Jim Watkins was born in Fairfax, Missouri. His dad was a tanker driver for Farmers for MFA oil company. After getting his start in Little […]
Back When They Bucked with Bill Skavdahl
Written by: Ruth Nicolaus< Back to Articles
Bill Skavdahl has gotten plenty of adrenaline rushes in his life. Some of them were ones he planned on, like when he rode bulls and bulldogged, and some were unpleasant ones, like when his helicopter was shot down while serving in the Army Air Corps in Vietnam in 1968.
The northwestern Nebraska man was born near Harrison in 1946 to Harold and Ellen (Howard) Skavdahl. His parents were ranchers and had never rodeoed, but Bill loved to ride the milk cow, much to his mother’s consternation. He was a hand with a horse; ranch work at the Skavdahls was done on horseback.
As a freshman at Harrison High School in 1961, he competed at the state finals, held in Harrison. There were no regular season rodeos; anyone who wanted to could compete at the finals, and the top three in each event went on to the National High School Finals. He rode bareback horses and bulls, mostly because the equipment was easy to come by. An old bareback rider bequeathed him a riggin’, and bull ropes were cheaper than horses.
At the state finals, he won second place in the bull riding. At that time, if a contestant qualified in one event for Nationals, they could add two more events in which to compete. So Bill added bareback riding.
Nationals were in Douglas, Wyo., and he caught a ride to them with a friend. He made a qualified bull ride in round one, then made it to the finals, ending up tying for third with Denny Wall from Montana.
Third place was a pair of spurs, nice ones, and fourth place was a certificate for a 20X Resistol hat. Bill loved the spurs but needed the hat. “I’d never had a felt hat,” he said, “and I wanted one, so I told (Denny) I didn’t need to flip (for third place prize), I’d just take the hat. I had that hat for a long time.”
As a high school junior, he won second at state in the bull riding again. This time, Nationals were in Tarkio, Missouri, and he chose bareback and saddle bronc riding as his additional events. He rode one of his bulls and both of his saddle broncs, missing the short round by two places in the saddle broncs. He rode one of his bareback horses, but missed out the second horse.
In 1964, four high school regular season rodeos were held in Nebraska, and Bill competed at two of them. At Thedford, he won the steer wrestling and bull riding, finished second in the barebacks, and won the all-around. In Crawford, he won the steer wrestling, bull riding and the all-around again. “I was on a roll for state,” he said.
But in Crawford, he broke his ankle. He was in the chute on a Hollenbeck bull, one that hadn’t been ridden. “The bull threw a fit,” Bill said. He made a qualified ride in spite of the break.
State finals were the next week, and he had a plan. He had won a pair of spurs in Thedford, and he modified one of them for his cast. “I took one of them out to the shop, took a blow torch, heated her up, and fitted it around that cast. I got me some plaster of Paris and baling wire and got that thing fastened on there pretty good.”
The spur worked. He covered his first two bulls, but in the short round, the bull spun to the left. “I had a broken right ankle and that didn’t work out too good,” he remembered. He finished fourth in the state, one hole out of qualifying for Nationals.
After high school graduation, Bill worked on the ranch for his dad. Times were tough, so he decided to go to California. He had an aunt there, and he found a job working for a paving company, making $150 a week. It was a good job, considering it would take a month at home to make that same amount. While in California, he competed at a few rodeos.
He was there for a year when a letter came from his dad. A draft notice had arrived addressed to him in Nebraska, and Bill needed to take care of business. He got a physical in California, and passed it. The draft board told him he’d have to go back home to be inducted.
So Bill went home and talked to a recruiter, asking what his options were. His test scores were good enough that he could choose several things. He wanted to be a pilot.
Basic training was in Louisiana then he was on to flight training at Ft. Wolters in Mineral Wells, Texas and advanced flight training at Ft. Rucker, in Dothan, Alabama.
The Army was short on helicopter pilots, so he volunteered. After more training in Ft. Benning, Georgia, he was one of 52 pilots in the 235th Aviation Co., an attack helicopter company formed by the Pentagon, and on October 10, 1967, he was sent to Vietnam.
The attack helicopter’s main job was to escort the helicopters carrying troops into a landing area and to drive the enemy from the landing site till the men were unloaded. They also provided support fire for ground troops.
