All Around Cowboy & member of the Cowboy Turtle Association
Dude Smith was 13 years old when he stuck a blue-jeaned leg over his first bucking bull. In actuality, it was a milk cow tied to the fence. But for the teenager from Burkburnett, Texas, it was the start to a rodeo career that would give him the love and friendships of a lifetime, and the honor of being inducted into both the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame and the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum’s Rodeo Hall of Fame.
Born Vernon Smith, Jr., in 1928, he was the oldest of three sisters, Geneva, Anita, and Kay, and a brother, Billy. Neither Dude nor his dad, whom he was named after, had middle names, and went by Big Dude or Little Dude to tell them apart. The Smith family’s only bootprint in the horse world was a great-great-grandfather who traded horses, but that all changed when Dude went to watch his first rodeo. “I told my mom that’s what I wanted to do, and she told me I didn’t know anything about rodeo,” Dude recalls. “And I told her those cowboys didn’t know anything about it either at one time!”
Dude rode one bucking bronc that year, but nearly didn’t make it to the chutes again after he tried to join the U.S. Navy. “I lied about my age and tried to join up, but they caught me,” says Dude. “That was just before Pearl Harbor was bombed – a few people I knew lost their lives there.” Soon after, Dude was given a 4F by the draft board after he was kicked while playing football, which broke an artery in his leg. One hospital was ready to amputate it, but another doctor was able to operate and repair Dude’s leg, cautioning him to never do anything that would bump it.
But Dude wasn’t long out of the hospital bed before he was back in the arena, finding work for rodeo producer Paul Long in Kansas and running the rodeo arena for Floyd Reynolds of Montgomery, Ala., doing his own rodeoing on Saturday nights. Dude’s first jobs as a child were carrying water jars in wet tow sacks to field hands for 50 cents a day, or pulling a funnel wagon which carried grain. But in 1947, he and several friends, including Neal Gay and Wiz Whizenheimer, decided to head north and east to the larger rodeos, and Dude sold a cow he owned to his dad and used the money to buy a ticket to Philadelphia. “I sat on the airplane with my nose on the glass and wondered how much better it could get,” says Dude. “I had on boots with more tape than leather holding them together, and I went on to compete in Detroit and New York. I’d never seen that kind of money in my life.” He competed in 53 performances in 30 days in the Madison Square Garden rodeo, having joined the Cowboys’ Turtle Association just before it was named the RCA. He recently received a buckle from Montana Silversmiths for being one of the four oldest gold card members – #159.
Dude competed in every event but team roping, mainly entering the bareback riding, bull riding, steer wrestling, and wild horse mugging. “I loved riding bulls, and I could ride broncs, I just wasn’t as classy as the other guys. I travelled with Casey Tibbs for a while, and if I got lucky enough to draw and beat him, he’d say we didn’t go to that rodeo,” Dude says with a laugh. “There was one bull, Iron Ore, that I got on all the time, and I never rode him. He wouldn’t hook me, but he’d look at me like I was dummy to keep trying. When I leave this world, he’ll be on my headstone – I thought he deserved to be the winner of the deal.”
Dude saw much of his success in the steer wrestling, winning the event at Cheyenne Frontier Days more than any other rodeo. The greatest thrill of his steer wrestling career was in 1953, when he was invited to compete among the top 25 steer wrestlers in the world in Grady, N.M. Another high point came in the early 1960s, when Clem McSpadden, as part of John F. Kennedy’s “Partners of the Alliance” exchange with Mexico, asked Dude to go with a group of cowboys from Oklahoma to aid cities in Mexico and put on a rodeo. “During the rodeo, they brought out a pretty nice steer and a Mexican fighting bull that probably weighed 850 pounds,” says Dude. “I was able to throw that bull, and everybody threw their hats in the ring and hollered I could be president of Mexico!”
Yet one of the greatest events of his life was when Dude met his wife, Frances, in the late 1940s. She was performing with a horseback square dancing team in Burkburnett when Dude met her, and they married in 1950. “I chased her for a couple of years and finally got her hemmed up, but it wasn’t easy!” says Dude. “After that, it lasted pretty good. She was one of the greatest horsewomen there ever was.” A barrel racer, Frances qualified for the 1967 NFR in Oklahoma City – the first year barrel racing was added to the finals – and won the World title. She was also a member of the AQHA and won titles in the both the junior and senior divisions, along with keeping books for rodeo producer Ed Curtis. She and Dude rodeoed together for nearly 20 years, crisscrossing the plains of Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Nebraska, and even into New Mexico. Dude finished 16th in the world in steer wrestling in 1966. “But I never really rodeoed to be a world champion,” he says. “My dad told me it was better to be a big fish in a little pond than a little fish in a big pond, and I hardly remember going to a rodeo I didn’t win.”
One of Dude’s greatest horses was Scooter, born the same year he and Frances married. The horse was a gift from Dude’s father-in-law, and he was Dude’s mount in the steer wrestling, also winning Frances a barrel racing saddle in Mesquite, Texas, after her horse went lame. In his later years, Scooter went on to teach many kids how to steer wrestle and high school rodeo.
In addition to competing, Dude ran footraces to earn extra money on the road, and he worked as a pickup man, arena director, and even an arena policeman. “We had to keep people back from the arena a certain distance,” Dude explains. “In Cheyenne, people would bring their blankets and set up in the roping box end of the arena. I helped anywhere they needed me. Sonny Ringer was the arena director for Beutlers when I helped them. He carried a pair of pliers in his pocket, but if I couldn’t get a steer to go in, I’d just bite his tail!”
When Dude decided to retire from rodeo in the 1970s, he started training racehorses in Texas. “Frances didn’t understand how I could like training horses, since I didn’t get to ride them, but I told her when the horses crossed the finish line first you’d get goose bumps an inch high!” He and Frances had two sons, Mark and Vern. Vern went on to ride bulls after high school and qualified for the NFR in 1980 , but Mark passed away in 1973. He was driving home on a three-wheeler when a pipe fell off a passing truck and hit him. “I lost everything for a few months,” Dude remembers. “But between my friends and the Lord, I got myself on the right track.”
Dude and Frances made their home for many years in a house near the Red River but later moved to higher ground in Burkburnett. Their son Vern now lives near the river and runs cattle with his wife, LaDonne, who college rodeoed on a scholarship. Dude lives with his granddaughter, Sage Smith, who barrel races, and trains and sells horses. She won the BFA World Championship in 2003. Dude and Frances were married for 63 years before she passed away in 2013, and she was inducted into the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum’s Rodeo Hall of Fame in 2014.
Along with his immediate family, Dude continues many friendships with his rodeo family, and continues to run a small trucking business. “When I first started rodeo, Neal Gay was my closest friend, and he still is,” says Dude. “We’re like brothers.” He feels he competed in the greatest age of rodeo, where camaraderie was staying with families in the same town as the rodeo – some of them barely acquaintances – and hospitality was an ice box full of beer and a plate of chicken or steak. “I worked with committee men and contestants, and we were one big family. I never went to the National Finals, but I would venture to say I wound up better off than a bunch of the gold buckle boys.”