Last week, Ruth Wester put a picture and story on Facebook about a 3,500 pound sculpture being hauled from Buffalo to Kaycee, Wyoming, to be placed in the Chris LeDoux Memorial Park there in memory of the world champion professional bareback rider who spent a number of his years growing up in Denison.
Ruth established an endowment to Southeastern Oklahoma State University for rodeo scholarships to the school a few years ago. Since its inception, the Ken Lance Memorial Championship Rodeo in Stonewall, Oklahoma, at the Three Cross Arena has been a love of Ruth’s. When the arena was established, she was married to Ken Lance, for whom the rodeo has been named. It takes place every July in Stonewall and Ruth, who later married Dr. Truman Wester, former president of Grayson County Co., publicized the event that is dear to her heart.
While she and Dr. Wester were married, and before his death a few years ago, both were involved in the establishment the Three Crosses Arena near the rodeo arena. She continues to support the cause. Chris LeDoux may well have performed at the arena during his climb to the world championship in professional bareback riding. This is my supposition, not Ruth’s.
When I saw the picture of the sculpture on Facebook, it rang a bell and I started one of my frequent searches. Sure enough, I found a column that I had written for May 11, 2005, titled “Country legend was a hometown boy.” I quoted several prominent Denisonians who remembered teaching him and going to school here for several years, including 1964.
One of these was Bill Blankenship, a retired school administrator who also died several years ago. Bill and Dr. Henry Scott, now Denison ISD’s superintendent, were coaching the McDaniel Junior High Hornets at the time and Chris was a member of that successful team that lost only two games. An autographed picture to Dusty Hunt accompanied the article that I wrote shortly after Chris died of liver cancer on March 9, 2005, at the Wyoming Medical Center in Casper, Wyoming.
At that time, Mike Dungan, Capitol Records Nashville president and CEO, called Chris “a unique artist and a wonderful man.” He had recorded and marketed 22 albums on his own label before signing to a major label.
Before Chris’ music became popular, he was No. 51 on the Hornets team in 1964, where he was described by Bill Blankenship as “a very aggressive player who gave his best effort every time he was on the field.”
Chris, 56 years old at the time of his death, had produced $5 million in record sales. He had undergone a liver transplant in 2000.
Chris was born in Biloxi, Mississippi, and moved to Austin in 1960 when he was 12. When his dad came to Denison with the Red Cross, the family lived in the area near Ray Yards. Dusty Hunt, well known here in law enforcement, lived in the same area and he and Chris became good friends and played football together.
At the time I was interviewing people who knew Chris, Dusty remembered the two listening to the Beatles and the Beach Boys and eating burgers at Watson’s, during an era that was like the “Happy Days” television show.
Dusty remembered Chris as the only kid he knew who had a horse in the backyard and he got raw dough from the nearby Pillsbury plant to feed it. Dusty said he had the makings of a country western star even back then when he wore his boots and hat to school at B. McDaniel every day. Chris left Denison after he completed the 10th grade and his family moved to Wyoming.
In about 1995, when Dusty’s graduating class held a reunion, Chris came back and did a benefit at Outlaws Club while he was on his way to Fort Worth to sing at Billy Bob’s. He came early and he and Dusty made the rounds to the two places he wanted to go to, Watsons downtown drive-in and to the Railhead Restaurant in the Katy Depot, where they had dinner.
Dusty said that Chris had stopped in Denison a few years earlier and spent an afternoon wandering around and reliving the 1960s. It was said that it was during his time in Texas that Chris gained an interest in music and the rodeo. He began dabbling in songwriting while in high school and started recording and releasing his own albums in 1973.
All three of the men I interviewed remembered Chris as being a “tough kid — in a good way.” Dr. Scott said he was small, but a hustler and tough on the football field. He said he was the cowboy type even back in junior high school.
In 1992, Chris cut a gold CD, “Watcha Gonna Do With a Cowboy,” a duet with Garth Brooks that made the Top 10. Another of his songs, “Cadillac Ranch,” made the Top 20.
About 10 months after his liver transplant, Chris was back on the concert circuit with his 2002 CD titled, “After the Storm.” His final album in 2003 was “Horsepower,” demonstrated in a song by “The Ride.” He lived with his wife, Peggy and five children on a ranch at Kaycee.
Donna Hunt is former editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. She has been a longtime contributor to the Herald Democrat with her bi-weekly column, which appears in the Wednesday and Sunday editions. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.