Even at 84 years young, Bill Stewart can still remember many of his experiences as a rodeo cowboy just as clearly as though they happened yesterday. And the memories have been good enough that he considers himself to be a very lucky man.
"I was born and raised a cowboy," Stewart said as he glanced out the living room window on a view overlooking Carson City from his the home where he has lived since 1976. "That's all I've ever been and all I've ever wanted to be. I've had some ranch managing jobs (formerly part of the Bureau of Land Management wild horse program). My place here, it's not a palace but it's a good cowboy camp. I've never drawn an unemployment check in my life, raised two pretty girls and had a beautiful wife (Jan). So I've done all right."
Stewart has also done well enough to compete as a rodeo cowboy, to earn gold cards as a lifetime member of both the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) and National Senior Pro Rodeo Association (NSPRA), and to earn a place in the National Senior Pro Rodeo Association Hall of Fame in 2001.
He still hasn't reached the end of his trail, either.
Stewart won't compete this weekend at the sixth annual Dayton Rodeo, a regular stop on the National Senior Pro Rodeo Association circuit. It's the first time he won't be compete at the Dayton event, but he is awaiting surgery for a hearing implant in October. His status is also questionable for the National Senior Rodeo Finals on Oct. 28-Nov. 3 at the Reno Livestock Events Center.
"I've been in the association 18, 19 years and I've roped at every Final they've had," Stewart said. "The condition I'm in now. I could probably team rope, but I might not get the job done proper. So instead of jeopardizing my header (John Whitmer of Fallon), I drew out and told him to get somebody else. I just didn't feel right about it."
Then again, he isn't ready to completely give up on his winning streak.
"They're going to put the implant in here about Oct. 12 or something like that," he said. "If, after they put that implant in, and I feel comfortable with it and I'm in good shape, I will find a partner to rope the Finals."
Stewart does consider himself to be on a winning streak.
"Even this little Senior Pro Rodeo Association means a lot to me," he said. "It keeps guys like me out of that rocking chair. I don't know, really, what I'd do if we didn't have this little association. I'll get back to it. You bet I will."
Stewart's blue eyes twinkled as he pulled out his two gold cards.
"I'm pretty proud of those," Stewart said. "They mean a bundle. There's a lot of memories in those cards, and a lot of time. I've been a lot of miles. I used to think that white line out in the middle of the highway was a rubber band and I was trying to find the end of it."
For example, he spent more than six months on the road one year traveling from one senior event to the next.
"That was 1987, or somewhere in there. We left here on April 7 and got back on Nov. 3," Stewart recalled. "I had a nice motor home at that time and we traveled 24,800-and-some-odd miles and rodeoed in Canada and 11 states. I was gone seven months and, boy, I had a ball."
Other memories are just as vivid. One of those was the day he decided to stop riding bulls.
"I rode my last bull when I was 38," Stewart said. "I got in the bull riding; the first bull fell with me and the second bull fell. They gave me a re-ride, and the third one, he went down, so they asked me if I wanted another re-ride and I said no. I just went home that night, threw my bull rope on the porch and I said, 'I quit. The Old Boy upstairs is telling me, 'That's enough.'"
Through the years, he was good enough to finish as Nevada state runner-up in calf roping three straight years and to win a state championship one year in team roping. The highlights have been countless, although one stood out in particular.
"My best memory was the Salinas rodeo in about 1970 or somewhere in there," Stewart said "I didn't have a partner for the team roping so I got the word out all around California that I was looking for a partner. A woman called my wife and she told us to go ahead and put her husband in. She said he wasn't going to be home until Friday, but to go ahead and put him in anyway. So I didn't know the guy, didn't know who he was, never seen him rope or anything. This was one of the biggest rodeos on the West Coast -- that year they had 105 teams -- but Jack and I were clean on our first throw, clean on our second, clean on our third and clean on our fourth. We won second and I never knew the guy or anything."
Stewart remembers just as vividly his first rodeo experience at age 8 in 1926 in his native San Joaquin Valley.
"That's a long time ago ... 1926 ... the Chowchilla Home Ranch between Los Banos and Chowchilla. That was a big cow outfit with a great big yard. They plugged it (the roads) off with Model-T's and wagons and had a big country gathering," Stewart said. "On the way down there, my dad told me, 'You've been riding those branding calves pretty good; I'm going to put you in the calf riding.' We got down there and found out they didn't ride calves. They rode big old yearlings, but dad strapped me onto one of them and once the chute opened up, I was out there in the open."
About the second or third jump out of the chute, the strap on young Stewart's hat got stuck in his ears and then the hat dropped down over his face so he couldn't see.
"The calf bucked me off, naturally," Stewart said with a chuckle. "All the ranchers were all hollering and hooting and everything and clapping, and I said to myself, 'You might be laughing at me today, but one of these days I'll be a champion. I've never made the championship, but I've sure had a lot of fun trying."
Stewart has had three operations on his right shoulder and three surgeries on his knee, yet he remains as enthusiastic about the sport as ever. Quit? No way.
"Quitting. That's the toughest thing to do in rodeo there is. Twenty years ago, I tried to quit and I couldn't make the grade. You can't quit," Stewart said. "I can go saddle my horse and go rope. You don't know how lucky I've been in life. You don't realize it; I do. You bet I do."
IF YOU GO
What: Sixth annual Dayton Senior Pro Rodeo
When: Saturday and Sunday, 8 a.m. (slack), 2 p.m. performance both days (5 p.m. barbecue Saturday)
Where: Dayton Valley Rodeo Grounds (Ricci Road)
Who: National Senior Pro Rodeo Association (youth events will be held at noon both days)
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