Kelly Riley grew up the son of timed-event cowboy Lanham Riley, who was the reserve world champion calf roper in 1955, and famous trick rider mom Mitzi Lucas Riley. Kelly also is the grandson of late and legendary lady bronc rider and trick rider Tad Lucas. Aledo, Texas, native “KR,” as his friends call him, is 71 now, and is enjoying a busy retirement. His wife, Pat, serves as executive director of the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth.
Q: You were born a rodeo royal. How has your iconic lineage impacted your life?
A: I’m very grateful for my family’s legacy. My grandfather Buck Lucas was a bronc rider and steer wrestler—Buck won the bulldogging at Pendleton in 1924—and fought in the trenches in France during World War I. Buck and Grandma Tad met at the old coliseum at the Fort Worth Rodeo back in the day. They say she was riding a bronc, he saw that she was about to get bucked off, and ran up and caught her. My grandparents were married in New York City, where they caught a steamer (ship) with the rest of the Tex Austin Wild West Show crew, and went to London to perform at Wembley Stadium in the early 1920s. When they got back, they decided Fort Worth was the place to be.
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My dad and Dean Oliver were really good friends. Dad used to talk about how fast and strong Dean was, and said he never felt bad about finishing second to him. In the late ’50s, my dad made the transition from rodeoing to training Quarter Horses in roping and reining. Because of my family, I got to be around all the greats when I was a kid—Jim Shoulders, Harry Tompkins, Casey Tibbs, Toots Mansfield, Jim Bob Altizer, Ray Wharton, Don McLaughlin and so many others. I always wanted to be a cowboy and rodeo.
My dad used to take my little brother, Buzz, with him the first half of the summer, and me the second half. So I got to go to rodeos like Cheyenne (Wyoming), Nampa (Idaho) and Salt Lake City (Utah). I grew up playing sports, and wore boots to school most days. I certainly didn’t have the success my parents or grandparents did, but I always had a real appreciation for what they did and this cowboy life.
Q: You college rodeoed at Tarleton State in the modern-day Cowboy Capital in Stephenville, Texas, right?
A: Yes, back then I mostly rode bulls and just roped at our hometown rodeo. I was built completely wrong for it, but I was infatuated with bull riding. My godmother, Rosemary Tompkins (who was Hall of Fame Cowboy Harry’s wife and the daughter of ProRodeo Hall of Fame Stock Contractor Everett Colburn), was a teacher at Tarleton at that time. I took her art history class, and she made sure I went to class and made good grades. I left Tarleton with a bachelor’s degree in economics.
When I was 21, I was one of a group of cowboys who went to Europe with Buster Ivory’s Rodeo Far West show. We started in Italy, and also went to Switzerland and France. Guys like Bill Martinelli, Freckles Brown, and Jim and John Ivory went, too. Larry Clayman was the bullfighter, and took his chimp Toto. I rode bulls, roped calves and exhibitioned cutting horses in the show. I got word when we were in Rome that my brother had been killed in a car wreck, so went home for his services, then went back again.
I worked for Howard Harris at the Cowtown Rodeo in Woodstown, New Jersey, the summers before and after I graduated from Tarleton in the spring of 1972. I was still riding bulls, and we put up hay and worked livestock. Howard had some traveling rodeos, too, where we had to build the arena. He had Madison Square Garden back then, so I went and worked there also.
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Q: What do you consider the highlight of your career?
A: My career highlight was going to work for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company managing the rodeo sponsorship when Winston Brand sponsored the PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association). That sponsorship started in 1972, and I came on as assistant manager in 1977, then moved up to manager. I moved back to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and wore a suit and tie to work every day. They sent me out to rodeos, where it was my job to connect with committees, stock contractors and cowboys, and promote the Winston Brand. That program was a great boost to rodeo, and there were sponsor dollars involved that rodeo hadn’t seen before. In 1986, they moved me to NASCAR, and I worked for Winston in motorsports for four years.
I later served as director of event marketing for Justin Boots for three years, then left and returned working on sponsorships in rodeo, roping and the western industry for Tony Lama. I retired from Justin Brands event marketing the last day of 2015.
Q: You’ve always been very active in the cowboy community at large. What have been your favorite volunteer roles?
A: I’m a director at the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo. I started as a volunteer, and now serve on four committees. The Cowboy Channel streamed it all this year, and I enjoyed working on the ranch-rodeo coverage the first two performances. I’m also on the Rodeo Historical Society Board at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.
Q: You’ve always lived the cowboy lifestyle. How much has your commitment to your career allowed for actual cowboy competition?
A: After I graduated from Tarleton, I roped quite a bit starting colts and helping my dad train rope horses. I showed them with my dad at the big shows at Houston, San Antonio, Fort Worth and San Angelo.
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Q: How much have you team roped in your lifetime, and do you still like to rope?
A: Team tying was more popular than team roping in Texas in the late 1950s and ’60s. The first time I ever team roped was at Cotton Rosser’s ranch in Marysville, when I was in California working for Winston. I knew how to rope, but had to learn how to dally. Julio Moreno showed me. I got to run a few steers, and thought it was great. That’s when I got the team roping bug. I didn’t really get to start team roping again until I moved back to Texas from North Carolina in 1990. I’ve been a weekend roper. I rope for fun. Tony Lama was the boot sponsor in the early going of the USTRC, so there was that connection also. I’ve mostly headed, and have two 11-year-old head horses now.