Dusk began to settle over the Idaho-Montana border as Deb Copenhaver steered his vehicle down the highway. The 83-year-old Copenhaver was becoming a little concerned as darkness approached. "My eyes aren't as good as they once were,'' said the two-time world saddle bronc champion.
His passenger, George Richmond, offered to drive. "George said he was a pretty good night driver,'' Copenhaver recalled. Richmond is 88 years old.
The two former rodeo greats finally made it to a friends' house that evening and were back on the road the next day. Nothing, not darkness nor age, was going to stop Copenhaver and Richmond from attending the Cowboy Reunion in Billings, Mont., presented by the Montana Pro Rodeo Hall and Wall of Fame. Richmond was one of the events Wall of Fame inductees, while Copenhaver was one of the many world champions invited to attend. Some of the former world champions attending included Clint Johnson, Alvin Nelson, Bill Smith, Deb Greenough, Larry Peabody, Shawn Davis and C.R. Boucher.
But the attendance of Copenhaver and Richmond were just one small part of the event. The Cowboy and Cowgirl Reunion is the organization's fund-raiser for its annual scholarship program for graduating high school students. By honoring its past, rodeo is preserving its future.
The past two years, the Montana Pro Rodeo Hall and Wall of Fame has awarded almost $70,000 in scholarship money to six boys and six girls who plan to compete in rodeo at their selected college or university. This year's event, held the last weekend of January, was going to allow the MPRHWF to hand out $36,000 in scholarship money to the 12 plus two rodeo queens. The Montana Pro Rodeo Hall and Wall of Fame is a non-profit group, run strictly by volunteers.
"It's great to give those kids a chance,'' said Benny Reynolds, a former world all-around champion. Reynolds was one of the many former world champions in attendance at this year's event that was held the last weekend in January. "To help out these kids, to give them a little push, that's what we're here for.''
The idea to help high school students began three years ago. Originally, the MPRHWF was organized to find tribute to Montana's rich rodeo history. Through fund-raising and donations, a Rodeo Wall of Fame was constructed in front of MetraPark Arena in Billings. The centerpiece is a 17-foot tall bronze of seven-time world champion Dan Mortensen aboard the horse Tee Box.
"We were sitting around a board meeting trying to think of something we could do to help somebody,'' recalled Mike Okragly, the president of the board. According to Okragly, a person on the board mentioned the group already awarded one scholarship. "For how much?'' he asked.
"$250,'' was the reply.
"We can do better,'' Okragly said.
That started the first Cowboy and Cowgirl Reunion, a chance to bring rodeo greats into one setting for fans and the former competitors themselves. The day-long event features art shows, western trade booths, a live auction, a silent auction and a prime-rib dinner, followed by a dance.
"The first year, we were talking about raising $6,000 to $7,000,'' said Okragly. "Then about halfway through we thought we might give out $12,000. When the smoke cleared, we were at $30,000.
"We were pleasantly surprised to say the least.''
The invitation-only event drew more than 600 people this year. The group does not decide who receives the scholarship money. That is determined by criteria set down by officials of the Montana High School Rodeo Association.
"They know the kids, they know the kids in need,'' Okragly said.
The scholarship winners are announced at the Montana High School Rodeo Finals and officially recognized at the organization's Beans and Barbecue dinner in Billings in June.
The scholarship money goes directly to the school and does not become official until the student has spent at least one semester there.
"It's a one-time deal. Our aim is to get them there,'' Okragly continued.
This year's event featured four father-and-son world champions: Butch Myers (steer wrestling) and Rope Myers (steer wrestling); Deb Copenhaver (saddle bronc) and Jeff Copenhaver (tie-down roping); Bobby Steiner (bull riding) and Sid Steiner (steer wrestling) and John Jones and John Jones Jr., both steer wrestling.
The main speaker was former astronaut Frank Borman, commander of the Apollo 8 mission that was the first to circle the moon