The long and winding road

On a windy summer day in Cheyenne, Wyo., in 1958, the Rodeo Cowboys Association (RCA) Board of Directors convened at the Little America Motel. It was July 24, and the Board members were gathered for their annual meeting.

They would end up making history.

For it was at that meeting that the National Finals Rodeo — at long last — was born. After roughly three years of debate by the sport's organizers and major players, the "World Series of Rodeo" finally became a reality. Long called for by legend Casey Tibbs and presented to the Board by Texas public relations expert John VanCronkhite, the first NFR was scheduled for Dec. 26-30, 1959.

It may be difficult for modern-day rodeo fans to understand, but not everyone in power positions in the sport was in favor of having a national finals.

"For two long sessions, we argued long and hard about the concept," Harley May, president of the RCA at the time, said. "The older Board members were really against having a rodeo where entries were limited. In the end, the vote was five for and five against, and I got to cast my only vote in my four-term reign as president."

Cecil Jones, who served as secretary of the first NFR, remembers the debate that preceded the historic Board vote.

"Casey (Tibbs), he was pushing it all the time," Jones said. "They (the Board) discussed it back and forth, and every time everybody would get together they'd talk about it. We had been talking about it for two or three years. There was a lot of static on that we couldn't have a rodeo where we limited the entries. Some of them were very adamant about not qualifying.

"Not only the contestants, but the public said, 'Why don't they have a place where they can really determine a championship and not just decide it after it was all over with?'"

One of those contestants was 16-time world champion Jim Shoulders.

"At that time, I served on the RCA Board as bull riding director," Shoulders wrote in the PRCA's 40th anniversary NFR book titled The Finals. "Like Casey (Tibbs), I too thought it would be great for rodeo. But some Board members were dead-set against it, their viewpoint being that all RCA rodeos were open to any member wanting to enter. Our argument, in rebuttal, was that contestants had to qualify for the short go-round at Cheyenne (Wyo.), Pendleton (Ore.) and all RCA rodeos that had a finals.

"If every contestant knew he had to be in the top 15 money winners to make the NFR, it was no different than making the top 10 or 15 at Cheyenne."

VanCronkhite was made general manager of the NFR, and a seven-member NFR Commission was established. Joining VanCronkhite on the NFRC were: Lex Connelly; Willard Combs; Lynn Beutler; Harry Nelson; May; and Tibbs, with Deb Copenhaver serving as the Commission's alternate member. Two performances were to be held each of the five days of the rodeo, with $50,000 up for grabs during the 10 performances.

World champions had been crowned in ProRodeo since 1929, but now they would be presented with those gold buckles following a culminating event that was to be like none other. That special rodeo has not only stood the test of time, but has prospered into an entertainment spectacle that will celebrate its 50th anniversary Dec. 4-13.

There was much work to do following the controversial Board vote. First on the list was the selection of a host city for the NFR. All of the state governors and mayors in 125 cities were contacted regarding the first NFR. VanCronkhite and others embarked on an 8,000-mile inspection tour, and 25 cities in 18 states were considered as possible sites. In November 1958, a two-day meeting among NFRC members was held at the Cow Palace in San Francisco to make a final decision.

Three cities were finalists for the special honor of hosting the inaugural NFR: Louisville, Ky.; Dallas; and Pecos, Texas. After much deliberation, Dallas was selected as the host city, with the NFR to take place at the Dallas State Fair Grounds.

Tibbs wrote about the city selection process in his Rodeo Sports News column titled "Let 'er Buck" shortly after the decision was made.

"Choosing Dallas, Texas, as the site for the country's first world series rodeo next year took two days of meetings down in San Francisco and about 200 black cigars," he wrote. "It took a long time to decide on Dallas, and it wasn't an easy decision to make. Rodeo guys can handle cantankerous four-legged animals all day long without gettin' bushed, but tryin' to corral a bunch of good ideas into the right chute is just not a cowboy's natural meat.

"After a lot of wranglin,' Dallas won the nod as the trailblazer city for the first National Finals Rodeo, along with what the lawyers call an 'option' to hold it there again the second year — that'd be 1960."

The NFR would stay in Dallas a total of three years, moving to Los Angeles from 1962-64 and Oklahoma City from 1965-84 before shifting to Las Vegas.

Prior to the first NFR, VanCronkhite, May and Shoulders received a special honor: an audience with U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower. VanCronkhite, who served as an adviser to Eisenhower and later to President Lyndon B. Johnson, arranged for the trio to present the president with a golden pass to the first NFR. They made the presentation in the Oval Office on Sept. 29, 1959, and were treated to nearly an hour with the president.

May remembers it well.

"At Madison Square Garden in September of 1959, I got a call one day to come to the rodeo office," said May, a three-time world champion steer wrestler. "When I arrived, there were two men in suits waiting for me. They showed me their FBI badges and asked me my Social Security number and my Army serial number. When I asked 'What for?, they replied, 'It's a security check. You're going to meet the president.'

