CLAREMORE, Okla. – Members of the Will Rogers Roundup Club know an important piece of rodeos future is to embrace its past.
That is the key reason behind the Rodeo Legends Banquet, which took place March 30, at the clubhouse. Six people were inducted into the Will Rogers Stampede PRCA Rodeo Hall of Fame that evening, including an eight-time world champion, three other qualifiers to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo and local legends Henry and Phillipa Orr.
It’s the perfect precursor to the annual rodeo, which takes place at 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 24-Sunday, May 26.
Don Gay owns the most bull riding world championships in the history of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, including four straight from 1974-77. He added three more from 1979-81 and his final gold buckle in 1984. He headlines a list that includes steer wrestler Jim Smith, a four-time NFR qualifier; roughstock cowboy Sammie Groves, an NFR qualifier in saddle bronc riding; and barrel racer Tana Poppino, a three-time NFR qualifier from nearby Big Cabin, Okla.
“I’m in a number of halls of fame, but this is very nice,” Gay said. “To be recognized with an individual rodeo that has a longstanding history like Claremore does, you realize that your deeds have not gone unrewarded.”
Gay competed primarily through the 1970s and 1980s. Today, he continues to be a major player in the game, the son of legendary stock contractor Neal Gay, general manager of Frontier Rodeo Co., and as a color analyst for the NFR telecasts.
“I finally and officially retired for the fourth time in 1989,” said Gay, who won bull riding titles in 1974 and 1978.
Groves won the saddle bronc riding title at the Will Rogers Stampede five straight times from 1972-76. In fact, he dominated the Oklahoma Circuit in 1974 by also winning in Tulsa, Woodward, Guthrie and Ponca City. He competed at the NFR six times, the first in 1970 as an alternate. His final trip to Oklahoma City for ProRodeo’s finale was in 1978.
Smith and his horse, Old Colt, were an important team in steer wrestling. Smith qualified for the NFR four times and won three championships in Claremore. In addition to his own pedigree, the world championship lineage didn’t stop with Smith. His daughter, Jaimey, is married to four-time world champion steer wrestler Ote Berry, while son Justin is married to Garret, who comes from the famed McEntire family; she is the granddaughter of three-time world champion steer roper Clark McEntire and great-granddaughter of world champion steer roper John McEntire.
Poppino has yet to win the title in Claremore, but she is the only 2013 inductee still competing.
“Oklahoma is rich in Western history, and we are honored in this area that we have an American icon in Will Rogers that was raised in northeast Oklahoma,” Poppino said. “We have a weekend every year that we are celebrating his life and the Western heritage at the Will Rogers Stampede.
“For my name to be linked with Will Rogers or Donnie Gay is beyond my belief. I am truly honored.”
Poppino continues to focus much of her time competing in ProRodeo. She last qualified for the NFR in 2010 and just missed the championship in 2011.
“The reason I’m able to continue going is that I’ve had some great help getting down the road,” she said. “Without Equipride and Total Health Enhancement, it never would have been possible to make the finals three times. I’ve had Cowboy Riggs, Pam Peterson Insurance, Celtic Complexion and ProRodeo Team Oklahoma who have been standing behind me through thick and thin, which is really helpful when you rodeo for a living.”
Of course, she’s also done more than just run barrels.
“Tana has been a tremendous asset to the sport and to the community, and she’s always been a strong advocate for the Will Rogers Stampede,” said David Petty, chairman of the rodeo committee.
That describes Henry and Phillipa Orr, who were among the founding members of the Will Rogers Roundup Club.
“My parents were very active in the 1950s,” said their son, Curtis.
Henry Orr died in 1957, but Curtis Orr remembers well the family’s involvement. He even helped raise money by selling raffle tickets for a Shetland pony, riding the pony at appearances across the region. He will join siblings and other family members in celebrating his parents’ induction.
“I think it’s great that they’re being inducted, but there are a lot of families that have been involved over the years,” Curtis Orr said. “I don’t think either of my parents would’ve said much about it because they were so shy and conservative. They really liked seeing other people get that recognition, but I think in their minds they would be pretty excited.”
That’s a big part of any hall of fame induction, but each honor is rightfully deserved.
“We have the Rodeo Legends Banquet to honor those who have helped us through the 67 years the Will Rogers Stampede has been held,” Petty said. “We’ve got a lot of positive things to look forward to at this year’s rodeo, but we can’t move forward without looking at where we’ve come from.”