Jim Aplan grew up in Casey Tibbs’ shadow. The Rapid City, S.D. cowboy was born in Casey’s hometown of Ft. Pierre, S.D., and Jim followed […]
Back When They Bucked with Don Lee Smith
Written by: Ruth Nicolaus< Back to Articles
“There’s just something about getting on one of those horses and having them do the best he can, and you yourself do well.”
Good horses, whether they are saddle broncs, roping horses or cutters, are what make Don Lee Smith’s world go round.
The Texas native spent the first part of his life on the back of a bucking horse, then his mid-years in the roping arena, and now he’s in the cutting circle.
Born in 1937 in Aspermont, Texas, his dad, a banker-rancher-cowboy combo, leased a ranch in Ft. Pierre, S.D. The family spent their summers there and the school years in Aspermont.
Don Lee was the elder of two sons born to Wayman and Vista (Mays) Smith and had a younger brother, Jeff.
During the summers, he and Jeff would rodeo in the South Dakota Rodeo Association, but come school-time, they’d head back south to Texas. They were nearly always at the top of the standings in their events, but their leads would slip as they left South Dakota. Don Lee competed in nearly every event, but saddle bronc riding was his favorite
After graduating high school in 1955, he went to college, mostly to please his parents. He attended Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas and competed collegiately, in his main event,
Money was tight in college, and for a year, he roomed in the athletic dorm with the football, basketball and baseball players. He talked the baseball players into giving him half of his entry fees. “They’d come up with $100 and I’d enter at least three events, maybe four,” he remembers. “Then when I got home, I’d have to give them half of my winnings.” After a year, Don Lee finally got enough capital ahead he could have quit, but the guys kept paying half his fees.
In those days, only two teams from each of the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association’s regions went to the College National Finals. For all four of Don Lee’s college career, Sul Ross finished as first in their region and headed to the CNFR, with Don on the team.
In those days, once a guy had qualified for the CNFR, he could compete there in whatever event he chose, not just the event he qualified in. So at the CNFR his four years, 1956-59, Don Lee roped calves once and bulldogged once, rode bulls and barebacks, and, of course, rode saddle broncs.
In 1957, he won the NIRA’s Southwest Region bull riding, and a year later, at the College National Finals, he won both the average and the year-end titles in the saddle broncs, making him the NIRA world champion.
His rodeo role in college included administration: he was part of the group that helped form the NIRA. In 1957, he served as a director, and the next year, was president.
It wasn’t easy, being president of a fledgling organization. Money was tight, and there was no guideline for what the student board should do. Don Lee remembers going to a payphone to make calls, and he recalls renting an airplane (“I don’t know how I paid for it”) and flying to Lamar, Colo., to visit with Hoss Inman, who was one of the adults helping with the NIRA.
Don Lee is proud of the things he accomplished while involved with the NIRA. He suggested a rule where before a person could be NIRA president, they had to serve a term as a director. At Sul Ross, where the administration looked down their noses at rodeo as a college sport, he got rules changed so that participation in the rodeo club was considered physical education, like participation in the other college sports was.
He lettered in rodeo all four years and got the leather jacket to prove it. He graduated with a degree in animal science in 1959 and hit the pro rodeo road. He had purchased his Rodeo Cowboys Association (forerunner to the Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association) card two years prior.
But it was while at an airport, headed west to Oregon, that his pro rodeo days came to an end.
“I was sitting in an airport with my (bronc) saddle, and a little girl was playing on it. I told myself, ‘crap, you have one of those (little girls) at home, you’d better get your butt home.’ I loaded up my saddle, got another airplane ticket, went home, never went to another rodeo, and savored my little girl who is now taking care of me.” Roxanne, his oldest daughter, was about two years old at the time.
Don Lee’s attention turned to the ranch in South Dakota, which he and his brother Jeff leased. They had 40,000 acres, half deeded, half-leased and ran 1,000 mother cows with another 1,000 yearlings.
While he ranched, he and Jeff team roped. They had practice steers and competed at the South Dakota Rodeo Association rodeos and jackpots. Don Lee also judged SDRA rodeos as well.
He retired from ranching in 1999, and that year, was at a cutting in South Dakota when a good friend let him ride one of their cutting horses.
His new passion was ignited. “That was the last of my fortune,” daughter Roxanne laughed.
In 2000, he and his wife Lorren traveled the nation competing in the National Cutting Horse Association. That year, he finished as reserve world champion in the $50,000 Amateur and $20,000 Novice Non-Pro. “He is such a competitor,” Roxie said. “I think, let’s just go ride and turn some cattle back. But he doesn’t want to do that. That’s not his thrill. He wants to go and win. He works pretty hard at it.”
He considers cutting a true ranching sport. “The competition is to see whose horses are the best. It’s the way a rancher can take his horse, ride really quiet into a herd of cows, and pick out a particular one that might be sick, that we want to doctor, or one that we want to sell, and quietly move that cow out of and away from the herd, and hold her there, so she doesn’t get back in. That’s what the cutting competition is all about.”
Roxie remembers her dad’s philosophy when they worked cattle on the ranch. “Dad always stressed, don’t rouse them around.” That’s exactly what cutting is, Don Lee said. “Easy, with no disturbance of the herd. I enjoy getting a good cow cut out.”
He has four reserve world champ buckles, “great big things,” he said. “Somebody said, what are you going to do with these? And I said, I’m going to use them as hubcaps on my Freightliner trucks.”
College rodeo opened up the world for people like him, his classmates, and even kids today, he thinks.
“I think, in my day, those kids on the rodeo team were all smart kids who did well in college. But they went to college not to be educated, but to rodeo. I honestly don’t think some people would have gone to college without rodeo.” Some of his college rodeo classmates became teachers, architects, airline pilots, and more. “The point being, (college) took them out of their little bitty schools, and the NIRA rodeo did a world of good for them.”
Rodeo, team roping and cutting all three satisfy something deep in him.
“I don’t think it was the buckles or the fanfare,” he said, of his rodeo career. “It’s hard to explain. There’s just something about getting on one of those horses and having them do the best he can, and you yourself do well. It’s a challenge to get on one and ride them.”
The same goes for the cutting. “It’s not the buckles or the notoriety. Cutting is a real cowboy event, and it’s about getting a cow out easy with no disturbance of the herd.”
Don Lee had three kids: Roxanne, born in 1959, Judy, born two years later, and Lee, born in 1963. He married his second wife, Lorren, in 1970; she passed away in March of 2022.
Now it’s his grandchildren that bring him joy. Roxanne is married to Chris Harrison; Judy is married to Robert Fisher, and Lee isn’t married. He has six grandkids and seven great-grandkids.
“I didn’t get to enjoy my children like I have my grandchildren,” he said. “I love having them on the ranch, and watching them do the things they do.
“And I became a Christian thirty years ago, and that has been a big thing in my life.” He knows where he’s headed after life on this earth. “Besides the buckles and the mementos hanging in my office, it’s having the security” of heaven.
The best part of life has been its fullness. “I’ve gotten to do everything I wanted to do,” he said.