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Back When They Bucked with J.W. Stoker
Written by: Ruth Nicolaus< Back to Articles
For seven of his eight decades, J.W. Stoker has entertained rodeo and western fans.
The Weatherford, Texas cowboy has criss-crossed the nation and the globe, trick riding and trick roping for hundreds of thousands of people.
Born in 1927, it began for J.W. when his parents moved from Colorado Springs to Kansas City when he was eight. J.W. attended the Santa Fe Trail Riding Club in Kansas City, and one week, a cowboy by the name of Pinky Barnes came to town. Barnes, a trick rider and trick roper, gave lessons to the club kids. “I liked it real well, and he was a good teacher, too,” J.W. remembers. Even though he didn’t know it yet, his career path was born.
J.W. took to the roping, spending his lunch times and recess at home practicing.
The next spring, Pinky brought a guest to town. Clyde Miller, who put on rodeos and Wild West shows, had heard how good J.W. was. “I was practicing, and they asked me if I’d take them down to the house. They’d like to see my parents.” Clyde wanted to hire J.W., who was the tender age of ten years old. “Of course my folks weren’t going to send me down the road at ten.” So Clyde had a different proposal for them. It was the Depression days, and money was scarce. He offered the whole family a job: J.W.’s dad could haul the bucking chutes, his mother would care for kids, and J.W. and his sisters Frankie and Bessie would trick rope. His parents decided to do it. It brought him notoriety and fame. In 1939, he was billed as the “Juvenile World Champion Trick Rider,” with his picture featured on a box of Wheaties. To his knowledge, he is the only western lifestyle person to be put on the iconic cereal box.
J.W.’s work with Miller continued till Miller suspended his rodeos during World War II due to gasoline and tire rations. Stoker had begun booking his own shows as a brother/sister act with his sisters. One of his first rodeos was Burwell, Neb., in 1940, which he worked for 25 years.
He continued to trick rope and ride till he was drafted for the Korean Conflict. Basic training was at Ft. Benning, Georgia then he was sent overseas, where he was put in the Special Services, the entertainment division of the Army. “I was wanting to trick rope, the same thing I’d been doing in the States,” he remembers. “They auditioned me, and said we’ve never had a trick roper before, but we’ll try it and see what happens. I trick roped and got along real good.” Stoker spent his entire time overseas entertaining the troops, with artillery fire occasionally going on overhead during shows.
He was discharged in 1952, when he came home and his career continued.
In addition to rodeos, Stoker worked Wild West Shows and served as a stuntman in movies. He went to Europe with Rodeo Far West in 1970 for Buster Ivory, and in 1973, worked with Casey Tibbs at a Wild West show in Japan. When the show didn’t go well, Casey got him a job promoting Las Vegas and Nevada outside a log cabin, similar to the one from the Bonanza TV show.
He worked in the movie “Bus Stop” with Marilyn Monroe in 1956 (“she was late every day,” he says, and much shorter than he expected), in “The Kansan” in the late 1940s, where he trick rode and roped, and in “Bronco Billy,” where he doubled for Sam Bottoms, who played Lariat Leonard James in the movie. Stoker taught Bottoms basic spins and for the more difficult spins, trick roped and was filmed from behind him.
Stoker trick roped in Harry Truman’s inaugural parade in 1948. That was back when news reels were shown prior to movies, and Stoker’s trick roping showed up in those reels. He entertained President Ronald Regan and future president George H.W. Bush at the 1984 Republican convention in Dallas. He’s also entertained in nine countries: Venezuela, Germany, England, France, Switzerland, the Dominican Republic, Finland, Japan, and Cuba. He served as entertainer at the Calgary Winter Olympics in 1988, and worked on Michael Martin Murphy’s West Fest for a decade.
Stoker served as a stunt double for Roy Rogers, and Roy even rode one of J.W’s horses. It was while Stoker was working the Houston Rodeo in 1969. Rogers was there, and he’d been told by his doctor he shouldn’t ride because of heart problems. On the second performance, he said to J.W., “I don’t feel right walking out (in the arena to do the Sons of the Pioneers). Can I use your horse to enter and leave on?” J.W. was honored to share his horse.
He made his own trick riding horses, and two of them stick out as favorites. One of them was Pumpkin, the same horse that Roy Rogers rode. He was a palomino with stocking legs and a wide blaze, and “he really ran,” Stoker says. Pumpkin was purchased from the famous woman trick rider and bronc rider Tad Lucas.
Another favorite horse was Hot Diggity. Hot Diggity was purchased from Rex Rossi, another famous trick rider who worked a lot of shows with Stoker. Stoker’s trademark was white horses and Hot Diggity fit the bill. His current horse, Romeo, a paint stallion, is exceptionally intelligent and has a big personality. “I wish I’d had that horse decades ago,” Stoker says.
Living 50 miles from Dallas, he had the opportunity to work conventions as well.
About six years ago, he was forced to slow down and eventually retire. He was diagnosed with spinal stenosis, which pinches nerves and causes leg pain. He can walk to the barn, but once he’s there, he has to sit down for a bit before he can continue. “You can’t trick rope sitting down,” he says.
But Stoker hasn’t quit for good. He has been willing to help anybody who asks. “People would call up and say, ‘I need help with the roping.’ I’d say, come over. I didn’t charge them. I figure it’s been good to me.” He currently works with the Cowgirl Chicks, an entertainment and trick riding group. He and the Cowgirl Chicks are on RFD-TV weekly.
The 87-year old cowboy has had numerous honors and awards. He’s been a two-time Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association Entertainer of the Year. He’s inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame, the Texas Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame, and the ProRodeo Hall of Fame.
And life’s been good for the entertainer. “I’ve done so many things, there’s no end to it,” he recalls. “I just lived life, and lived it good.”
Story also available in the July 1, 2015 issue.