October 19, 1998 12:00 PM

Dapper as ever in his ten-gallon hat and ornately tooled cowboy boots, Gene Autry made his last trip to Anaheim Stadium on Sept. 5, to see his beloved Angels beat the Kansas City Royals 2-1. (He died of respiratory failure Oct. 2, three days after celebrating his 91st birthday.) And though he would be disappointed once again by the Angels’ failure to reach the World Series—his dream since buying the team in 1960—the Singing Cowboy was not about to utter a discouraging word. “I think it’s kind of a crime to go back and daydream,” he once said when reflecting on his career. “You can’t make yourself young again.”

But for generations of Americans weaned on his films, TV shows and recordings such as “Back in the Saddle Again” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” the genial, G-rated rider will forever embody American youth and vitality. “I never considered myself a legend,” said Autry, the son of a hardscrabble Texas livestock trader and his homemaker wife. “I’ve loved everything I did.”

That included parlaying, through shrewd investments, his showbiz success into Forbes 400 wealth. “Gene would ride into the sunset,” sidekick Pat Buttram once said. “Now he owns it.” Autry spent his last days at home in Studio City, Calif., cared for by his wife, Jackie, 57 (neither she nor first wife Ina Mae, who died in 1980, bore him any children), and watching pals Jimmy Stewart, Bob Hope and Gary Cooper in films from the Hollywood era that he and friendly rival Roy Rogers (who died last July) helped illuminate. “We all wanted to win for him,” says Angels star-turned-hitting-coach Rod Carew. “Everybody loved him.”

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