“I’ve had a great life.”
Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame inductee J.W. Stoker summarized 83 years in just five words.
Quickly, the Kansas native who was recognized last month with what’s considered the highest distinction in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, added, “To be honest, I haven’t had any problems whatsoever.”
While many have dreamed of such experiences, Stoker, who since 1969 has headquartered on his 23-acre ranch at Weatherford, not far from Fort Worth, Texas, is a professional contract performer with an unimaginable resume beginning at age nine.
As pleased as he is with his career, in a telephone conversation Saturday, Stoker aired concern about rodeo’s future.
“I was going to a Ringling Brothers Circus this morning. I have a good buddy who’s trick roping there, but it rained, and we’re really fortunate for that, so I decided not to go.
“They’ll have a sellout crowd though. They really have an entertaining show,” Stoker contended.
With that comment, Stoker instantly inserted, “I heard somebody say rodeo doesn’t need clowns and contract acts, then it’d be like a circus.
“Well look at the crowds at the circus compared to the rodeo nowadays. People come to the circus for the entertainment, and they aren’t attending rodeos like they used to.
“This is a different generation that has to be entertained, or they’ll leave, and not come back. They keep coming to the circus for the entertainment,” Stoker analyzed.
Then, he resolved “I probably shouldn’t say that, because I was just honored by the rodeo business, where I’ve made my living. But, the sport has changed.
“Rodeo officials and committeemen need to understand that people these days want to be entertained, or rodeo will go the wayside. I believe that,” Stoker contended.
It was for his entertainment career that Stoker was inducted into the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, as acquaintances from around the country and family from his native state of Kansas were there to extend congratulations.
“They said I could have 10 tickets for my friends and family, but then they gave me 21 for those who came to my induction.
“I guess they had some extras, because one of the inductees was a horse, and another cowboy had been dead for a long time, so they didn’t need any, and had more for me,” reflected Stoker in his personable, tongue-in-cheek cowboy style.
Among those attending were his sisters, Frankie Hill, Canadian, Texas, and Bessie Fugate, Emporia, Kansas, who both performed with him in earlier years.
As quoted in the ProRodeo Sports News last week: “J.W. Stoker has done so many impressive and enviable things in his 83 years that it’s hard to keep track.”
Raised at Overland Park, Stoker along with his sisters began performing with the Miller Wild West Show, as his dad, Frank, hauled the horses, while his mom, Wilma, sewed the costumes.
Stoker had his picture on a Wheaties cereal box at age 12, and his career as a trick roper and rider has expanded around the world.
During the induction ceremony, Stoker admitted, “This tops off everything I’ve done before. It’s icing on the cake you could say.”
Along with his public appearances, Stoker has met and worked with movie stars and won the PRCA Specialty Act of the Year Award in 1985 and 1986. He was inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City in 1999.
Even serving his military career as a trick roper entertaining troops during the Korean War, Stoker has worked rodeos everywhere in the United States, performed in eight foreign countries and spent seven months working for Casey Tibb’s Wild West Show in Japan.
Especially known for multiple horse catches with his rope, Stocker was the first trick roper to enhance his act with ultraviolet lights creating a black light effect.
Stocker’s ability to jump through a spinning loop while on the back of his horse is exceptional among entertainers in his field.
“Rodeo has allowed me to meet some great people, and the support over the years is what keeps me going,” said Stoker, who continues performing as a trick roper with horses often part of his acts.
Among those he’s worked with are Roy Rogers, Eddie Fisher, Marilyn Monroe, Clint Eastwood, Sam Bottoms and Oprah Winfrey.
“I even entertained for the Queen of England and rode in Harry Truman’s inaugural parade,” noted Stoker, who rode his Paint palomino stallion Romeo in this year’s Rose Bowl Parade.
Today, Stoker maintains a busy schedule entertaining for the Circle R Ranch, conventions and other Western events. “I don’t solicit business, but I try to accommodate them if I get a call,” he evaluated.
Recognizing that many former rodeo contestants, and others once prominent in the sport, sometimes face financial dilemma during retirement, Stoker analyzed, “I’ve been fortunate to stay busy doing what I’ve done all my life. I’m lucky I’m still able to do it”
Coaching other cowboys and cowgirls to be trick riders and ropers has long been important to Stoker, who serves as a trainer for the All American Cowgirl Chicks rodeo entertainment team.
“We usually practice once a week and have regular shows at Mesquite, Texas,” Stoker shared. “They really have an entertaining show that rodeo committees need to recognize and call on.”
Among those who’ve received Stoker’s training assistance is his great nephew Jake Miller of Emporia, who has performed at a number of area functions.
As a youth, professional trick roper Richard Gratny lived neighbors to Stoker in Kansas and acquired his initial trick roping skills from Stoker.
“Richard is retired in Texas now after a career in Kansas as a big equipment construction contractor. He’s performed with me a number of times and still entertains with his family when there’s an opportunity,” Stoker commented.
Horses are important for cowboys’ success, and Stoker is proud of the horses he’s had throughout his career including the three in his stable today.
“White horses have been my trademark, and now I have a nine-year-old Paint Horse that is completely white named Bronco. He’s a great horse, will do several tricks and the All American Rodeo Chicks have used him for trick riding and even in a Roman riding team for awhile,” Stoker told.
Hot Diggity is the horse most recognizable by people who’ve known Stoker much of his career.
“I’ve had several good horses, but I’d have to say Hot Diggity was the best.,” Stoker credited. “I could trick ride and rope on him, and he was a finished high school trick horse himself. It was a sad day for me when he passed away at age 34.”
Another nine-year-old, a “beautifully-marked” Paint palomino stallion called Romeo, is “just gorgeous,” described Stoker, who has trained the “super-built” horse to do tricks and for trick riding.
“I have a three-year-old son of Romeo that I’ve named Hollywood now, too. I haven’t started training him, but he has a very good attitude,” Stoker evaluated.
“Disposition is essential in my horses. They have to want to cooperate. I’ve really been fortunate to have had good horses.
“My horses are one reason for my good health, too,” Stoker credited. “I haven’t been bucked off and had to fight with my horses like some others.”
With respect to his diverse abilities, Stoker isn’t a cowboy singer. “I have always worn nice outfits, like Roy Rogers, but I can’t sing a note,” he confirmed.
Neither does he do any trick and fancy pistol shooting, but has the ability to perform intricate whip popping. “That was until somebody came by and offered to buy my whips. Money still talks,” Stoker added.
Noteworthy is that the silver screen cowboys might have been able to sing pretty and shoot for the camera, but they weren’t ever known for trick riding and roping.
Yet, Stoker’s wardrobe includes 50 fancy fringed-rhinestone shirts, 25 pairs of handmade boots and 25 Western hats.
With few health issues in his life, Stoker did have stints put in his heart and neck a couple of years ago.
“I’m fine now. I don’t know if I’ll live to be 105, but I’ll live past 100,” Stoker contended. “Although it really is a dying art, trick roping is good for your health. It exercises your legs, your arms and your mind.”
For his future and the sport of rodeo, Stoker analyzed, “I’ve met some incredible people and been able to do some special things. You’ve got to make the people happy and do something that they enjoy.”