"The next morning, Jim Shoulders and I were on a plane headed for the nation's capital. A limousine picked us up at the airport and delivered us to the Hays-Adams Hotel, where we checked in. After lunch, we were given a whirlwind tour of D.C., including the Smithsonian, Arlington National Cemetery, the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol building, where we met a couple of senators from Texas, and had a peek in on Congress, which was in session."

The next day was even better.

"Our appointment the next morning was for 10:45 to meet with the president," said May, now 82. "We were ushered into the waiting room at the White House and promptly on time into the Oval Office, where we met President Eisenhower. I presented him with a gold pass for the first NFR to be held in Dallas and after a 10-minute session of photographs and questions by the media, everyone cleared out and the president asked us to sit down and tell him more about rodeo.

"Soon, his secretary came in and told him his next appointment was due. He replied, 'Cancel my next appointment. I want to talk to these boys some more.' We visited for another period, mostly about when he was a second lieutenant in the U.S. Cavalry and his experiences with horses. Again, his secretary came in and told him his next appointment was waiting, and again he replied, 'Cancel it. I'm not through talking to these boys.' All in all, we spent 45 minutes visiting with a really great man and a great host."

According to an article in the Oct. 15, 1959, Rodeo Sports News, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Robert B. Anderson and RCA staff member Mike Swift, who represented the Rodeo Foundation, were also present at the meeting. Secretary Anderson was made an honorary member of the RCA and presented with an engraved card by May. The group talked about all things rodeo, and President Eisenhower was reported to have been "intensely interested in every detail of rodeo."

Floyd Ridgon, a newspaper publisher who was chairman of the Rodeo Foundation, called the White House meeting "the finest single news event in the history of rodeo!"

That honor was a bright spot during a hectic and frenzied planning period that ran from the 1958 Board meeting to the first NFR. As expected, the first NFR was a challenge on a number of fronts.

"Naturally, we ran into many obstacles at the first one," May said. "The West Coast stock contractors came with their semis and trailers, and Texas at that time didn't allow trailers. So, they had to unload part of their stock in Anthony, N.M., take the semi load to Dallas and then go back for the others. Having enough pens was also a problem, since a lot of the stock had to be kept segregated."

It took a concerted and dedicated effort from all involved to make the first National Finals Rodeo a success.

"It was two (performances) a day, and it was a workout," said Jones, who, at the age of 90, still attends the Wrangler NFR. "It was a 24-hour job, and I didn't eat too many meals and didn't sleep too long. I had a lot of help. Everybody cooperated in every way they could, and everybody worked their butts off to make it work. I wouldn't take a million bucks for the experience of doing the first one, but I wouldn't do it again."

When VanCronkhite became ill and had to become hospitalized, Connelly stepped in and took charge of the rodeo's production.

"I don't think he (Connelly) was ever accorded the praise he deserved for the job he did," May said.

VanCronkhite continued as a member of the NFRC until Dec. 26, 1963, four years to the day after the first NFR began in Dallas. He went on to enjoy success in the political realm and passed away April 7, 1974.

Team roping, steer roping and barrel racing were held in Clayton, N.M., but the remaining five events, held in Dallas, provided considerable headlines. As fate would have it, Tibbs' dream of a national finals came just in time. Both he and Shoulders picked up gold buckles at the first NFR, with Tibbs taking the saddle bronc riding crown and Shoulders claiming the all-around and bull riding championships.

It would be the final world titles in both cowboys' ProRodeo Hall of Fame careers.

Jack Buschbom won the bareback riding title, Harry Charters the steer wrestling crown, and Jim Bob Altizer reigned supreme as the world champion tie-down roper.

Shoulders was asked to perform a special function at the first NFR.

"I had been issued the No. 1 back number and got to lead the Oklahoma contestants in the grand entry," Shoulders wrote in The Finals. "I would like to thank Casey Tibbs for coming up with the idea and everyone else connected with each National Finals Rodeo, the greatest sports showcase in professional rodeo."

A total of 25 RCA stock contractors joined forces to provide stock for the first NFR. The top stock chosen that year in Dallas were Harry Knight's Come Apart in the bareback riding, Zumwalt Rodeo Company's Trails End — a member of this year's ProRodeo Hall of Fame induction class — in the saddle bronc riding and Beutler Brothers & Son's Old Speck in the bull riding.

Despite the first-year obstacles and challenges, the inaugural NFR — which was sponsored by the City of Dallas and the Texas State Fair — was a considerable success, with respectable crowds and national media exposure.

History had been made and a new tradition established that is stronger than ever today. After years of debate and uncertainty, rodeo finally had a national finals.

"I was always of the opinion that it was the greatest move the PRCA could make to create a (national) finals," Jones said. "Now, you know that they (contestants) have to earn their way there and aren't just invited, and you know that you are looking at the best of the best of livestock and contestants. I think it's the greatest thing in the world."

For 50 years, millions of rodeo fans have agreed.

NOTE: Special thanks to Harley May and Cecil Jones for their time, guidance and crucial information, which made this story possible. It could not have been written without them.