A memorial to CBJ Master Judge, David Hornby (1948-2014)

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A memorial to CBJ Master Judge, David Hornby (1948-2014)

By Donna Fong

Two and a half years ago, I met David Hornby during my rookie year as a cook. It was in the fall. David introduced himself and said he was from Morgan Hill. Back then, Morgan Hill was the big contest up north so I knew where it was.

I knew Walter Margetich of Chain Smokers was from Morgan Hill too and mentioned his name. David said Walter was the one who introduced him to competition BBQ when they talked at a local coffee shop. David and I became friends quickly as I saw him at every single contest after that.

Having gone to Stanford for undergrad, he liked to wear his Stanford baseball cap to contests. He worked as an engineer at Sun Microsystems before retiring and then at an Apple store part time just to keep himself busy.

By the time I met him, he had problems with his shoulder and back. For most of the first year we met, he was undergoing some kind of surgery. He’d show up with a brace around his arm or share an x-ray of the pieces of metal that ran up and down his spine. Amazingly, none of it bothered him. Somehow he managed to drive himself to the contest no matter what shape he was in. And he showed up in good spirits. If he couldn’t lift boxes, he wouldn’t table captain. Kelly and Kathleen say he volunteered for anything they asked. It didn’t matter much to him. He was just happy to be there.

It wasn’t until much later that I realized his happiest moments were when he was with “us”. By “us”, I mean the BBQ family; the judges, the reps, the cooks, the promoters, and the visitors. He was most happy when he was at a contest. Why not drive hundreds of miles to be with the ones you love? If you had the means, of course you would. What David’s body would not allow, his heart would make possible.

David started judging as a CBJ in August of 2011 and within a year, he had judged his 30th contest. Considering how many miles are between contests on the west coast that has to be record.

We spent many a conversation talking about the judging process, the quality of BBQ he has tried, how other places do things differently (and better) and judges. Some people thought David was a Mr. Know-It-All and maybe that was true but in all of our conversations, never once did he ever say something I disagreed with. More than once, he got me thinking about some idea and changed my opinion. He took it all very seriously. He participated in the annual Judge Fairly Symposium in Colorado and was a member of the KCBS Rules committee. BBQ judging was not David’s hobby. It was his passion.

Last month, I asked David about his judging journey. I wasn’t sure if he had actually judged 30 contests in a year and I wanted to check. He wrote an email back to me on December 11, 2013 telling me he had pancreatic cancer. I was devastated. David had more than his fair share of bad stuff last year and this was too much. Worst of all, it was the kind of cancer, if you could choose, that you would never want. It was pretty much at the bottom of the list.

I called him the next day and told him that I was “very upset”. We spent 5 minutes talking about his illness and 10 minutes talking about the rib entries he had tasted a few days earlier at the King of Smoker. If I have learned anything at all about BBQ people, is that we talk about BBQ no matter what the circumstance. My friend was dying but even in that moment, he talked about how happy he was to be eating BBQ at a rather fine contest. I didn’t know it at the time, but that would be the last time we would talk. A few emails were sent back and forth in January so I could arrange a visit with him but I guess the cancer was worse than all of us had even feared. In six weeks, he was gone.

The following is the email that David sent me to give me the bad news and to tell me his judging story. I share it with you now partly because I’d like for us to remember him and partly to remind ourselves that life is short. I regret not calling him one last time or going down there to visit even though he wasn’t ready to see me. Remember to live life to the fullest and be kind to everyone you meet. Dated Dec 11, 2013


I was thinking about you. My story - first I have to tell you that I just found out last week that I've been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. So my future in BBQ is very much up in the air. I just don't know enough about the disease and what to expect. The last week has been a battery of tests, intubations, biopsies, etc. so they can try to find out what they are dealing with. I'll let you know as I find out. I would be very happy to just wipe 2013 off the calendar. Major back surgery, 2 shoulder replacements, a divorce after 29 years, and now the probably incurable cancer, have been stressful at best.

My judging story:

I've been smoking meats for 25+ years - just not doing a very good job of it since I didn't know what I was doing. So I took a judging class in Dillon, CO in Aug 2011. Then, in a fit of Type A behavior, I wondered if I could qualify for Master Judge within 1 year. So I started volunteering and judging. I went to contests in Nor Cal, SoCal, AZ, NV, and Colo. Wherever there was a contest I could get into, I went. I judged my 30th contest in Dillon, CO, in August of 2012. Mark Simmons signed off in Dillon on my 1st contest as well as my 30th. So I did the 30 contests in 3 days less than 1 year. Looking back, it's not something I'd recommend - it’s a lot of work. Along the way, I got to know as many teams as I could - you and Harry are good examples. I also took classes from Harry Soo, Kelly Wertz (4 Legs Up) and Johnny Trigg (Smokin Triggers). All are very highly thought of, and I learned a lot from all of them. I also worked with the KCBS reps to learn as much about contests and how they are run as possible (K&K and the Whitebooks are the main examples). That meant showing up on Thursday so I could start checking meats on Friday morning. But I've gotten to know a lot of teams that way, and they know me.

So, I've only been judging about 2-1/2 years, but I have more experience than a lot of people who have judged 10+ years. King of Smokers was my 53rd, I think the more you know, the better you are equipped to judge, and I've compressed a lot of years of judging into a very short amount of time.. I think those who show up Sat morning, judge for 2 hours, and then leave are doing themselves, the sport and KCBS a disservice. I guarantee I know more about BBQ than they do. And don't even get me started on the ones who are there only to see how many samples they are taken home. There is a lot to be said for not allowing ANY food to leave the judging test with the judges.

That's pretty much it. If you have any questions, please ask. I've really enjoyed talking with you - about BBQ and a lot of other stuff - and I hope to be around to keep it up for several more years.


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