Kellan and Carson Johnson, brothers from 30 miles outside Casper, Wyo., have roped together for eight years. “It’s great – we get to practice together […]
Back When They Bucked with Ken Adams
Written by: Lily Weinacht< Back to Articles
In 1957, Ken Adams was the year-end NIRA Bull Riding Champion. The Arizona cowboy qualified four times for the CNFR and competed there twice when it was held in Colorado Springs, Colorado. As a college student on a shoestring budget, he used his winnings to buy books while attending Arizona State University, and his experiences inspired him to start a scholarship for the NIRA Bull Riding Rookie of the Year four years ago. Since then, the NIRA Alumni have created a scholarship for the rookie of the year in each event, and in 2017 alone, they contributed $10,500 in scholarships to the CNFR.
Born in 1933 to Kenneth and Gladys Adams, Ken was the second of three boys. His parents had moved from Missouri during the Great Depression, and while en route to California, Ken’s dad was offered a job driving delivery trucks in Arizona. The family stayed and made their home near Phoenix, and Ken got his first job riding horses with a girl his age at a livestock auction nearby when he was 11 or 12. “I hadn’t ridden at all to speak of – we just started riding whatever horse we could a hold of,” Ken recalls. “We got a dollar apiece riding horses for them back in the ‘40s. I guess people thought it was a pretty good horse if a couple of kids could ride it, but anyone could ride in that ring.”
Not long after that, Ken started riding calves and cows in junior rodeos around the area, catching a ride with anyone who had a car. “I think the first time I ever won money, I was riding cows. The horses didn’t show up to the rodeo, so I got into cow riding. Someone would give you tips, but mostly they just let you get on and learn. There were no schools, and I didn’t have anybody I traveled with that was older, so all of us were pretty much in the same boat. I think the opportunities to learn are much improved now, and the biggest thing to me is videotaping performances to watch them and learn.”
Ken continued riding roughstock in the bareback and bull riding, though he won the most riding bulls. “I think at the time I had really good balance, and it was easier to find bull ridings than anything else.” Ken also worked on two or three ranches during high school, including the Boquillas Ranch, which now belongs to the Navajo Nation and is in the top 25 of the largest working cattle ranches in the United States. “I gathered horses for them, and then I’d enter rodeos and hope I learned something every time. The Palace Bar in Prescott was like an employment agency. Ranchers who needed a cowboy would go in there, or if you needed a job you went in there,” says Ken. He also worked at the copper mine in Baghdad, Arizona, for several months, living on site and hauling debris from the mill, but he hadn’t been there long when he was drafted into the Army during the Korean War. Although the cease-fire was signed by the time Ken finished basic training, he still shipped to South Korea where he drove supply trucks. “There was not much glamour in our jobs, unless you wanted to eat! Seoul was pretty much a mess – it had changed hands four times, but those trucks we had could go pretty much anywhere. All the roads were narrow and dirt, and in the summer they were very dusty. They had huge trucks, but the ones I was driving were three axles.”
Ken was discharged from the Army in 1955, and he enrolled at Arizona State University in 1956, majoring in animal science. Though he had dropped out of high school, he finished his GED in the Army, and he joined the rodeo team and competed in the West Coast Region. He even tried his hand at steer wrestling. “I wasn’t too good in timed events. I told everybody I had a record in the bulldogging – I was in the bulldogging seven or eight times and never got a flag,” Ken says with a laugh. He was helped along the way by college teammates John Fincher and Jon Nickerson. Ken enjoyed rodeoing in California and as far north as Klamath, Oregon. He was also a member of the RCA when a membership cost $10, and on summer breaks, he competed in Colorado, Utah, Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri, though many of his favorites were in Arizona, such as Phoenix, Prescott, and Tucson. “Some of the little towns didn’t have anything (like motels) to sleep in, so we’d sleep in the back of a car. You stayed in rooms when you were prosperous, and we’d split rooms with three or four people usually.”
Ken met his wife, Sharon, at school, and they were married after he graduated and she finished her teaching certificate. “We got married in July of 1960. I’d been teaching school for a year, and Ken won second in the bull riding at Prescott, so we had enough money to get married,” says Sharon. After he finished college, Ken was a brand inspector for several sale barns, then went into the crop spraying business with his brother-in-law before finding his niche in the animal health business selling medicine. Though Ken quit rodeoing not long after they were married, he stayed involved with rodeo by judging several of the law enforcement rodeos a college friend of his organized, along with jackpot bull ridings. In the late 1970s, one of Ken’s friends Stan Harter, a college champion tie-down roper, asked Ken to be the manager of the PRCA Turquoise Circuit when the circuit system was just getting started. Ken served on the board for three or four years and helped put on the finals, along with soliciting saddle donations. “The Turquoise Circuit Finals Rodeo was in Phoenix at the fairgrounds, and for some reason, there was a mix-up one year and all of the trophy saddles got shipped to our house!” says Sharon. “Each saddle came in a big box, and we had them everywhere in the house because we couldn’t leave them outdoors.”
Ken became involved in the NIRA Alumni when he attended the NIRA reunion in Rapid City, South Dakota, in 1997, the 40th anniversary of his NIRA bull riding championship. The following year, his friend Stan Harter was waiting for a kidney transplant, and he asked Ken to represent him on the NIRA Alumni board during the annual meeting. Together, Ken and NIRA founder, Evelyn Bruce Kingsbery, put together the 50th Anniversary Reunion of the NIRA in 1999, and Ken was president of the NIRA Alumni from 1999-2001. Sharon served as the NIRA Alumni secretary for 12 years, and Ken continues to serve on the board of directors. He hasn’t missed a performance of the CNFR since he started attending 20 years ago. When he started raising money for his bull riding rookie of the year scholarship, his plan was to ask former champions to donate $100 each, and by the next year, donations were coming in to provide scholarships for all nine college rodeo events, including team roping header and heeler. “I never had a scholarship, and even the year I won, I was never offered a scholarship,” Ken explains. “They’re giving quite a few scholarships now, but I just thought the rookie scholarship was something somebody wasn’t already covering.”
When they’re not off to the next CNFR, Ken and Sharon make their home in Phoenix, not far from where Ken grew up. They have a son, Ira Adams, and daughter, Adrienne Schiele, and her husband, Mark Schiele, while Ken and Sharon’s two grandsons, Mike and Matt Schiele, live in California. Ken stays current with rodeo via television and never misses a rodeo or bull riding, while he wrote and published a book of short stories about rodeo called “Rodeos, Pig Races & Other Cowboy Stories.” He and Sharon continue their passion of supporting the NIRA and alumni, and they are searching for all NIRA champions, top finishers, faculty, and board members from years ending in eight to join them for the 2018 Annual Reunion.