Rodeo Matriarch: Jan Yates
Remembering Momma Jan

Three generations of our rodeo family have never known life without Jan Yates. Jan made us all feel right at home, whether we were passing through Pueblo or in the contestant-family-seating section up in the stands at a rodeo. She fired up that stove in the kitchen, cleaned stalls and flung hay at the barn, and got rigs and horses to rodeos with the greatest of ease—and always without complaint.

The terms “team player” and “national treasure” could easily have been coined about Jan—who left us so suddenly at 79 on March 4 when her huge heart finally just wore out—in our cowboy community. But the hats Momma Jan wore most proudly were Mom and Grandma. Dick’s wife, Kelly and J.D.’s mom and Trey’s grandma were—by far—Jan’s most treasured titles.

Dick and Jan—two names that roll off the tongue together like Jake and Clay or Tuff and Lane—were coming up on their 61-year April 19 anniversary when she headed home to Heaven. Talk about a team. For those of us lucky enough to get to see such glory days as when Dick, Kelly and J.D. became the only father-daughter-son trio ever to compete at the National Finals Rodeo the same year (1984), or going all the way back, when J.D. heeled for Dick at the 1975 NFR at 15 years, 4 months of age to become the youngest NFR contestant of all time, it was obvious that Jan was at the center of it all.

“Jan was everything to this family,” Dick said. “She was the cog. It’s amazing all the cowboys that went through here over the years that she fed and took care of. And back before Procom (ProRodeo’s central entry system), Jan did all the entering. 

 “It’s been a good ride. One thing I’m really thankful for was our last trip out to Vegas last December. She got to watch Trey rope at (and win) the NFR. Heck, I got lucky and won a little money ($111,000 at the World Series Finale), too. Jan was a pretty happy lady.”

Jan fell and broke her hip in the fall of 2017. It made getting around rough for the rest of her days. Still, no complaints. Jan was never, ever one to whine.

“Mom was the rock,” Kelly said. “She was everything behind our success. She was our success. Mom wanted everybody to be happy and healthy and do good. She always kind of forgot about herself. She was the caretaker of everyone—our family and everyone who showed up. She cooked. She washed clothes.

“Mom was more than glue, because glue comes apart. She was like a heavy stitch on a saddle—strong enough to last forever and unbreakable in her support. We depended on her. And she always came through.”

So many friends from every decade of her life have stepped forward with stories of Momma Jan since she passed. Cowboys who are 50 now say she taught them how to swim at a hotel pool during a rodeo layover when they were little. Or they laugh at how they were always welcome at the house, but had to pick up after themselves and make their bed. They all say Jan made them feel special.

“Mom was always steady and strong,” Kelly continued. “I was a gymnast and a cheerleader, and she was always there. When I was fighting to make the Finals, she was helping me drive. Then when I made it, she went straight to work on my NFR outfits. She was exhausted, but for her it was a good tired.

“Mom held everything together. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be here or who I am. She had a good life, and we had a good life with her. She was all about kindness. She showed us how to treat people the way you want them to treat you. Everybody was welcome, even if you weren’t one of her favorites. She was never ugly to anybody. We all miss her so much. There are tears, but they’re happy tears.”

I’ve never known a pair of kids more grateful for their parents’ role in their lives than Kelly and J.D. They’ve never taken Dick and Jan for granted, and J.D.’s been appreciatively emotional about it for years.

“She was the epitome of the old-fashioned rodeo mom,” J.D. said proudly of Jan. “There’s no telling how many cowboys she was a mom to, or how many guys have told me over the years, ‘When I didn’t have a mom in my life, your mom was always there for me.’ She made sure everybody was fed and had clean clothes, and if she was your friend, you could count on her.

“Back in the day, she would sit on the phone for hours to get us and a bunch of other people entered in the rodeos. She made all our travel arrangements, and when we were gone she did all the feeding and cleaning around this place. She handled the bills and the books. I never once worried about the insurance on my truck or trailer or my credit card bill being paid. I don’t know what she didn’t do.”

