Chuck Sheppard lived a life that few who are alive today can relate to, but all wish we could. He was born in 1916 in Globe, Arizona. When he was two-years-old, his father packed him and his sister into what would become their home on Mescal Creek in the mountains south of Globe, on the back of a mule.
There, his father Horace Sheppard did the only things he knew how to do: break horses, gather wild cattle and raise a world champion rodeo cowboy. It was rough country, the kind that forces people to get tough or die.
An old letter written by Chuck's younger brother Lynn recounts what life was like:
"Our home was 15 miles south of Globe on Silver Creek and there were no roads. We went to town three to four times a year. Dad expected us to do everything that he did and thought nothing of putting Chuck on broncs when he was nine and 10 years old. By the time Chuck was 15, he could ride most any of the horses. We also raised cattle and the Pinal Mountains in back of the house had a lot of wild cattle running on it. Dad and Chuck roped the wild cattle on broncs and tied them to trees. They were led out the next day and put in our pasture. The Pinal Mountains were covered with brush and our pit bull dogs were a necessity."
In 1932, at the age of 16, without much of a formal education-but an unparalleled cowboy education-Chuck entered his first rodeo in Hayfork, California. He had gone to live with his mother in California when the Great Depression had its grip on the nation. In the meantime, his father traded the ranch on Mescal Creek for a wagon and a team.
Times were lean, but in 1936 as the country was beginning to pick itself up and dust itself off, a small group of rodeo cowboys took a stand at the Boston Gardens against a rodeo promoter named W.T. Johnson and refused to participate until the contestant's entry fees were added to the purse. That was the formation of the Cowboy's Turtle Association, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association's predecessor, and a year later Chuck Sheppard joined up and held card number 68 from then until his death.
As a full-time rodeo cowboy, he rodeoed across the United States, from Los Angeles to New York. In fact, in the old days of the eastern rodeos in Chicago, New York and Boston, they would travel by train and load Chuck's timed-event horses right in with the bucking stock. It's fitting, since when the rodeo started Sheppard would be entered in every event.
Within 10 years, Sheppard became the 1946 World Team Roping Champion (only one cowboy was recognized for the award in those days) the only world title he ever won. That year, it only took $3,368 to win it all. But if there was ever a cowboy for whom world title count doesn't tell the whole story, it was Chuck Sheppard.
He won all-around titles in Denver, Lewiston, Idaho, Boise (for three years running) Hayward, Calif., Tucson and Prescott, Ariz. He won bronc titles in Salinas, Calif., Tucson, Chicago and Los Angeles.
Sheppard topped all the tough broncs of the day, including Andy Juarequi's Golden Rule; Harry Rowell's Sceneshifter, Hypodermic and The Wild Swede; Christensen Brothers' Miss Klamath and Bernard and Moomaw's Badger Mountain. In fact, Weldon Rutledge recounts Sheppard's first successful ride aboard Christensen Brothers' famous three-time bucking horse of the year, War Paint, in this 1988 excerpt from the Southwestern Horseman.
Back in the early fifties, Christensen Bros.' noted "War Paint" was bucking almost everyone off that got on him in the saddle bronc riding. Chuck studied his pattern of bucking for many months, then finally, the "great match-up" came when Chuck drew him at Red Bluff, California, in 1954. When "Cowboy Chuck" climbed over the chute, settled down on "War Paint's" rough old back, and "nodded for the gate," he had his plan of attack all figured out. It worked; he "whistled up" on one of the toughest bucking horses of the time to win the bronc riding title at Red Bluff that year. When fellow bronc rider, Ross Dollarhide, quizzed him as to "how did you get him ridden?", Chuck grinned and said, "Just slip that halter out over his left ear. He won't buck so hard and he's a piece of cake to ride."
He won calf roping championships in Pendleton, Ore., Denver, Los Angeles and Portland. In fact, he even won the short-lived International Rodeo Association's world calf roping title in 1951. That same year he returned to the old place on Mescal Creek that his father had traded for a wagon and a team and bought it back for $50,000.
After helping the Cowboy's Turtle Association reorganize in 1945 to become the Rodeo Cowboys Association, Sheppard was elected to serve on the first board of directors. Beginning in 1947, Sheppard served 10 years in the post.
He designed the first trophy saddles for the RCA champions, flagged the NFR steer roping three times and the NFR team roping twice.
He retired from full-time rodeo competition in 1959 to manage the K4 Ranch in Prescott, Ariz., with his late wife, Gwen, who he married in 1942. But as any team roper knows, retirement in cowboy terms doesn't mean quitting. He produced junior rodeos. In 1965 at the age of 49 he won the all around title in Tucson. In 1998, at the age 82, Sheppard raked in $7,000 and a saddle at a Prescott team roping.
But what's more, Sheppard's legacy won't die with him. His family, both extended and immediate, has had a huge influence on the sport. His younger brother Lynn was inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center in Oklahoma City a year ago and Lynn's wife, Nancy, was a trick rider and roper who performed at all the great rodeos and perfected the trick of standing on a horse and spinning a rope in each hand. She joined Chuck in the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in 2003. (He was inducted in 2000.) His daughters, Stella and Lynda, along with their husbands, have raised a new generation of rodeo cowboys. Lynda's son Rick Kieckhefer qualified to the 2002 Wrangler NFR as a tie-down roper and his brother Johnny won the Prescott steer wrestling title in 2003. Their cousin, Charlie Lewis, is also a PRCA steer wrestler and team roper and their Rick's wife, Sarah, is a WPRA cardholder.
Beyond the family that will keep his legacy alive, he is also immortalized in the halls of two prestigious organizations. The Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center in Oklahoma City made him an inductee in 1985 and in 2001 awarded him the prestigious Ben Johnson Award.
The ProRodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, Colo., placed his plaque on the wall of their All-Around section in 2000.
Upon his latter induction, the cowboy said, "I'm glad to be here with all these top hands. It's great to join some old friends who are already here."
And on June 14, as he lay surrounded by his family in his final hour, he could have uttered those same words.
Memorials may be made to the Chuck and Gwen Sheppard Memorial Rodeo Scholarship Fund, University of Arizona Scholarship Department, 1111 North Cherry Avenue, Tucson, AZ 85721 or the Chuck Sheppard Memorial Fund, ProRodeo Hall of Fame, 101 ProRodeo Drive, Colorado Springs, CO 80919. STW