WWII Veteran Kuiper competed at the first CNFR
Story — America and rodeo have seen a tremendous amount of change since Tommy Kuiper, a World War II veteran, rode into the arena at the first ever College National Finals Rodeo held at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, Calif. in 1949.
When 84 contestants from 14 colleges and universities in nine states gathered for the first ever competition, Harry Truman was in the White House and gasoline was selling for 17 cents a gallon. Like many of his fellow contestants at the event, Kuiper had returned from World War II and was attending college on the GI bill. His high school sweetheart and wife of 61 years, Velda, whom he courted with notes in typing class, worked as a telephone operator while he was in college.
“College rodeo and professional rodeo owe a debt to these men. They brought a maturity and depth to the sport that has served it well,” says Sylvia Mahoney, former rodeo coach and author of “College Rodeo From Show to Sport.” Mahoney is a founder of the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association Alumni. Participants of the 1949 finals, as well as those from other years ending in “9,” will be recognized on June 19 and 20 in Casper at the 2009 CNFR.
Honorably discharged from the Navy in June of 1946 after time aboard a Navy Destroyer in the Pacific, Kuiper says he began college that fall at what was then Colorado A&M. Studying animal husbandry with plans of attending school to become a veterinarian, he says he instead returned to the family ranch upon graduation in 1950. He and Velda spent the next 32 years ranching north of Kaycee where they raised their two daughters.
Competing in bareback riding, bulls and the wild cow milking at the 1949 event, Kuiper recalls, “The rodeo club voted on who went to the finals. It was mainly who could go. You didn’t really have to qualify like you do these days.” Kuiper says it largely came down to who could afford to make the trip.
“It was kind of like coming home for me,” he recalls. “The Cow Palace is at Hunter’s Point in San Francisco and that’s where our ship was tied up when we came back to the States during World War II.”
While he’s been around horses his whole life, Kuiper says he didn’t rodeo until he went to college, where he was also a member of the livestock judging team. In addition to the events in which he competed at the 1949 rodeo finals, he also roped calves. In the late 1940s he won the all-around saddle at the Colorado A&M Rodeo. Unlike today, Kuiper says there weren’t many opportunities to win a saddle.
Kuiper and two of his team members took a car to California while a roper and a steer wrestler on the team hauled their horses to the rodeo. Borrowing horses from teammates was quite common at the time. Those who did bring horses arrived in cars or pickups pulling small trailers and Kuiper says some were still hauling their horses in stock racks. “Things weren’t very fancy,” he laughs.
“At that time, most towns of any size had a rodeo string around. When you went to a rodeo, there were good ones and bad ones….all the way from practically impossible to runaways.” He recalls, “Some of those horses were hay horses in the hayfields and they brought them to town to buck when the rodeo came to town. They were pretty good sized horses.”
The 1949 CNFR, says Kuiper, was the first rodeo he attended where there was stock from multiple strings. “They topped the strings and they were plenty tough,” he recalls.
When he wasn’t at college rodeos, Kuiper traveled to the numerous community rodeos. After returning home to Johnson County his time in the rodeo arena lessened, but he judged some rodeos and served a time as arena director at the rodeo in Buffalo.
Most of his attention was focused on the family ranch where he and Velda raised Black Angus cattle and, for 15 of their 32 years on the ranch, sheep. Today they spend their summers in the Story area and the winters in Arizona.
Jennifer Womack is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.