The most important life lesson Momma Jan taught her son?

“My mom was a winner in life,” J.D. said. “She always showed us that if you treat people right, good things will happen to you. Do the right thing, and it’ll all work out.”

J.D. remembers a day they saddled up the horses and headed to the arena after school when Jan popped the gate 116 times.

“Chutes were all manual back then,” he said. “After loading steers and opening that gate 116 times, she told us she’d had enough and that she was going to rope the last one. By God, my dad turned a steer for her and she caught him. She was completely satisfied. She got off, went to the house and cooked dinner.

“Mom was a great critic. She didn’t rope much herself, but she knew what needed to happen to help you win. And she didn’t have to say a lot for you to get it and go do it. She watched and studied roping so much that she knew what it took to put yourself in a position to win.”

The only “house rules” in the Yates Family Arena: No fighting.

“My dad has a set of rules,” J.D. said of the policy that still stands today. “We can discuss all the roping and horses we want to, but there’s absolutely no bickering or fighting in the arena. And Mom held everybody accountable to that rule. No arguing. She very seldom raised her voice, but when she did you knew you were in a bind.”

J.D.’s always been a steak man, but he’s never met a match for Momma Jan’s spaghetti sauce. Fact is, a lot of cowboys entered the rodeo at Pueblo for first and last on purpose over the years to partake in Momma Jan’s home cooking.

I have fond grandstand memories spanning sitting with Jan at the rodeo in Santa Maria, California, when I was a kid to the College Finals in Casper, Wyoming, where we watched my sons and her grandson to last year’s NFR in Las Vegas. No one lit up Grandma Jan these past few years quite like her sunshine boy Trey.

“Grandma Jan was the backbone of our whole operation,” Trey said. “Her whole life revolved around my grandpa, my aunt, my dad and me—and our happiness. And no matter what, she always had a smile on her face. But if you were to look inside our family arena, you’d see that the Yates family is very competitive. We don’t like losing. What I realize now is that that mentality was driven by my grandma. She did not like losing, either. She had the same winning mentality as the rest of us. Or should I say that’s why the rest of us have it? Grandma Jan was a fierce competitor.

“She always strived to be a good person, too. No matter what was going on, she tried to make everybody’s day better, and she never let her problems affect anyone else. She loved every person who walked in and out of that house and arena. She took care of everyone like they were her own, and made everybody feel welcome. What makes me happy is that she was satisfied and happy when she passed. She’d done everything she wanted to do, and shared a great life with her family.”

We all know J.D. is one of a handful of switch-ending handymen who’ve headed and heeled at the NFR, and that he headed at The Big Show for cousin Jay Wadhams. Jay is the son of John and Raeana Wadhams, and Raeana is Dick’s sister. So Jay, too, cut his roping teeth in the Yates family arena.

“Jan was like my second mom,” said Jay, who like cousin J.D. is now heavily involved on the roping side of the horseshow world. “My mom and dad lived a ways out of town, so I lived with Dick and Jan from when I was a freshman in high school through college. I helped out keeping horses legged up, cleaning stalls, hauling hay and whatever else needed to be done, and when I got my driver’s license I went and drove for Dick and J.D.

“When I started rodeoing, Jan took care of all of us. She handled all the entering and trades back before cell phones. There were times I roped with Dick at the rodeos when I was in college. And Jan did it all. She was the hub who kept it all going. Jan was tough—she made us all pick up after ourselves—but she was fair.

“Jan took care of so many people. During the big slacks at Pueblo, there were big lunches and big dinners by Jan, countless horses tuned up out in that arena, then Dick would fill trailers full of hay before everybody went on their way. I’ve seen Dick shoe a lot of horses for people for nothing. That’s just who Dick and Jan have always been—good, old-school, giving people.”

Jay remembers asking Jan for a rare day off from chores to go fishing one day.

