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When Dean Oliver Mounts Up for a Calf-roping, His Rivals Compete 'For the Leftovers'

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On the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association circuit, Dean Oliver is a legend, known as “The Rope.” It is a nickname as familiar to rodeo fans as “The Doctor” is in basketball.

In the 24 years he has been working the dusty cow palaces of the West, the 6’3″, 200-pound Oliver has earned a total of $510,806, a career record in the PRCA. He has been named the nation’s top all-around cowboy three times and put an all but indelible brand on the calf-roping championship, winning it five years in a row (1960-64) and eight times in all.

This year, at 47, Dean decided to take life easy, entered only about 50 rodeos and still won $22,700—only $15,000 less than the current calf-roping champ, 21-year-old Roy Cooper, who competed nearly twice as often. Recently Oliver defeated Cooper in a head-to-head rope-off in San Angelo, Texas. Though Cooper has a chance to even the score this week at the National Finals in Oklahoma City, most saddlewise cowboys are putting their silver dollars on Oliver. “When he’s around,” says one, “you may as well give him first place and let the rest of us rope for the leftovers.”

Life has not always been so easy for Oliver. One of seven children born to a charter pilot and auto parts salesman and his wife, Dean spent much of his childhood wandering the West with his parents. Eventually the Olivers settled in Nampa, Idaho. But when Dean was 10, his father was killed in a plane crash while hunting coyotes. Profoundly shaken, the introverted Dean developed a speech impediment which, to this day, causes him to pronounce his Rs as Ws. To make matters worse, his mother was unable to feed and clothe the children on her stenographer’s salary, and the family was forced to accept welfare. “Even now I remember the humiliation of standing in line to get food and clothing,” Dean says. “I have dreams at night that those days will return.”

Dropping out of school in the ninth grade, he took a job as a farmhand at 50 cents a day. After watching a local schoolteacher win $300 in a Nampa rodeo, Dean began sneaking out at night to rope his boss’s milk cows for practice and entered a few local rodeos himself. Finally in 1952 he turned pro and won $1,250 in his first crack at the big time.

Following the rodeo trail for weeks at a stretch, Dean and his wife, Martha, drive their station wagon from cowtown to cowtown (30,000 miles in three months this summer), hauling his horse Roany in a trailer behind. At home Dean can be found on an 80-acre ranch outside Boise, teaching his daughters Nikki, 13, and twins Kelli and Karla, 8, how to ride. (Two older daughters, Sheryl, 23, and DeAnn, 20, are married.) “I’ve never encouraged the kids to get interested in women’s rodeo, though,” he says. “Life on the road can be pretty hard on a girl.”

A versatile athlete, Dean took up golf as a diversion while recovering from a knee injury in 1965. Eight years later he was a runner-up in the Idaho Open, and went on to win several Boise city championships. “I really do wish I’d learned golf as a youngster,” he says with a grin. “I don’t mean to be bragging, but I really think I could have been good. Rodeo is for someone who can’t do nothin’ else. I guess that’s why I keep doing it—I need the money and it’s all I know. But heck, it’s been good to me so I really can’t cuss it.”