One of the honors in Fort Worth life is to ride in the rodeo Grand Entry. There is nothing like it.
Years ago, when I was on the stock show’s executive committee and served as a calf scramble judge, I rode in all of them; the total would now number in the hundreds. On a Saturday, you ride in three entries, starting with the 10 a.m. show and finishing with the finale at 7:30 p.m.
Children reaching little hands into the arena to slap the hand of a cowboy or cowgirl is a thrill for the kids but even more fulfilling for the riders. On Saturday mornings, of course, the hand slaps involve lots of cotton-candy sticky fingers and a snotty nose or two. No matter. It’s all good.
After an absence, I am back in the Grand Entry. It’s a gift.
Riding that serpentine trail through the arena with the mellifluous voice of announcer Bob Tallman booming in the background is spine-tingling. Tallman is THE voice of rodeo all across America. What Jack Buck was to baseball Tallman is to rodeo. Go to the smallest rodeo in the most remote country town and you’ll hear an announcer working his lungs off to sound like Bob Tallman.
Looking into the stands at the Fort Worth rodeo you can reacquaint yourself with the city and all the folks you know, all gathered under one historic roof. Every performance is a homecoming.
This year, for several reasons, there’s more than the usual dose of nostalgia. I’ve made some of my best friends behind the bucking chutes where we line up for the ride into the arena. And this year I’m struck by the absence of a few of the men I came to know, respect and, yes, love.
Years ago, I always rode in front of the late Dr. Charles Rush, a gentleman if ever there was one. He was on the rodeo medical team.
“Don’t forget to tip your hat when you round every American flag,” he would remind me. Every tip of the hat conjures the image of Dr. Rush.
The Fort Worth cowboy and rancher, Marty Richter, is no longer up front on the paint horse. Broad-shouldered, handsome, charming and funny, he was the epitome of a cowboy on a horse. A former rodeo cowboy, he rode the last bucking horse of his professional career at Will Rogers before he moved on to ranching and raising a family.
Marty brought a spark of joviality and life to the entire group before we rode out each night. Doffed his hat to each of the ladies in the parade as he spoke to them. It was my honor to ride with him, to calf scramble with him, to be his friend.
It makes me grateful to be there each night, on horseback, as I think of him and others who are no longer there.
Up front in the Grand Entry parade, as he has been for years, is the rodeo’s stock producer, Neal Gay. He’s 92 years old and last week told some folks who work at the arena that he and his wife got married one day many, many years ago and then came straight to the rodeo in Fort Worth.
That’s a honeymoon that continues.
This year, Gay has received tremendous ovations from the crowd as Tallman announces him and references his age.
And that’s a nice “howdy.”
Adding to the nostalgia this year is a sad but exciting reality: In a way, the 2019 Grand Entry is also the Grand Exit. Next year the rodeo moves to the new Dickies Arena. The sad part is leaving a historic and beloved venue; the exciting part is the prospect of showcasing this great Fort Worth tradition in a magnificent new home. It’s called progress, with a capital P.
Just like an aging cowboy, the Will Rogers Coliseum is showing the toll of years. The rodeo has resided there for 76 years and just like that proud but battered cowboy, it moves slowly with stiff gait and aching limbs.
Fort Worth is a big city and the stock show and rodeo form the centerpiece of the cultural landscape that makes this a great place to live and do business. The rodeo needs a new home befitting the place we live. It needs a grand place for its Grand Entry, which is in fact as grand as the name implies.
The city has been trying to move beyond the “Cowtown” label that some folks believe undersells the multi-dimensional metropolis Fort Worth has become. Somewhere along the line, we picked up the “cowboys and culture” persona, giving a much-deserved nod to the great museums and cultural pursuits that have become part and parcel of the city’s progressive image.
But no matter what nicknames or slogans attach themselves to the city, it is inescapably clear to me as I take my nightly horseback jaunt around the Will Rogers Coliseum that Fort Worth, through all its proud past and into its bold and promising future, will always be a treasured oasis for cowboys, cowgirls and the traditions they embody.
Richard Connor is president and publisher of the Fort Worth Business Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org