Like a good neighbor, the Working Ranch Cowboys Association is there

Dec 3, 2010

Picture this: It’s November 1994.

A guy is sitting at  a bar in Amarillo, TX, minding his own business when a gal comes up to him and says, “Do you have any cattle? We need some cattle.” That is how the stock was contracted by a fledgling outfit 10 days before their three-day rodeo was set to begin. The rodeo was to be held in a 5,000-seat auditorium. Their thin budget had been tapped out and they were now doing business on a handshake. This outfit had no idea if their rodeo was even going to fly, and if it did, they knew it’d be by the seat of their britches. Their neck was on the line.

Fast forward to 2010 as the same rodeo celebrated its 15th anniversary, injecting $2.5 million into the local economy, and that same rodeo has enjoyed steady growth in attendance every year. The rodeo that began with a “starvation outfit” financial plan has evolved into a World Finals Championship Ranch Rodeo of the Working Ranch Cowboys Association (WR- CA). It is the primary fundraiser for the WRCA Foundation, which allocates money for the WRCA Cowboy Crisis Fund and Scholarship Fund. WRCA has dispersed almost $500,000 since its inception.

The condensed version of the history of WRCA, which staged another recordbreaking rodeo in November, reads like this:

A group of guys in Amarillo met 15 years ago at the suggestion of cowboy poet Waddie Mitchell. Mitchell had an idea to form a group interested in showcasing cowboys, their heritage, and the cowboy way of life. Having encountered the “everybody hates a rancher but loves a cowboy” sentiment while working with environmentalists and public lands, Mitchell’s hope was to give folks a better perception of ranchers and cowboys, which he considered to be true stewards of the land.

The group, including folks from western ranching states familiar with cowboy heritage, met, organized and had a meeting with the basic question, “You guys want to do something?” A resounding “yes” followed and all agreed they wanted to form an association and put on a rodeo. Cowboy and western artist Gary Morton of New Mexico was present at that meeting and became one of the WRCA’s original directors.

“I guess ignorance is bliss,” says Morton. “It was pretty amazing that at that first meeting, we decided we wanted to put on a rodeo within a year. We set dates. We had no idea what was going to happen or what we had just committed to. We ran out of money and came up with the idea to have founding members. We did a print of one of my paintings. People wanted it, believed in it, so we offered the print for $200 apiece, generating $40,000 roughly.

That sort of paid the bills and got us started. We had that first rodeo in 1994 and the rodeo has made money since day one.”

Every November, the WRCA World Championship Ranch Rodeo brings together teams that have won WRCA-sanctioned rodeos. There were six qualifying rodeos the first year.

This year, 21 qualified teams competed.

“We like to pay attention to geography to fill spots, trying to sanction rodeos in different parts of the country,” Morton said. “The World Finals brings together cowboys from parts of the ranching world where things might be done a bit differently. We’ve had teams come from all of the western ranching states and, for the past three years, from Florida. The most we’ll ever have is 24 teams, because, just physically, that’s all we can handle with stalls and parking.”

“When Waddie set out to do this, other questions also asked were how could we help find funds for ranch kids’ college and how could we help hurt cowboys make it through a medical crisis?” Soon, a benevolent arm of the WRCA was created with a foundation that helps cowboys and their families in times of need.

“The secret to a good successful foundation is longevity,” Morton explains. “It takes a long time to get yourself established, to have a good track record of handling money, and to do good things with it. The past few years, we have begun seeing some large donations coming from folks sitting back, watching, and they liked what we do. That’s really a landmark thing. We recently had a $16,000 and a $50,000 donation. Those things are going to happen more and more.”

This year’s rodeo highlighted on the goals and accomplishments of WRCA Foundation. The Wednesday night kickoff event, also a fundraiser, introduced the rodeo teams and entertained about 750 people who listened to the music and cowboy poetry of Red Stegall. Several past recipients of the Cowboy Cri sis

Fund spoke about how WRCA helped with their particular circumstances, be it injury, sickness of a family member, or loss of a child. Their experiences enabled the audience to have a better appreciation of how their donations are being used.

The WRCA Cowboy Crisis Fund has helped with many different situations, including severe illness, car accidents, pasture fires, funeral expenses or handicap accesses for an injured cowboy.

“Cowboys are a proud bunch and usually don’t like to ask for help. Many times, applications come from a friend or family member. It’s a confidential process. Although we need to maintain our financial health, we’re not really tight with the funds. We raise it to give away, and that’s what we do,” emphasized Morton.

On Saturday, an auction raised $12,000 for the WR- CA Foundation and included donated items from vendors such as spurs, rawhide braided items and framed prints.

The auction was preceded by scholarship recipients’ descriptions of how the WR- CA Foundation helped with their education. For scholarship eligibility, students have to have a ranching or day working background. Each application is reviewed by WRCA representative Kaycee Hooper who monitors the recipients’ grades each semester, making sure they maintain the required grade point average.

“We’ve had a few recipients whose parents weren’t cowboys or ranchers, but those kids day worked all through high school,” said Hooper. “In the beginning of the program, applicants were local. Now, we are seeing kids apply from states ranging from California, Nevada and Idaho to Florida.

We’re ‘coast to coast!’” In 2010, the WRCA Foundation gave a $50,000 grant to the Ranch and Feedlot Operations Program at Clarendon College. By doing this, the foundation felt they were making an even bigger impact by educating youth and preparing them for work in the ranching industry.

“The monies raised by the WRCF make it possible for us to ease the burdens of cowboys and their families. We have been able to help hundreds through tough times, and that’s a good feeling we can all share in.

There’s more work to do, and we will, with everybody’s continued support,” believes Morton.

What began with an idea 15 years ago has become a reality giving wonderful support for the cowboy and ranch community and providing great entertainment.

Now, picture this: It’s November 2010. A guy is at a bar in Amarillo minding his own business when a gal comes up to him and says, “Do you have any tickets for the WRCA World Championship Ranch Rodeo? We need some tickets for the WRCA World Championship Ranch Rodeo.” And you know the rest of the story ... the performances are sold out! — Ginger Elliott, WLJ Correspondent