Wrangler Kingpin Lever Bids Farewell to Western-Industry Worklife

Robert Lever has worked for Wrangler his entire career, and April 30 will retire after more than 45 years with the industry powerhouse. Robert, who’s 69 now, and his wife, Mickey, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in their Waco, Texas, hometown this February. The Levers’ son, Cody, works digital sales for the Cowboy Channel and their daughter, Tiffany Gillett, works for Justin Boots.

Q: Walk us through your working years with Wrangler.

A: I started with Wrangler in August 1976, and was a territorial salesman in New Mexico at first. I continued on as a sales rep, and moved to San Antonio in about 1982. I was a sales rep for 32 years, and was then made Wrangler’s manager of special events marketing for the last 13 years. In that capacity, I’ve communicated with sales reps, retailers, rodeo committees and endorsees, and have also put together Wrangler promotions.

Q: How did you know it was time to hang up your briefcase, and what will you miss most about your job?

A: I was going to retire two years ago, and they talked me out of it. I want to rope and golf more. I’ve played a lot of golf with rodeo committees. I’m not saying I’m a great golfer, but it’s fun when it’s nice out. What I’m looking forward to most about retirement is getting to spend more time with my wife and grandkids. I had open-heart surgery—a quadruple bypass—in August of 2020. I was out cleaning stalls, and my arm and chest started hurting. That kind of thing reminds us that life is short.

Q: How long have you been roping, and how has it fit in alongside your Western-industry career over the years?

A: I started roping when I went to work for Wrangler. Jones Western Wear in El Paso was a customer, and the owners’ son was a team roper. He invited me to go to a roping with him, and I said, “I’d like to try that.” When I moved to San Antonio, team roping was pretty weak and scattered, and calf roping was big around there. Then team roping exploded everywhere in Texas. My job and team roping have been the perfect mix. Being a team roper has kept me in the middle of the industry.

Q: Who do you rope with most, and where?

A: I rope a lot with Ted Helms in Waco, Karl Stressman in Weatherford, Charles Dilday in Granbury and Bart Hutton in San Antonio. We rope to enjoy it and visit with our friends. Am I team roping because I think I’m going to get rich? No, I do it because I love hanging out with my friends and I love the people in this industry.

That’s Reno Rodeo Invitational Producer Perry DiLoreto, Robert Lever, Kenny Drake and Teresa DiLoreto, long after the win Lever considers his career highlight, when the happy partners won $100 grand a man. undefined
Kurt Steinke Photo

Q: Have you always mostly heeled?

A: I started out heading and I still head a lot in the practice pen. I’m a #4 at both ends now, but I’m saving my heading for when I really get old. I like the challenge of heeling. The hardest thing for me is being consistent on my entry into the steer. Every day it’s a challenge when I go practice that I really work on my positioning even more than my roping.

Q: Name a few of your favorite partners over the years.

A: Karl Stressman, Mike Paxson and Kenny Drake are a few of my all-time favorites, because they’re the guys I have a good time with no matter what. Whether we catch or we don’t, we still go on to the next roping because it’s about having a good time, not winning. Winning is great, no matter what you’re doing. But if I don’t win, there’s always another day. And I’m not going to quit roping—win or lose—because I enjoy the sport too much. I can’t thank Karl and Wrangler’s Kathy Tregay enough for helping organize my Wrangler retirement party during the Finals in December, and my friends at Cactus and Resistol for the saddle they gave me.

Q: How do you feel about open ropers from where you sit?

A: I can watch them rope for hours and hours, and there’s never a dull moment. Their skills are amazing. I know I’ll never be that good. I’m not sure it’s not a God-given talent to start with, and they’ve dedicated their lives to their craft. You have to hand it to them.

Q: Do you see your sidelines status changing at the World Series Finale in Vegas after you retire?

A: Absolutely. I used to rope at it when it was in Oklahoma, but got too busy during the (Wrangler National) Finals (Rodeo) in Vegas. I’ll surely have time in retirement.

Q: What’s been your best day yet as a team roper?

A: Winning the Perry D (Perry Di Loreto’s Reno Rodeo Invitational) and $100,000 a man with Kenny Drake in 2010. We came back seventh high call, we were 7, we put the pressure on the top teams and they just kept legging and breaking out. It was pretty cool when they announced that we won it, and the president of our company, Phil McAdams, called to congratulate me while we were in the arena getting our awards and thanking me for representing Wrangler. How cool is that?

Q: How has the Western industry changed over the course of your 45-year career?

A: The numbering system has gotten better and better. They’ve really worked on trying to make it fair, and that created a place for everybody to have a chance to rope at their own level. That’s had a lot to do with the explosion of team roping. Without it, people would have gotten discouraged and gone on to golf or something else. My hope for the future is that we maintain the values of the Western lifestyle, including respect for everybody and the sport.