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Willard P. Phillips for the Collegiate Arena
Kansas State Man Goes to First College Finals in 1949
story by Sharon Adams
“I like to tell people that Slim Pickens saved my life. He was the clown at the finals at the Cow Palace in San Francisco seventy years ago. I was bucked off my bull and Slim Pickens jumped between me and the bull,” says Willard Phillips. Slim Pickens went on to a long and successful career in the movies but Phillips had already had his life saved by a famous person before meeting up with Pickens in a rodeo arena in California.
Willard Phillips was born on a ranch north of Brownell, Kansas in 1927. He attended Trego County High School in WaKeeny, Kansas. He was attending Kansas State College in 1947 during the years that college students interested in rodeo were putting together the organization that would become the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association. That year, 1947, Phillips joined the first Kansas State Rodeo Team. A local Manhattan rancher let the team practice on his stock. Team members who went to the Cow Palace in 1949 were Frederick L. Bennett, John Finley, Dick Jepsen, Darold Marlow, Bud Nace and Willard Phillips.
Phillips went to the college finals twice, the second time in 1951. Phillips rode bareback, saddle broncs and bulls. He says,” I rode some after Kansas State but not much. I did not try to make a career out of rodeo, but I am glad that I took a shot at it!”
He says, “The first contest bull I go on was a bull by the name of Truman. He was all Brahman and belonged to the Roberts Brothers at Strong City, Kansas. He had been out of the chute 59 times and had never been ridden. When he got rid of me he had been out of the chute 60 times and never been ridden. We were up there with birds for about four or five jumps when he rolled his hide and dumped me out front. I landed on my back looking up so I got to see what the under side of a Brahman bull looks like. Bud Nace drew him the next day and rode him. I remember this bull better than any bull that I rode.”
Phillips attended Kansas State from 1947 to 1951, earning a bachelors degree in Animal Husbandry and after working a few years, got a masters degree Fort Hays (Kansas State) in 1957. Phillips had a long career in range management with the BLM, working many years in the Burns, Oregon, area and in Susanville, California, retiring in 1995.
“In addition to range management duties, I spent a lot of time working with wild horses and burros, gathering wild horses and burros by horseback. Great fun, even more fun than rodeo” says Phillips.
And about having his life saved before college rodeo: Phillips had entered the army in 1945 at age 18. He was serving in the Pacific on the island of Okinawa and he was about to be facing the next step which would be the invasion of the Japanese homeland. This time his life was saved by the decision made by President Harry Truman to use the Atomic Bomb. After the dropping of the Atomic Bomb ended the war, he spent a year and a half in Japan as part of the occupying forces. He stood on a rise overlooking what used to be Hiroshima, saw first hand the ruined cities of Yokohama and Tokyo. He witnessed the devastation made in Japan by war and the profound changes that came with peace and democracy.
Willard Phillips looks back with pride in his service to his country and with pleasure at his time in college rodeo. He is a supporter of the NIRA Foundation with a yearly check, has come to the Finals in the past, and would be here today but “I no longer travel so good!” Phillips is 92 years old and resides in Susanville, California.