Two summers ago, the rodeo world said goodbye to a legend in the sport, Clem McSpadden. The former general manager of the National Finals Rodeo, McSpadden was one of the greatest voices in the sport. He died in July 2008. This past May, I was invited by his widow, Donna, to visit Clem’s office in Chelsea, Okla., while I was in that neck of the woods for the Will Rogers Stampede in nearby Claremore. We spent hours talking, and I will always cherish that memory. I’m thankful for the friendship I had with Clem for so many years; I’m thankful for the friendship I have with Donna, too. It is a fabulous blessing. Below is a story I wrote the day after Clem’s death that appeared in several publications. It’s my tribute to a rodeo hero and legend, and a man who called me friend.
He took a drag of his Marlboro Light and pondered just a moment.
“He asked me that if he died before I did, would I read the Cowboy’s Prayer at his funeral,” Clem McSpadden told me, reflecting on his relationship with world champion bull rider Freckles Brown and the wonderful piece of prose he had written that had served as the benediction before hundreds of rodeo performances. “He did, and I did.”
That was the first of many conversations/interviews I would have with Clem over my career as a rodeo journalist. He was working the Dodge City (Kan.) Round-Up that August, just as he had done for many summers. I was working at the Dodge City Daily Globe, and I knew Clem’s wonderful storytelling would translate quite well to the paper’s readership.
We sat in a booth at Big Art’s Steaks and Spirits for hours that day as he recounted much of his award-winning, public-servant life. That was 12 summers ago, but that fabulous experience is welded deep in my memory.
Clem died late Monday, July 7, 2008, after a long battle with cancer.
I miss my friend already, less than 24 hours after his courageous fight ended.
My move to Oklahoma
Whether it was in Weatherford or Kingfisher or Guymon or at the Lazy E Arena, Clem McSpadden and I ran our boots in the same red dirt often during my six-year reign at The Oklahoman, where I spent a number of years as the rodeo correspondent.
Each time we’d gather, Clem would ask about my life. He genuinely cared about me, but that was Clem McSpadden with literally hundreds of people. His heart was the biggest and best thing about him.
His stories weren’t far behind, whether it was a tale about how he began his announcing career or stories about his grandchildren.
He was a wealth of knowledge on so many subjects, and he wasn’t afraid to give you his honest opinion – about the state of politics today or about his concerns for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. He was an easy source for me when I needed some background on a rodeo story. He had the classic ability to take a five-minute phone call and turn it into an hour of joy, recanting stories or opining about his passions.
In my time with Clem, I learned more about the sport of rodeo, about its history, about its people. I felt as though I knew Lane Frost well, though we’d never met. I heard stories about Freckles Brown and Roy Cooper and Tom Ferguson. I felt the affection Clem held for so many people, whether it was his beloved wife, Donna, or world champions like Roy Duvall.
Each time we kicked at the dirt or sat together in the announcer’s stand or just greeted one another in passing, he said the same thing: “Ted, my friend, how are you?” with emphasis added on “you.”
As I imagine hundreds will say over the course of the coming days and weeks, Clem McSpadden cared about you.
I will cherish that memory as much as any other.
A story himself
Clem was a storyteller, whether it was over the microphone at Round-Up Arena in Dodge City or in that booth at Big Art’s or over the phone from his Oklahoma City apartment, which he kept while working in the state’s capital city.
My wife and I were fortunate enough to be inside the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas in December 2005 for the first performance of that year’s National Finals Rodeo, when my friend strolled out in front of the bucking chutes to pay his tribute to the sport he loved so dearly.
He said the Cowboy’s Prayer and “If Our Flag Could Talk,” two wonderful pieces he penned. Then he told a story of paying a talented young lady from southeastern Oklahoma $10 to sing the National Anthem during the 1974 National Finals Rodeo in Oklahoma City, where Clem served as the general manager for 18 years.
Upon the conclusion of that tale, Clem held up a $10 bill and introduced, again, Reba McEntire before a sold-out crowd.
As I listened to my friend that night, I heard the pride in his raspy, well-used voice, and I felt the chills shiver my body. I looked at my wife, and a tear stemming from my own pride fell from my eye.
A few months later while visiting with Donna McSpadden at the Lazy E Arena, she added to that wonderful story. That evening after the rodeo, she said, the McSpaddens were invited to the large suite Reba shared with her family. Upon entering, Clem and Donna were greeting by a $10-bill-wielding Reba. “Clem, this $10 bill paid for all this,” she said, referring, of course, her phenomenal career.
I can only image how much Clem’s heart swelled that evening, but I could definitely see it in the eyes of his lovely wife as she let us in on a reflection of his life.
Far too long
I don’t remember the last time I spoke with Clem McSpadden. It’s been several months, I know, but the exact date escapes me. I know it was over the phone, and I know it had something to do with rodeo.
I knew Clem had cancer, and I prayed for him in his battle against the disease that took my mother’s life and the lives of many family and friends. The last time we sat down for a visit was the weekend of the inaugural World’s Greatest Roper at the Lazy E Arena in October 2006.
That was also the weekend our friends, Robert and Shayla Simpson, married. We enjoyed the weekend, talking about the ropers that were competing and the ones that weren’t. We laughed, sharing jokes about Robert, a longtime Lazy E administrator, and his lovely, yet much taller bride.
I loved listening to Clem laugh, witnessing that smirk that came across his aged face.
From my typical perch at the Lazy E, a mere 15 feet from the voice of the arena, I not only heard the stories of Checotah, the steer wrestling capital of the world, and the legends of ProRodeo that everyone else in the stands could hear, but I was honored to hear his off-mic comments, too. That’s where Clem’s dry sense of humor was showcased.
This is my tribute
Bryan Painter wrote Clem McSpadden’s obituary that has appeared much of
Tuesday on The Oklahoman’s Web site, NewsOK.com.
Before I was fortunate enough to get the assignment, Bryan was the rodeo correspondent for Oklahoma’s largest newspaper for many years. He, like many of us, lost a dear friend Monday night, and Bryan’s professionalism – and his affection for Clem – shines in the words he writes in tribute to one of Oklahoma’s favorite sons.
In the obit, wonderful folks like Reba McEntire, five-time saddle bronc world champion Billy Etbauer and three-time steer wrestling champ Roy Duvall offered their thoughts on Clem’s life and death.
Today, I mourn the loss of Clem Rogers McSpadden. He was a statesman, a patriot and a rodeo legend.
He was also my friend.
The best tribute this day comes in the form of an excerpt from his own writings, his own voice, the Cowboy’s Prayer:
“So, when we make that last ride, that we know is inevitable, to the country up there — where the grass is green and lush and stirrup high and the water runs crystal clear and deep, You will tell us, as we enter that Arena, our entry fees are paid.”