My Cowboy Hat Still Fits

Abe Morris - 12/8/2004

by Gene Walker: Part I

from Humps N' Horns

Eugene Walker was a world-class bull rider that should have qualified for the National Finals Rodeo on several occasions. Although, he never qualified for the NFR, it was not due to either a lack of ability or try. He was and still is a hand. In my opinion, he was one of the best bull riders that I ever saw.

Gene's rodeo career started at a very early age when his family moved to Cowtown. His father, William Rogers Walker (deceased), who was nicknamed Little Bit, worked for Stoney and Howard Harris, III at the livestock auction, flea market and rodeo. Howard Harris, III took young Gene under his wing and treated him like his own son. At the time, Howard's own sons, Grant and Andy, were too young, so Howard took Gene everywhere that he went. He taught him how to ride, rope and many other aspects of the cowboy way.

At a very early age, Howard Harris taught Gene how to ride young bulls. Gene started to ride big bulls at the age of 16. Soon both discovered that the lad had a lot of talent. So, Howard decided when Gene was in high school that he was going to keep all of his winnings from Cowtown Rodeo and put them into a savings account, so Gene could enroll in a college someday.

During his tenure at Cowtown, Gene rode some of the best bucking bulls that Howard Harris could throw at him. The list includes: Ringo, Toy Boy, Captain Noah, Loup Garue, Chopper, Low Tide, Secret Agent, Carbon Copy, Playboy, Malice, Dr.Spock, Haint, Stag, and many others. One summer the only two bulls that bucked him off were #01 Sue and #52 Buffalo. Both of these bulls qualified for the National Finals Rodeo and were sold to another stock contractor in the west.

In June of 1966, Gene graduated from Woodstown High School and had earned a rodeo scholarship to Casper Junior College in Casper, WY. He competed on the rodeo team and won the bull riding event in the Central Rocky Mountain Region of the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association. In 1968, Gene was the first black cowboy to qualify for the College National Finals Rodeo. He had also earned his RCA card by age 19.

During his stint at Casper, the rodeo team was loaded with talent. World Champions Joe Alexander (five times in the bareback riding), Dave Brock (1978 in the calf roping) and Chris LeDoux (1976 in the bareback riding and very popular country and western recording artist) were among the rodeo team members. Ivan Daines, Chris and Greg Butterfield, Jack Duce, Guy Givens, Jay Himes, Mike Latting, Doug Vold, and Mike Hubbell also attended Casper and were on the rodeo team.

During his years in college, Gene successfully rode #7 Lizard that was owned by Edker Wilson from Alamosa, CO. In 1974, Mike Latting said, "Lizard is the best bucking bull in captivity." The rodeo judges disqualified Gene for touching the animal with his free hand before the eight second whistle. The story that I heard was before he called for his bull, Gene slid about a foot off of his rope and laid his riding arm flat against Lizard's back. The bull had been known to jerk a lot of guys down on his head on his initial jump out of the bucking chutes. I asked Gene why did he do this. His reply was, "Because, that is the only way that I could get past that first jump."

Those in attendance said it was a travesty because Gene had never come close to slapping the bull. The bull was only ridden a few times during his rodeo career. Wally Badgett from Montana rode him and Bo Wilson from Nebraska rode him twice.

Gene is the primary reason that I ended up in Wyoming. He was always one of my rodeo heroes as I was growing up in New Jersey. If he had gone to college in Texas, I am sure that I would have followed in his footsteps. Listening to him tell stories about going to school in Wyoming perked up my interest in the Cowboy State. I am sure that is the same reason others from the East coast, such as Grant Harris, Cindy Harp Brandjord, Wyatt Crotta, Chip Golding and Troy Rowen all eventually attended Casper College.

In the late sixties and early seventies, Gene hit the RCA trail. Sometimes he traveled with Sandy Kirby and George Schmidt who were also from the East coast. A few years later he traveled with Myrtis Dightman from Crockett, TX. There were a lot of talented bull riders that got their start at Cowtown. In my opinion, I would say that Gene and Sandy were the two best bull riders to ever come out of Cowtown Rodeo.

