Wondering what to do for dad on Fathers Day? Take him to the rodeo.
The 65th annual edition of the Ben Johnson Memorial Steer Roping is slated for Sunday, June 17, at the Osage County Fairgrounds. Admission is $10 a head, but kids aged 12 and under get in for free.
This event is all about how much we love our dads, and how much we miss them when they’re gone. Ben Johnson Sr., a champion steer roper and highly regarded Osage County cattleman, died of cancer in 1952 at the age of 56.
His friends and family decided to remember him by fighting the disease that took him, so they established an annual benefit steer-roping event in Pawhuska.
The history lesson, for those who’ve never been schooled on it, is that the annual steer roping doesn’t commemorate the actor Ben Johnson Jr., who would have been 100 years old this June. It is in memory of his father, who was a three-time steer-roping champion in the 1920s at Cheyenne Frontier Days, and later gave up roping to work on the noted Chapman-Barnard Ranch near Foraker.
A writer for an Oklahoma City newspaper said the following of Ben Johnson Sr. in a 1987 article — “He has been compared to Will Rogers. Will ‘never met a man he didn’t like,’ while Ben never met a man who didn’t like him.”
Ben Johnson Sr.’s daughter, Helen Johnson Christenson, was 14 when her dad died.
“I’m still not over it,” she says, when asked about the severity of the loss she experienced. She recalls that the ranching life of that day and time was pretty simple, but very satisfying.
“They had their priorities right,” Christenson said. She grew up on a family ranch located next to the Chapman-Barnard Ranch. The Chapman-Barnard is now the Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve.
After her father died, friends of his in a race-horse association came up with the idea for the benefit roping event, Christenson recalled.
“Dad, I think would be proud of this roping to think that people cared enough for him to honor him with a sport that he loved,” Christenson wrote in an article published in the program for the 50th annual edition of the benefit. “He would be proud that the cowboy tradition is being continued and kept alive.”
Vicki Wells Grusing explains that her late husband, Ted Wells Jr., knew both Ben Johnson Sr. and Ben Johnson Jr. and had a hand in helping to establish the memorial steer-roping event for Ben Johnson Sr.
Since Ben Johnson Sr. died of cancer, the idea was for a portion of the money raised each year to be donated for anti-cancer efforts, she said.
“I remember when you couldn’t hardly find a seat down there,” Grusing said of the crowds that packed the benefit roping.
Lou Ann Smith, one of the current organizers of the Ben Johnson Memorial Steer Roping, said the focus these days is on returning the event to its roots as a benefit that promotes cancer awareness.
“This year, sometime during the roping, we will be giving a $5,000 check to the Angel Flights association,” Smith said. The intent is to help pay for free air travel for cancer patients.
The schedule for the steer roping this year begins at 9 a.m. with Cowboy Church at the East Side Bleachers and continues at 10:30 a.m. with Junior Dummy Roping, behind the bleachers on the east side of the arena.
At 1 p.m. in the outdoor arena, the steer roping is scheduled to begin. It will feature more than 30 top professional cowboys.
So now you have your plan in-hand for Fathers Day. Take dad to the Osage County fairgrounds for an unforgettable day of steer-roping action, and get in touch with a piece of Osage County’s rich cowboy heritage.