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At Home in the Heartland

by Kendra Santos, PRCA Director of Communications | Sep 15, 2016

[PHOTO: Barrett’s not the first to say that Ote Berry’s jokes might be even better than his bulldogging ]

[PHOTO: Barrett’s not the first to say that Ote Berry’s jokes might be even better than his bulldogging ]

I love a good rodeo road trip. The one I took the end of July—coming off of a few days of cowboy camping in the cool coastal climate of the California Rodeo Salinas—was fast and furious. But it was one fun weekend I’ll not forget. I had a chance to hitch a ride to Nebraska’s Big Rodeo in Burwell with Ote Berry, everyone’s ProRodeo Hall of Fame bulldogger friend, who was this year’s grand marshal. What a big time we had with our rodeo family—cowboy friends old and new.

The drive to Burwell was beautiful and familiar. I love wide open country and Small Town, America, and the hayfields and cornfields took me back to trips to visit my mom’s side of the family in the Cornhusker State as a kid. Ote’s a South Dakota native, but his family moved to Nebraska just before he started eighth grade. So he knows all the best little cafes and sights to see along the way. The one we cared most about this trip was a stop in O’Neill to see Brady’s Bunkhouse.

Brady Wakefield was a talented young timed-event cowboy—on the rise and making his move—when he headed to Heaven at just 20 last July. I’d just watched him tear ’em up at the College National Finals Rodeo in Casper, Wyo., in June, and Ote had just hazed for him when he was 3.6 for second at the Heart of the North Rodeo in Spooner, Wis. “What a talented kid, and a really nice kid, too,” Ote told me at the time.

Brady’s family—dad Jim, mom Susan and little brother Riley—spent the last year building a bunkhouse in Brady’s honor and we had to see it. What a generous-hearted way to honor an amazing young life—a comfortable, welcoming place for cowboy people of all ages to gather and stay while passing through or there to rope and throw steers in the Wakefield Ranch Arena.

How great to get to sit in that bunkhouse and visit with the most important people in Brady’s life, also including his Grandma Pat, who traveled with him that last rodeo weekend. How comforting to know that the last words Brady shared with his parents before he left this earth were, “I love you.”

“Our good days aren’t as good as they used to be and our bad days are a little worse,” Jim said. “We’re very grateful for the life Brady lived and the way he lived his life. There was very little wasted time in his life. He lived it without regrets and with a high purpose. I’ve seen people live long, miserable lives. Not Brady. He went at it.”

The bunkhouse is the perfect place to think of Brady, because you can feel him all around you. His saddles, buckles, back numbers and pictures all have stories to tell—vivid, action-packed, memorable days in arenas far and near.

“We always tell people to stop by, and this bunkhouse gives them a place to stay,” Jim said. “I’d always wanted a place where people can walk in with their boots on, gather and just be comfortable. They say we should build a life we don’t need a vacation from. I’m happier on this place than I am anywhere else in the world, and this bunkhouse gives us a place to go where we can feel close to Brady.”

I noticed that virtually every photo of Brady and Riley on the walls — with the exception of the Cheyenne Frontier Days and CNFR shots taken by Dan Hubbell—were taken by their Nebraska friend and neighbor Jim Svoboda. Naturally, there are cowboy connections right and left here. Jim and Susan are close friends with Jim and Marilyn’s son Von and his wife, Angie, and have traveled to Vegas many times to take in the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo together. Jim and Marilyn’s grandson Cole was best friends with Brady. So it was fun to see them stop the rodeo at Burwell—you know, the rodeo where Jim and Susan Wakefield met 27 years ago—to present Jim and Marilyn Svoboda with the Friends of Nebraska’s Big Rodeo Award for all they’ve done to help make it great over the years.

I never knew that Jim Svoboda, who’ll be 82 in November, used to bulldog and ride broncs, bareback horses and bulls. He’s been a rodeo photographer since college, all the way back when he packed a camera in his riggin’ bag. Jim and Marilyn have been married 58 years, and are Burwell natives. He first attended Nebraska’s Big Rodeo 70 years ago in 1946, and hasn’t missed it since.

“Jim’s as old as the old wooden bucking chutes,” Marilyn laughs. Jim came right back with, “If I keep moving, I won’t get stuck.” These are big-hearted rodeo people. Generations of them. Their grandson Cade is the 2016 Nebraska state high school bareback riding champion, and the way things are going he won’t be the last Svoboda to make his mark on our sport.

One of the many families the Svoboda lenses have captured over the years—in addition to the Wakefields—is the Beutlers. It was fun for all of us to watch three generations of the legendary stock contracting family at work in the arena at Burwell this year. Bennie, his son Rhett and grandson Jake were all horseback and keeping the show rolling. The Beutlers go all the way back in Burwell.

“I’m third generation, Rhett’s fourth generation and Jake’s fifth generation,” said ProRodeo Hall of Famer Bennie, who also serves as NFR General Manager Shawn Davis’ right-hand man as Assistant NFR GM in Vegas each December. “My granddad, Elra, and his brothers, Jake and Lynn, started in 1929 and were the original Beutler Brothers.”

