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Rodeo opens 50th season Friday
By BRIAN PORTER/Managing Editor
It was not supposed to work. Only when Neal Gay went broke believing it would, did most people think it would end.
They were half right.
The Mesquite Championship Rodeo opens its 50th season Friday. Neal Gay, the man who had a vision for a weekly rodeo in Mesquite, nearly did go broke and often was but his dream never died.
“It was rough in those early years,” said John Painter, spokesperson for the Mesquite Championship Rodeo. “There was no roof and no Interstate-635. Even then, though, it was the only thing there was with a western feel in Dallas. It was hard to find us and I’m sure many got lost.”
Gay, a former PRCA competitor in virtually every event, founded the Mesquite Championship Rodeo in 1958 with five partners. The rodeo lost $13,000 in the first season and did not make a profit in the first 13 years.
“We can’t possibly imagine how hard it was,” Painter said.
When it was failing financially, Gay always believed it could prosper. The invention was his dream and he never relented.
“Neal was eat up with the rodeo,” said Jim Shoulders, one of the founding partners. “He loved it. He didn’t do it because he thought he could make a lot of money. He just believed in it. He ended up making it work.”
Shoulders financed the rodeo during the tough times. He won his first all-around title in 1949 and four straight beginning in 1956. In 11 seasons, he won 16 world titles. From 1956 to 1959, Shoulders won 11 world titles and finally gave in to Gay. The man that never seemed to make a mistake aboard livestock looked as if he had in relenting to Gay.
The pair, along with Harry Thompkins, D.J. ‘Kajun Kidd’ Gaudin, Ira Akers and Bob Grant founded the Mesquite Championship Rodeo in 1958. Soon the partners wanted out.
“There have been a lot of events in my life,” Gay said. “I started a project, made up my mind it was going to work and made it work.”
Finally, in the 14th season of the venture Gay’s vision turned a profit. The rodeo nestled atop a hill on the prairie of Mesquite now had a roof to allow performances to go on as scheduled and Interstate-635 ended times where fans never found the rodeo.
“It nearly starved me and Neal to death for 20 years,” Shoulders said. “We still felt like someday it could be a money-making proposition for somebody.”
The Gay family staffed the rodeo and Shoulders, along with quite a few odd jobs worked by Neal, financed the effort.
Neal’s three boys, Pete, Don and Jim, all took to rodeo, but especially Don.
“They grew up in and around the rodeo,” Neal said. “They learned to ride and win. Some learn to ride, but not to win. I guess Donny was eight and he had bulls figured out. He had cowboys coming to him for tips on the stock. They went to him and might not even talk to me. They were my bulls.”
It became a family business.
“You had to ‘Cowboy Up,’ ” said Kay Gay, Neal’s wife. “The founders left and it put us in a financial bind. It meant we had to work harder at this. That sounds like a romantic tale. We just knew we had to make up for it and the only way was to work harder.
“If you don’t have a job at the rodeo, you best get one. Everybody, the whole family, had to pitch in to do what needed to be done.”
By 1974, Neal’s sons were becoming household names among rodeo circles and in the process so was Mesquite and its weekly rodeo.
Don won his first of a record eight world bull riding titles in 1974. Pete also competed in the National Finals Rodeo, while Jim won the Texas High School all-around and bull riding titles. Monty Henson, another Mesquite cowboy, was also having success among the elite cowboys.
As the notoriety of the Mesquite Championship Rodeo was building in the early 70s, the venture was not embraced by all. There was a matter of Mesquite Skeeter football.
“That was a bad experience for me. I loved the game. I guess I always leaned toward contact sports. I had worked really hard to get a spot on varsity going into my junior year and I wasn’t riding in rodeos. It looked like I was going to make the team and have a good shot to start. Football was one of the only things that kept me interested in school,” Don said. “I knew then, at age 16, that I could ride bulls for a living. My coaches decided they weren’t going to allow me to go to the rodeo. They felt rodeo people were not the kind of people they would like their football players to be around. I took it as an insult. We had a falling out and they won. They forced me to quit football.”
In 1971, Don was the bull riding champion of the Mesquite Championship Rodeo. Neal’s venture was beginning to work.
“Mesquite has an icon that no one else has,” Don said. “It made for a wonderful lifetime for me. Dad provided me an opportunity out of necessity.”
Mesquite ultimately would be crowned the Rodeo Capitol of Texas. It wasn’t until well after that distinction that the Skeeters won a football state championship and it was proven there could be two kings in the small town.
There’s only one ‘Rodeo Man,’ however. The only statue in Mesquite is sculpted in Neal Gay’s honor. The bronze work depicts Gay in his trademark hat atop a horse. He can still be seen riding into the arena today, in the 50th season of the Mesquite Championship Rodeo.
“I don’t know that we ever wanted out during the tough times,” Neal said. “When I look back, I’m glad it worked out the way it did. We’re all still in the business.”
The Rafter G Rodeo Company, operated today in Terrell by the Gay family, is now a major stock contractor for rodeos across the nation. The Mesquite Championship Rodeo is now operated by Southwest Sports Group.
Still there’s a place for Neal.
“I run the rodeo. That’s the deal I made with Tom Hicks,” Neal said. “My deal was I would stay and put the rodeo on. Their job was to run the business. That’s what I do best n put a rodeo on.”
Times have changed in Mesquite. Stock trailers once lined the downtown streets. Today, the only remains of a rural past in downtown are a feed store and the Rodeo City Music Hall. Whether the city has forgotten its rural past is debatable.