“Jan said it was fine, as long as we brought her back some fish,” Jay said. “We fished all day and didn’t catch one. We didn’t dare disappoint Jan, so we stopped at a fish hatchery on the way home and bought 12 of the nicest trout money could buy. Jan cooked them up, then we finally confessed a couple hours after dinner. Jan was mad. But we had to hold up our end of the deal.

“One year we were at the World Show, and about 20 of us went to dinner. All of us boys were sitting at one end of the table, and about the time we were done with all the desserts, Dick went to the restroom. On his way back, he grabbed a fancy dessert off of the display tray and set it down in front of us. Jan had gone to pay the bill with J.D.’s credit card, and when she got back she cussed us for not finishing all the desserts. She didn’t want it to go to waste, so she took a big old bite. When she realized it was just a display model for show made of solid butter she started cussing us. Dick started laughing, so we all had a big laugh over that.”

Yes, Momma Jan could take a joke. And you didn’t have to be a blood relative to feel like family with Jan. She opened her heart and her home to so many of us. Heck, she helped raise us. That very long list of lucky Jan Yates adoptees includes World Champion Heeler Bobby Harris.

“Jan didn’t just hold the fort down at home, she held the whole outfit together,” Bobby said. “I went and stayed with them there in Pueblo when I was 18 in 1981 (the year Bobby made his first Finals), and I was roping with (fellow Wyoming native) Scott Laramore, who was living in Fruita, Colorado, at the time. We were all the kids, and Jan was the mom. Scott and I were buddying with Dick and J.D., and she didn’t just feed us, but handled all our business. She treated us like part of the family.

“Jan ran the show, and she ran a tight ship. There was always work to be done—in the house, on the phone, entering, trades, travel arrangements—and Dick was always saying, ‘Tell Jan, she’ll take care of it.’”

Nine-time NFR heeler Bret Tonozzi won the Colorado High School Rodeo Association state team roping title with J.D. in 1977, when J.D. was a junior and he was a senior.

“J.D. outheeled me, but he outheaded me, too, so he headed,” smiled Tonozzi, who won back-to-back NFR team roping averages heeling for David Motes and Mark Simon in 1991-92. “The Yates family raised me for a while. I was rodeoing with Scott Laramore right after I graduated from high school, and J.D. let me ride his good bay horse Bebo (the horse J.D. heeled on at his first Finals in 1975, that before that was one of Dick’s head horses). Scott and I buddied with Dick and J.D., and the whole family was so good to me.

“I’d never have made the NFR without the Yateses. I owe a lot of my career to that whole family. I stayed at their house and they were just really good to me. Some of my best memories are drinking coffee in the morning with Jan. She had a lot of wisdom. I can still see her walking around that kitchen making coffee and keeping us all fed. Jan Yates was a rodeo mom.”

And that didn’t just go for team ropers. ProRodeo Hall of Fame steer wrestler Ote Berry college rodeoed with J.D. But his history with the Yates family dates back to before that, when the 1980 National High School Rodeo Association steer wrestling champ also qualified to compete at the Nestea Challenge, which was a featured special event held at the 1980 NFR in Oklahoma City.

Ote rode Roy Duvall’s 1980 Steer Wrestling Horse of the Year Whiskey—whom Roy was also riding at the Finals—to win it. When late announcing great Hadley Barrett interviewed him live in the arena and for the telecast, Ote said, “I’d like to thank Roy Duvall for letting me ride his great horse Whiskey.” For some reason, that struck J.D.’s funny bone and set off the world-famous J.D. Yates cackle.

“J.D. laughed and made fun of me, and he’s called me Whiskey ever since,” Ote said. “The Yateses are family to a lot of us. There’s no telling how many hundreds—if not thousands—of us have stopped in there and spent the night that Jan’s cooked and cleaned for. Jan was just like my mom (Mary Lou), which is the highest compliment I can give her. That was that generation of people. It might be soup in a pot, but you were always welcome to have some of whatever they were eating.

“Jan treated us all like one of her own. She was always there to support and cheer for all of us. We always knew we were welcome at the Yateses’ place in Pueblo.”

