It all started at the Metro Theater in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. That’s where Elaine Kramer saw the horses and maneuvers that would make her […]
Written by: Siri Stevens< Back to Articles
Bill Martinelli was born in 1935, in Glendale, California and grew up in Playa del Rey. His dad was a high school football coach and referred pro football games. Bill was the only one of his family to take a liking to rodeo. He began his rodeo career when he was in the seventh grade, riding bucking horses. That auspicious beginning continued into adulthood, with Bill traveling throughout most of the United States.
He went Cal Poly and took a horse shoeing class – his desire was to rodeo.
“In 1954, I went to Idaho with Bill Stroud, and rodeo’d all summer up there. In 1955, I went to Denver with John Hawkins on the train. I went to all the winter rodeos, and then started traveling with Alvin Nelson and the Teschers,” he recalled at the 9thAnnual Cowboy Museum Dinner Auction held at the Oakdale Cowboy Museum in Oakdale, Calif., September 16, 2006.
After spending quite a bit of time in the Dakotas, Bill and his rodeo companions came back to California, where he met up with Jim Charles. Bill and Jim started hauling a bulldogging team for Harley May. Those trips took them to New York, Boston, and then back to San Francisco and the Cow Palace. When they weren’t traveling, they called Harley’s place home, dubbing it the ‘Rodeo Rancho.’
Like a host of young men, Bill was drafted into the army, and served two years, from 1958 through 1960, with some of that time spent in Korea. After he was discharged, he came back to Oakdale, moving into the Live Oak Hotel with Jim. In those days, a room was 50 cents a day, with a bathroom down the hall. But, it was home. When he returned from the Army, he went right back to rodeoing, He met Kay in 1971 and they were married in 1972. “He was a 37-year-old bachelor,” said Kay. “We had a motorhome and took off rodeoing. My mother thought we lived like gypsies.”
Bill’s rodeo exploits found him winning numerous awards. Of local notability, he won the all-round title at the Oakdale Rodeo in 1957, with his name being inscribed on the John Bowman trophy. He won the bareback competition at the Los Angeles Coliseum twice, and the bronc riding in Fort Worth. He won at San Antonio twice, and also at Phoenix. Three times, Salinas proved to be no problem, and he went on to add a notch for the Cow Palace to his winner‘s belt. He had five wins at Puyallup, Wash. He also won at Red Bluff, Long Beach, and Inglewood, all California rodeos. “I placed at all the other big rodeos, placing second at most of them.”
He spent three months riding broncs in Europe for Rodeo Far West, a traveling Wild West show owned by Buster Ivory. The show traveled to Europe by freighter, taking 28 days to get there. When asked if that ocean trip reminded him of his trip to Korea, Bill wryly commented, “No. When I went to Korea, they got us there fast!”
Over the course of his rodeo career, Bill went to the National Finals eight times, winning the average once, and placing all the other times. When not competing in rodeo, Bill earned a living by shoeing horses and all-around cowboy work, working for various ranchers in the Oakdale area. He also was the Winston Man – driving the Winston scoreboard around to the all PRCA rodeos. That became a family event, with his wife and kids traveling with him.
When Bill reminisced, he has a twinkle in his eye and a laugh that comes from down deep as he told stories from days gone by. “When he told a story, one led to another,” said Kay.
Bill is married to the former Kay Peterson. They make their home in Knights Ferry, and have raised four daughters, Mickey, Angie, Megan, and Tasha. They have twelve grandchildren. Daughter Angie is serving in the United States Army and is stationed in Germany. “She makes her home in Switzerland and we have been there six times,” said Kay.
Angie loved to rodeo with her dad. “One of my favorite times with dad was in Santa Maria ’96. I was entered in the barrel racing and dad in the gold card team roping. This was the first ever rodeo we had entered and traveled to together. We were both up in slack Saturday morning and Friday night I had gone out and had a pretty good time. I was moving really slow and late that morning and dad beat me to the arena. When I showed up, the barrel racing had already started and I was expecting a lecture, but instead I found my horse fed, saddled, and ready to go. We made a smokin run and placed in the go round. Dad just hugged me and said “nice photo finish”.”
Bill quit competing in 1978 at the Cow Palace. “You couldn’t keep me away from rodeo. I don’t care if I wasn’t even entered, I was there. I’d watch it. That’s all I ever wanted to do. But when it was all over, it was all over, all done. I remember at the Cow Palace, I had a horse that was mediocre, and I thought, ‘if I ride him pretty well, I’m going to keep riding them, and if I don’t ride very well, I’m going to chuck it’ I was riding him pretty well, just giving it to him, and I thought ‘Well, shoot, I don’t have to quit.’ Then all of a sudden, I looked toward the ground, and I just pulled that rein across his neck and stepped off. And I thought, ‘Well that’s it. I’m supposed to quit riding them.’ And I did, I never got on another one”
His love of rodeo continued as he took the scoreboard. When that stopped, he started running the side gate for the NFR, a job he did for ten years. “Bill was a good guy to have on the NFR crew as he was entertaining but was serious about his job,” recalled Shawn Davis, Wrangler NFR General Manager, who hired him to work the gate. “He kept everyone uplifted.” He worked his last NFR in 2005. He also went into the ranching and cattle business when his rodeo career ended. Bill suffered a stroke two days after his induction at the Oakdale Cowboy Museum in September of 2006 that left him unable to speak or work. His wife of 42 years, Kay, has been his voice ever since.
“Dad is an amazing man,” said Angie. “He had mentored so many guys throughout the years. He and mom have always had an open door policy for our rodeo family. We never knew who would be camped out on our lawn. It was a great way to grow up.” When anyone mentions rodeo, Bill still gets a twinkle in his eye and for a brief period, he can focus on his life – and rodeo remains at the top of the list of his accomplishments.