“We’ve seen Mesquite change from a rural, farming area into a metropolitan area,” said Mesquite mayor Mike Anderson. “I think we still have a lot of those characteristics of cowboys n your word means something and so does hard work.”
Up on the hill, above all the hustle of the city, still stands Mesquite’s ties to the times in the early 70s when the town boasted three of the top rodeo cowboys in the nation and when the vision that Neal Gay had in 1958 began to blossom.
The Mesquite Championship Rodeo, the longest-running weekly rodeo in the world, once put Mesquite on the map and is still doing so today.
Anderson, a native Mesquite resident, grew up with the Gay family. Like many children in those days of the 60s and early 70s in Mesquite, he had an ambition to compete in rodeo.
“When I was growing up, during the summertime in junior high, we would go to the rodeo every night. I had a horse and everyone would ride in the grand entry,” Anderson said. “When Mr. (Neal) Gay came riding up to you on his horse, everyone knew to straighten up and settle down. Everyone respected Mr. Gay. I think we also feared him.”
The fear likely stemmed from some untold stories of times around the Gay house on Hickory Tree Road. Having the first color television in town took second place to the invention at the Gay home, at least for boys with rodeo aspirations.
“I did once have those aspirations. Donny Gay had the first bucking barrel in Mesquite,” Anderson said. “They built this bucking barrel. The kids would ride it and they would buck us off. I did have aspirations to be a cowboy once. They bucked me off and it’s a long way to the ground. I decided the rodeo was not for me.”
“It was a 55-gallon drum tied on posts in our front yard with garage door springs,” Don Gay recalls. “We broke fingers, toes, about everything. It was a great time. The Andersons were big boys. When they hit the ground it made a lot of noise.”
Anderson opted for a business career and life as a city leader. Don Gay, along with his brothers Pete and Jim, chose the rodeo. It worked out for both. Anderson is a five-term mayor in Mesquite. The Gay brothers are rodeo icons, especially Don who holds the PRCA record with eight national bull riding titles and is a member of the PRCA Hall of Fame.
Rodeo was a means for early financial existence for another one of today’s civic and business leaders in Mesquite.
“Growing up around him, you learned a lot about work ethic,” said Joe Sam Frank. “After I was not on the payroll anymore, I never took another dime from him because of that lesson. I guess I helped out with one thing or another for 15 years and was around the Mesquite Rodeo for 20 years.”
Frank operates Frank Farmer’s Insurance Agency near old downtown Mesquite. He knew there would be a time when his rodeo days would have to end.
“I went from ranch work to being a bull rider to wondering how I was going to make the money I wanted to make for the rest of my life,” Frank said. “I went to work for an insurance company and later bought my dad’s. Dad didn’t like visits to the emergency room and mom really didn’t. Once you start paying for your own medical bills, you really see the light.”
Without Neal’s desire to keep his dream alive, rodeo may never have been an option for boys like Frank growing up in Mesquite.
“We had some pretty rough times,” Kay said. “We had to rob Peter to pay Paul, as they say. We still never really wanted to get out of it. We just worked together as a family to make it go.”
The debts piled up in those early days. If growth would have come sooner, the rodeo would have been better for it. Neal and Kay presold tickets and often those tickets were never purchased because patrons couldn’t find the rodeo.
It may not be the cowboys and cowgirls that received the most notoriety from competing, though.
“Bandelero, Ring Eye, Crossroads offspring is still breeding, Dodge Dakota was in Reader’s Digest, Red Rocker is probably the prominent sire, Speck, Joe Cool did a performance for Ronald Reagan,” Neal said. “Those are bulls we remember.”
A Don Gay comes through and makes a name for himself, but bulls like Dodge Durango became crowd favorites. Like young Don, he too got a chance to compete in the National Finals Rodeo.
Perhaps the rodeo has also created an opportunity for one of Neal’s grandchildren. Tally Gay, the only child to Don Gay, never competed professionally in the rodeo. She had an early understanding of what it meant.
“Everything revolves around the rodeo,” she said. “Neal Gay is your grandfather and everyone in town knows that. Everyone else knows Neal from the perspective of a big-time rodeo guy. He’s always just been my granddad.
“There would be some parents who would find out who their children were friends with and they would say ‘you know who her father and grandfather are?’ But there were a lot of them who didn’t know of the history of rodeo in Mesquite.”
Tally was the first Mesquite ISD female golfer to win a district championship and went to college, something her father never considered and her uncle gave up on.
“I was a cheerleader, played softball and golf and did some high school rodeo,” Tally said. “I wasn’t all that successful with rodeo. I honestly didn’t devote that much time to it.”
She does plan to become a nurse. It doesn’t mean rodeo is any less a part of Tally than other members of her family.
“Cowboys are getting scarce now. I guess they say ‘mamas don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys.’ I let three of them do it,” Kay said. “They were good boys and now they’re good men. I wish there were more cowboys and more men like them coming up. We met a lot of friends through the rodeo.”
And now for 50 seasons the Mesquite Championship Rodeo has been presenting a growing urban population with the cowboy way.
“There’s no other city in the United States that has this,” Painter said. “I think we serve a niche. We are needed and that’s why we have survived.”
Portions of this story are included in the Mesquite Championship Rodeo’s 50th Season Commemorative Program written by Brian Porter. Contact Brian Porter at firstname.lastname@example.org or to comment on this story visit www.MesquiteNews.com.
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