Another cowboy who goes all the way back with the Yates family is Reg Camarillo. When Reg came back from Vietnam in 1968, he served his last six months in the Army at Fort Carson, which is on the Pueblo side of Colorado Springs.

“That was the greatest summer I ever had,” Reg said. “I saw a poster in town one spring day about a roping out in Black Forest, so I hitchhiked out there. I didn’t know a single person. Dick was saddling a horse, and I noticed him. He looked like a good hand. I walked up and introduced myself. Dick didn’t know me from Adam. I asked if he had all his partners, and he did. He must have thought I was a real dandy. I didn’t even have a horse. But Dick did find me an older guy from the Air Force to rope with, I heeled for him and it went pretty well.

“Dick invited me that day to go down to Pueblo and rope with him. He said I could ride J.D.’s horse (J.D. turned 8 that summer). He told me there was a roping that next week in Pueblo, too. I went, and I got to heel for Dick. I roped a leg, and here comes this little kid (J.D.), and he asks me, ‘Hey, what’s going on here? You roped two feet for everybody but my dad.’ I thought, ‘This kid is really something.’ They invited me over to their house, and I spent a lot of time there. I was in and out of there all summer. Dick gave me his pickup if I needed to go somewhere, and sometimes I’d take J.D. with me. That’s when I started heading for a few guys, too.

“Jan was always so gracious and funny. She was always changing her house around, and wanting to move the furniture or repaint something. She was just great. She was always so nice, and that whole family welcomed me. I’m not saying I’m so special. They opened their door to a lot of people.”

That following year, in Reg’s rookie year of 1969, he and cousin Leo won the first of three straight NFR team roping average titles at his first Finals. Reg won a fourth NFR average crown in 1975 with his other cousin Jerold. Reg returned to his native California after the Army, and his lifelong friendship with the Yates family continued.

“When the Yateses came to California the first time, we all went to Disneyland,” Reg remembers fondly. “After that, I went and stayed with them every summer. I remember taking J.D. to a roping school we were putting on in Sturgis, South Dakota, one time when he was still a little kid. They’d turn out the steers with broken horns, and J.D. would slip in there and stick it on ’em just for fun. The guys at the school would say, ‘Hey, kid, you’re embarrassing us.’ J.D. roped everything that moved, including the queens at the rodeos.

“Those years we were making the Finals, I’d stop by the Yateses’ place in Pueblo on my way home from the Finals in Oklahoma City. I’d leave my horses at the house, and go skiing at Breckenridge and Monarch. Kelly went with me a few times. I always stopped in during Denver and Cheyenne to rope for a few days and eat a few good meals. Then when Dick would come to the Cow Palace (in San Francisco) he’d ride my horse.”

Reg says Dick was always the first guy to offer him a horse to ride when he flew into rodeos.

“The Yateses are a great family and great people,” Reg said. “When my Army days were done and I left Pueblo that fall (1968), Jan gave me a going away party (Dick says Kelly and J.D. both cried when Reg left town). That next year was going to be my rookie year, and Dick let me take a horse they’d team tied on. He told me to just take him and use him like he was mine. I later found out that old Smokey—I called him Bones—was actually Jan’s horse, and she was the one who told Dick to give him to me to use. I used him mostly at the team tying rodeos in Arizona and New Mexico, and won a lot on that horse.

“I kept him two or three years. Then when they quit team tying, I took him back and they retired him there at their place in Pueblo. That horse really helped me out, and I think Jan’s the one who convinced Dick to let me take him. That horse made a big difference in my career. That’s the Yates family for you. They were—and still are—gracious people. And that all goes back to Dick and Jan.”

Great people. Great family. God bless the matriarch. The last great visit I had with Jan happened last December at the Kate’s Corner ice cream shop at the South Point. It was the night Trey won his first-ever NFR check, and Dick, Jan, Ote and I toasted Trey with a round of banana splits, cups and cones.

“I’m the proudest, happiest mother and grandmother there is,” Jan said, smiling despite that hip that was still giving her a hard time.

Thank You, Momma Jan

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