Aug 29, 2022
My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys
By: Susan Kanode
A cup of coffee and time for reflection is part of my morning ritual. After reading a bit, I’ll scroll through social media. That’s exactly what I was doing August 12th when I learned of the passing of Neal Gay.
Cotton Rosser got his angel wings earlier this summer shortly before his 94th birthday. Neal had just celebrated his 96th birthday on June 26. Harry Vold was 93 at the time of his passing in 2017. These three men had so much in common, might have been adversaries a time or two, but they all lived their lives with an uncompromising sense of what was right or wrong and with longevity that few ever have the privilege of attaining. As rodeo stock contractors, their contributions to the sport that we love is unsurpassed and there will never be another group like them.
It has been my privilege and honor to have known all three of these men, to have shaken their hands, and been able to interview each of them. I only wish that the stories they are sharing in heaven could be shared with our earthly ears.
When I started making notes about Neal, a song popped into my head. My heroes have truly always been cowboys, from the time my cowboy dad, Dean, put me on the back of a horse with him when I was still in diapers. Since then I’ve been privileged to meet cowboy legends that have become my heroes.
Neal Gay was one of those. Dodge trucks had started a bounty bull program that I was following for them. That took me to the famed Mesquite Championship Rodeo where their bull Dodge Durango earned a whopping $17,000 for Joe Wimberly in 1992.
I’d seen the Mesquite Rodeo on television for some time, but that was the first time I experienced it in person and met the legendary Neal Gay that started the whole shebang back in 1958. I’ll never forget how the details of that rodeo mattered to him and how important it was to him to give the audience a memorable experience.
Through the years, our paths crossed again and again and I always knew that beneath that tough exterior was a God-fearing, family-loving, rodeo-promoting gentleman that lived God-first, family-second, rodeo-third.
The Life & Times of Neal Gay celebration happened Tuesday, August 23rd in a place he had a long history with — the Will Rogers Memorial Coliseum, long time home of the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo. Neal’s history with the event in unparalleled. He and the love of his life, Kay Gay, had their first date there in 1956 when he was a competitor. Four months later, they were married.
Neal came into the marriage as a widower with two sons, Pete and Donnie. Neal was in the used car business. There was an amateur rodeo every Saturday night in nearby Mesquite. Neal went there and had the idea of turning it into a professional rodeo. The property was for sale but needed a lot of work. Neal turned to his rodeo buddy Jim Shoulders, a deal was made and the Mesquite Championship Rodeo was born in 1958. Four years later the Gay family became complete with the birth of the third son, Jim.
There have been so many changes throughout the years, but it all started with Neal. And that weekly rodeo series gave many a young cowboy a start. But more than that, it brought attention to rodeo like had never been seen before. It was the first rodeo to be broadcast on television on a regular basis starting with ESPN and then moving to The Nashville Network. It made stars out of cowboys that would never make the NFR and gave Pam Minick, Don Gay, Shelly Burmeister, and Dan Miller opportunities to showcase their broadcasting skills.
Billy Minick, Pam’s husband was a long-time friend of the Gay family. At Neal’s service he recalled a time when he and Pam were struggling and Neal loaned them money. Then he joked that Neal gave Pam a job just so they could repay the loan. The Minicks were able to visit Neal a few days before he passed. “Neal Gay was the biggest mentor and friend that I ever had,” Billy said, a sentiment that is held by many people in the rodeo industry.
Neal and the Rafter G Rodeo have produced the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo since 1979. He was a fixture in the traditional Grand Entry in the same building that friends and family gathered to remember him. He rarely missed a performance, even when he turned responsibility over to Jim. And, in 2020, he was there to see the rodeo move to Dickies Arena with facilities that were designed to put on a first-class rodeo.
Neal grew up in east Dallas. His mother, Elsie, divorced his father and supported them by cutting hair. One of her clients was Teddy Jane Binion, wife of Benny. While the Binion’s were living in Dallas, Neal was a young kid riding the streets on a pony. Benny took notice of him and commented “I sure do like your pony.” Neither of them could have imagined the future they would have or how they impacted the rodeo business.
Sadly, shortly before the rodeo world lost Neal, Benny and Teddy Jane’s daughter Brenda Michaels also gained her wings. Brenda was a cowgirl in her own right and it was because of her generosity that Benny Binion’s World Famous Bucking Horse & Bull Sale has continued the Binion legacy. Brenda was 81.
The legends of both of these individuals will be carried on by future generations. Neal was the father of three boys and grandfather to three girls that love rodeo as much as he did. Brenda’s daughter Mindy is married to Clint Johnson who was honored in Las Vegas last December at the Gold Buckle Gala as the 2021 Legend of ProRodeo. Clint and Mindy have two children, Ben and Janie. Janie has used her broadcast skills across the country and in the studio at the Cowboy Channel.
This year’s NFR will surely feel a little different with Cotton Rosser, Neal Gay and Brenda Michael overseeing the show from heaven. The awards and accolades that they leave behind are nothing compared to the memories they gave us. It’s because of them and others like them that my heroes have always been cowboys, and they always will be.