Within a month, he was the aircraft commander and the fire team leader. Pilots spent about forty hours a week in the air, and Bill flew 805 missions, over 1,050 hours.
The helicopters rarely went unscathed. At the end of every mission, the bullet holes in the sides were counted and recorded. Bill’s record was 29 holes in one mission.
His helicopter was shot down on April 14, 1968. He and his crew were providing air support as a medivac unit worked to evacuate crews from two downed helicopters. Enemy fire knocked out the tail motor gear box on Bill’s helicopter, and he and his crew knew what was coming.
“The feeling you experience is like that of having a horse fall with you,” he said. “It happens so fast you don’t get scared, you just try to get away.”
The enemy was all over the area, but Bill’s helicopter had hit the ground farther away from the actual fighting. It wasn’t long till another crew was there to rescue them. It was only after he was on the rescue flight that he realized a piece of the helicopter had been driven through his leg. During his time in Vietnam he broke his back, and he received a Purple Heart for being wounded while serving his country. He also was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross twice, for “heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight.”
A year to the day that he went to Vietnam, he was sent home. It was October 10, 1968.
He spent another year in the Army, this time at Ft. Carson, Colo., where he and fellow soldiers filled in for the National Guard unit in Kansas City, Mo., as replacements, as the guard members were sent to Vietnam.
While in Colorado, he rode bulls at Canon City and Pikes Peak or Bust, where he got to rub shoulders with bull riding greats like Freckles Brown and Larry Mahan.
He was discharged in 1970, and headed back to the ranch.
By this time, his dad had bought a second ranch, and Bill took over management of it. He married and had three sons: Josh, Jud and Joe, and a daughter, Tomi Jain.
He rodeoed a bit, riding bulls at regional rodeos in Nebraska, but he had a family, ranching obligations, and aches and pains from Vietnam. “You borrow a lot of money from the bank (to ranch),” he said, “and you can’t afford to get hurt.”
But there was one more bull ride for him. At the age of 45, in 1991, he got on a bull at the senior pro rodeo in Crawford. He didn’t make the buzzer, but it “felt pretty good. I wanted to get on again. There’s a rush, you know.”
His children didn’t compete in high school rodeo, but Jud, the middle son, rode saddle broncs at county fairs and was on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln rodeo team in the mid 1990s. He continued to rodeo in the Nebraska State Rodeo Association, making the finals several times. But, like his dad, he had a family to support and a ranch to run, so he career wound down, and, again like his dad, he rode his last saddle bronc at age 45, at the senior pro rodeo in Crawford last summer.
All three boys attended the University of Nebraska, and help with the ranch. All three boys live close to each other and ranch and work together, even though their operations are separate. Joe is also a veterinarian at the Torrington (Wyo.) sale barn. Daughter Tomi Kirkland lives in Riverton, Wyo., and is an English teacher. Bill has ten grandchildren.
Last summer, Bill went through another ordeal. He contracted a rare virus called campylobacter fetus, the “human” form of brucellosis in cattle. The bacteria can cause sepsis and localized infections in the brain, lungs, joints, and the pericardial sac around the heart. The virus got him down. He was in Rock Springs, Wyo., to watch a grandson compete at the National High School Finals and felt so poorly he couldn’t get out of the vehicle.
He went misdiagnosed for two months and after a spinal tap, it was a doctor in Casper, Wyo., who diagnosed him. He made a full recovery and is back to feeding cattle and doing nearly everything he used to do.
He, son Jud, and grandson Jack, a saddle bronc rider, all wore the same chaps as they competed. Bill purchased the “Jim Shoulders” brand out of a catalog in 1963 for $44, which “was a lot of money then,” he said.
And one of his fondest memories was from the 1961 National High School Finals. He was the last bull rider for the evening, and the crowd roared when he made the buzzer. “I can remember the crowd was thunderous,” he said. The ride “was a crowd pleaser.”
His mother gave her sons advice when they were growing up. There were two things they were not allowed to do: ride bulls and join the service. Bill did both, and loved it.
Surrounded by his children and grandchildren, Bill’s life has been full and happy. He has served his country, has four children, kept a ranch going into the next generation, and rodeoed. The patriarch of the family is well-loved and is doing what he loves: ranching, working, and enjoying his kids and grandkids.