Grandpa Elra and Bennie’s dad, Jiggs, formed Beutler and Son Rodeo Company when Jiggs came out of the Army after World War II, and Bennie, Rhett and Jake are carrying on the proud tradition.

“There’s been a Beutler here in Burwell since 1947,” Bennie said. “We got North Platte that same year. I was 6 years old the first time I remember coming to Burwell. We’re all friends here and have been forever.”

Bennie and Burwell announcer and ProRodeo Hall of Famer Hadley Barrett go all the way back, too. “I was 6 or 7 the first time I ever saw Hadley announce a rodeo,” Bennie said. “His boots were red with yellow tops, and I thought those were the coolest boots I’d ever seen. Hadley was announcing the rodeo in Wallace, Nebraska, and he’d take a break from the microphone to go ride a bareback horse, rope a calf, then ride a bull. I thought he was the greatest cowboy ever.

“After the rodeo they had a dance out in the middle of the pasture, and Hadley Barrett and the Westerners were the band. I was there with my dad, who’d hauled a load of bulls up there and picked up a load of bucking horses from Bill O’Conner. They traded back and forth a lot for 20 years. But I haven’t ever forgotten that first impression of Hadley Barrett. It was pretty impressive.”

Hadley will be 87 next month. Make that 87 going on 25. Like Bennie, Ote and Jim, Hadley found his calling in life and has lived his dream ever since. To watch him work is to know that he truly loves every minute of what he does. He has complete command of everything going on in front of him—be it arena action or chuckwagons lapping the track full blast at Burwell—and yet interjects fun and funny facts all perf long, elevating the entertainment factor far beyond the top floor.

“People talk about us being a rodeo family, and for me it’s more like a rodeo neighborhood,” grins Hadley, a Nebraska native who now lives in Kersey, Colo., with his wife, Lee, who raises world-class Golden Retrievers. “We just have a larger backyard than most people do. And if I were to quit, I wouldn’t get to see all my friends. I rode bulls here in Burwell in the 1950s, and always had dreams of working this rodeo. Now it’s like coming home for me. I come into town a couple days early to spend time with these people.”

Hadley, who hand-picked fellow Nebraska native Travis Schauda as his Burwell co-announcer this year, says the Beutlers were “one of the first stock contractors who endorsed me.” Hadley was one of the first announcers who ever endorsed 2016 Burwell Grand Marshal Berry years before his ProRodeo career kicked off. Ote won the 1980 National High School Rodeo Association steer wrestling title the same year he graduated from Gordon (Neb.) High.

There was a special opportunity for the cowboy sport’s young guns that year, the Nestea Teenage Top Hand Challenge. The top three kids from each state in every event faced off in a qualifier. Ote advanced from Nebraska to the regional finals to the finals, which was held during that year’s National Finals Rodeo in Oklahoma City. The fact that Roy Duvall, who went on to be Ote’s traveling partner, mentor and hero, let the lanky kid ride his reigning Steer Wrestling Horse of the Year Whiskey, and that Roy’s brother, Bill, who went on to become Ote’s second dad, hazed for him is another story. It was Hadley’s charge to interview the young champ on the NFR telecast back behind the bucking chutes right after the bulldogging. At 5’5”, Hadley immediately went to scrambling for a bucket to stand on so both of their faces could fit on the screen.

“Ote had just won the whole damn thing, and though he was only 17 he was as tall as he is today,” Hadley remembers well of the ranch-raised kid who at that time was stacking hay by hand with a pitchfork and behind a team of horses in the Nebraska hayfields for Buck Buckles, dad of NFR header Jerry. “I knew of the Berry family, but you don’t expect a kid that age to be a foot taller than you are. We had to think fast and make some adjustments. It’s fun for me for this friendship to come full circle here in Burwell, because I’ve gotten to watch Ote all the way through. He’s a hell of a cowboy and a hell of a good guy. Always has been. I have never, ever met an enemy of his. I’m betting that’s because he doesn’t have one.”

Ote—who Oct. 1 will be inducted into the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City along with his fellow members of the Class of 2016, which include Jake Barnes, Clay O’Brien Cooper, Bud and Jimmie Munroe, and Wick Peth, plus Ben Johnson Award winner Jack Roddy and Tad Lucas Award recipient Amberley Snyder—took me the long way around when we left Burwell, so he could show me another sight I’d never seen before.

All these years I’d assumed the Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D.—Mitchell’s the home of the Corn Palace Stampede Rodeo mid-July every summer—was something similar to San Francisco’s Cow Palace, as in a big indoor arena. Not. You have to see it to get it, but the Corn Palace is a Taj Mahal-type building covered in murals made of corn. They change it up on an annual basis, and this year’s theme is Rock of Ages, so I got to see Elvis Presley and Willie Nelson’s faces made of maize. In 2006, the theme was Salute to Rodeo, and that got left up an entire extra year due to severe drought.

What a welcomed weekend detour on my way to the ProRodeo Hall of Fame induction festivities in Colorado Springs. Every rodeo has a story. Every member of the rodeo family has a story. Lucky us to get to live them.

Courtesy of PRCA