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Elk City, Okla. (August 13, 2018) – The Elk City rodeo is so important to the Johnson family that they had to reschedule a wedding because of it.
Little did Emily Johnson realize, when she and Jeff set the date for their wedding on Labor Day weekend, 1976, that it was the same day as the Saturday night of the rodeo.
Jeff and his dad, Russell Johnson, were part of the Rodeo of Champions committee, and his mom, Velma, volunteered at the rodeo, too. There was no way he and Emily could marry when the rodeo was going on.
So they moved it, to the weekend after the rodeo. And Emily, a native of Amarillo, Texas, began her own rodeo tradition with the Johnsons.
Russell Johnson was on the rodeo committee for more than ten years, serving as president for a term. He worked the contestant parking gate, on the northeast side of the rodeo grounds, with son Jeff joining him “when I was a snot-nosed kid,” he remembers. When Russell became a board director, Jeff, at age fifteen, took over working the gate, helping park specialty acts with trailers, rodeo cowboys and cowgirls, the Sanders longhorns, and more.
When Jeff and Emily’s kids were old enough, they, too, came out to the rodeo grounds to help alongside their parents. Steven, the eldest, helped his dad at the parking gate. Jill served food to the chute seat ticket holders and Tommy, the youngest, pitched in wherever he was needed.
Of the three, Steven still lives in Elk City and has worked the back gate since he was thirteen. Like his dad, he loves it. He makes friends with the people who return year after year, helping them out as he can. He helps saddle horses for the flag-carrying Kerosene Cowgirls. He’s met eleven-time world champion barrel racer Charmayne James when she competed in Elk City, and he’s shaken the hands of the gold-card carrying PRCA members.
If cowboys are late getting to the rodeo, Steven’s been known to park their vehicles for them. “I have cowboys come in, running late, and ask, ‘where do I go?’ I say, grab your stuff, I’ll park your vehicle for you, and I’ll have your keys in my pocket when you’re done.”
The back gate is a “combat zone,” Jeff says. The horses got out once, running several miles. Storms with hailstones have come up, and he’s been clipped by side mirrors as pickups with trailers have pulled in. He’s grabbed excited kids out of the way of eighteen-wheelers, and helped direct traffic. “People don’t pay attention. That’s part of it.” But he loves it. “We just hammer down and stay with it.”
Emily has a role to play as well. After retiring as a registered nurse and supervisor at a hospital, she was asked to help serve the meal to the chute seat fans. She loves the people. “I like meeting everybody,” she said. “Some of the people you see only that time of year. It’s nice to catch up with the regulars.”
Jeff and Steven have never missed a year of the rodeo since they were kids; since 1976, when Emily married Jeff, she hasn’t missed a year. They love what they do. “It’s something I’ve always been a part of, and something I truly look forward to,” Steven said. He hopes his son, 21-month-old Russell Thomas Johnson, is part of the rodeo, too. “It’s almost a heritage between my grandfather, dad and me, and hopefully my son follows in my footsteps.”
The Elk City rodeo is August 31-September 1-2 at Beutler Bros. Arena at Ackley Park. Performances begin at 8 pm each night. Tickets range in price from $9-$18 and can be purchased at Circle A Western Wear, at Doug Gray Dodge in Elk City, and at the gate. For more information, visit the rodeo’s website at www.ElkCityRodeo.com or call Doug Gray Dodge at 580.225.3005.