could have celebrated “White Christmas Days,” with Bing-related parades, movies, tree lightings and child discipline classes.

Think of the fun. Think of the crowds.

Most importantly, think of the revenue!

Granted, Dahl’s no Bing.

He never won an Academy Award. Nor did Dahl ever set the music world aflame.

But “Spokane – Home of the Pet Rock Inventor.”

That beats the “Near Nature, Near Perfect” motto all to hell.

We could start holding summertime “Rawk the Rock” festivals at Riverfront Park.

Any kid showing up would get a rock for (in the spirit of Dahl) a nominal handling fee.

Adding to the joy, we would cap the festival by crowning a public official whose service to the community is most Pet Rock-like.

Congratulations, Al French!

Anyway, Spokane would be wrong to forget about a man who managed to turn a pipedream into pure profit.

According to the New York Times, Dahl’s aha moment came one night in mid-1970s. Alcohol was involved.

A copywriter for hire, Dahl was living in the Northern California town of Los Gatos and having a drink, when …

“The bar talk turned to pets, and to the onus of feeding, walking and cleaning up after them,” wrote the Times.

“His pet, Mr. Dahl announced in a flash of bibulous inspiration, caused him no such trouble. The reason? ‘I have a pet rock,’ he explained.”

I don’t think it’s unfair to speculate that most of us, after sobering up, would have jettisoned the pet rock idea.

Dahl instead went to work. He found a couple of backers and located a place where he could buy smooth little rocks on the cheap.

Each mini-boulder wound up in a cardboard carrying case complete with holes for breathing and an instruction manual on how to care and feed for your new pet.

The Times quoted Dahl as saying he had, in essence, “packaged a sense of humor.”

Dahl was absolutely right and the money poured in until, like all jokes, the shelf life expired.

Bob Payne, Spokanite and former S-R sportswriter, recalled in an email that Dahl as a kid was “always one of the funniest and brashest (and oldest) in the neighborhood.”

Payne remembered fondly the “time we built two ramps, out of I-don’t-know-what in our alley and used them for Evel Knievel-type jumps with our bikes.”

The young riders began moving the ramps farther and farther apart until, eventually, they reached that double-dog-dare-you point.

“Nobody had the guts to try,” Payne wrote, adding a dash for drama, “– except Gary.”

He pedaled hard. He took off.

He “crashed and burned and got pretty badly bruised up,” wrote Payne, “but didn’t break anything, as I recall, although I can’t speak for his bike.”

The stunt does paint a picture of guy willing to take a risk.

I don’t know, though. The genesis for the Pet Rock might be no more complicated than growing up in a city known for its rocky, potholed streets.

Doug Clark is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or by email at dougc@spokesman.com.