When Gene was not on the rodeo trail, he lived at Cowtown and worked for Howard Harris, III. Ted Bailey, the rodeo announcer at Cowtown Rodeo, tabbed him with the name of "Cowtown Gene". Soon, most of his friends and comrades called him Cowtown Gene or just Cowtown.

Sandy Kirby left New Jersey in the late sixties and never came back to rodeo. I got to watch Gene ride a lot as a little kid and it was rare for him to buck off. As I have mentioned before, there was a period from about 1968 to 1982 that Howard Harris, III could have arguably claimed that he owned the best overall bucking bull string in the nation.

During his rodeo career Gene added the bareback riding event to his repertoire and also became a bullfighter. His bareback riding career came to grinding halt in 1974 when a horse by the name of Alcatraz ran into a fence post at Cowtown Rodeo and broke his leg.

Soon afterwards, Gene met Dennis Weaver of the television series McCloud and shot some scenes in New York City. He was still able to ride a horse with a cast on his lower leg and was paid $600 per day just to show up. Gene also did a few scenes for the movie For Pete's Sake that was partly shot on the East coast.

Howard Harris, III knew that once Gene had been exposed to the Hollywood scene and all of the money, that it was going to be hard to keep him around Cowtown to work livestock and fix fences. Soon Gene got a job at the Great Adventure Amusement Park in Jackson, NJ, for the summer. He would dress up as a Knight of the Round Table and participate in jousting activities. Glenn Randall, Jr from Newhall, CA, who had ties to Hollywood, was the man in charge of this crew. Glenn's father had trained Trigger for Roy Rogers.

Gene was paid about $1,000 per week for a few performances per day in Jackson. That was considered a decent wage back in the early 70's. After Glenn returned to California, he invited Gene to come out and offered to put him to work. It was extremely cold in New Jersey at the time and snow covered the ground. Gene said it was an easy decision to pack up his things and move his family out to warm and sunny California. I am sure that many of us remember the opening to the television show the Beverly Hillbillies that said, "California is the place you ought to be."

One of his first breaks in Hollywood was working on the movie The History of the World: Part I with Mel Brooks and Gregory Hines. Gene now lives in Adelanto, CA, and has had appearances in several movies including The Black Stallion, Stir Crazy, Far and Away, The Black Knight, Son of the Morning Star, Children of the Dust, Return to Lonesome Dove, The Men in Black, The Wild, Wild West, The Cowboy Way, Hidalgo and several other movies. He currently is working on the set of the HBO hit series Deadwood with other PRCA cowboys such as Gary Leffew, Alan Jordan, Jr., Monty Henson, Bryan McDonald and Allen Keller.

Gene has worked with several well known movie stars including Sidney Poitier, Wil Smith, Martin Lawrence, Mickey Rooney, Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Michael J. Fox, Danny Glover, Morgan Freeman, Oprah Winfrey, Halle Berry, Dolly Parton, Reba McEntire, Melanie Griffith, Lou Diamond Phillips, Tom Selleck, Richard Pryor, Gene Wilder, Ron Howard, Antonio Banderas, Woody Harrelson, Vigo Mortenson and many others. Gene is a member of the Screen Actors Guild and has made numerous appearances in television commercials as well. He still receives residual checks on a regular basis.

Gene has traveled all over the world participating in either exhibition rodeos or else shooting scenes for movies. He has been to Canada, Mexico, France, Italy, Thailand, Germany, Venezuela, Morocco and Switzerland.

Gene is now 57 years old and married to Carol Johnson who is also originally from Woodstown, NJ. They have two children, Deana and Jason. Jason has appeared in the Scorpion King, Return to Lonesome Dove and Deadwood.

To be continued....

Abe has written a book about his experiences during his rodeo career. His book, "My Cowboy Hat Still Fits" is scheduled to be published by March 15, 2005. Abe can be reached at Hamskaber@hotmail.com.