Back When They Bucked with Dr. Donald Mitchell

by Siri Stevens

Donald was born in a farmhouse west of Mountain View, Oklahoma, in 1939, 35 miles south of where he lives now. He grew up on a family farm, milking cows, and helping his father (Donald) with crops – the least favorite being cotton. “I hated cotton. I used to pull the cotton by hand and it didn’t suit me. After my father retired, I turned the cotton to wheat, then I put it all in grass and have been happy as a lark ever since.”
There wasn’t much for rodeo around Don, but his interest in livestock started when he would stand on the front porch and watch the neighbors across the road farm with horses. As he grew older, he anxiously awaited the Saturday afternoon matinees featuring Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, or Hopalong Cassidy. “I wanted to rodeo so bad growing up but my dad wouldn’t have horses because he grew up farming with mules.” He remembers going to his first real rodeo held at a football stadium, and knowing he wanted to know more about it.
It wasn’t until his sophomore year in college that the opportunity arose. “I was in my second year in college and an auctioneer from Texas, Dale Walker, built a cattle sales facility complete with a small roping arena and started having a little Sunday afternoon roping. It got big and they started on Saturdays too. I didn’t have the funds or much experience but I was determined to give it a try. They had the local rodeo there in the summer and I couldn’t do anything so I entered the bareback riding. It was all mud and the horse fell and I got dumped. There was an old cowboy there sitting on the bench – Butch Franklin – who said ‘If you can get over the embarrassment and get cleaned up, come by tomorrow – I want to talk to you.’”

1988 College National Finals Rodeo; National Champions Women’s Rodeo Team Shannon Lord, Luna Burrough, Donnel Kvenold and rodeo queen Dawn Welsch - courtesy of the family
Don Mitchell and his wife, Thedis - courtesy of the family
1985 CNFR, SWSU Champions in Bozeman, Montana - Beamer Photos

He gave Don an old rope, instructions for building and swinging a loop, and an old ten gallon cream can to practice on. Don acquired a horse a few months later from his Uncle; he wasn’t fast, but he was the perfect horse for Don to learn on.
He stayed out of school one semester in order to earn enough money to buy a better horse. He went back and graduated, continuing to rope and started timing some of the National Little Britches rodeos. He continued competing and timing as time allowed, putting his family and job obligations first. He married Thedis and they have three children, Jack, Sonya, and Damon. After several years of teaching and coaching football, including three years at The Riverside Indian School, he accepted a position at his AlmaMater, Southwestern Oklahoma State University in 1967, teaching industrial education and technology. He pursued his doctorate, traveling to Stillwater to accomplish that. He also accepted a position as the advisor/coach for the newly formed rodeo team.
“It was a grass roots movement by some students,” explained Don. “I had just come on board, and I was working in my office the beginning of October and three young students from Southwestern came in that had gone to compete at a rodeo at another school. There were two college associations back then; this was the Central Plains – and they couldn’t enter. In order to enter they had to have a coach, advisor, and apply.” They were allowed to enter provided they produce the eligibility forms by the following Monday. Thanks to Don, that happened. Three years later, Bob Clore engineered a merge of the Central Plains into the NIRA, eventually adding an 11th region and the Central Plains Region of the NIRA was formed.

1993 Southwest Oklahoma State University Men’s Champion Team at the College National Finals Rodeo. - Hubbel
Don Mitchell - courtesy of the family
1986 SWSU rodeo teams at the CNFR, Bozeman, Montana - Beamer Photos

The other challenge Don was faced with was securing an arena for the team to practice. “The city of Weatherford did not even have a fairgrounds,” said Don. In 1972, 640 acres was purchased with plans for a golf course, along with several other amenities, including a rodeo arena. The conditions for the arena construction was voluntary labor to match the cost of materials. Don and 20 members from the team and club actually designed and built the arena in time to host Southwestern’s first NIRA rodeo in April of 1972. Beutler & Son produced the third rodeo and that relationship has spanned 46 years. “We were a club until 1975 and Don petitioned the new president to take the club into the athletics – we had 20 kids rodeoing and up to 60 in the club. Being part of athletics allowed for additional funding.”
Although he enjoyed coaching the rodeo team, his primary focus was teaching. “My emphasis was to prepare young teachers – and I taught those classes.” He took over as chairman of the Industrial Education and Technology department for the last 20 years of his career and admits he missed the teaching aspect. Don retired in 2001, taking over the family farm. He was inducted into the Southwestern Oklahoma State University Athletic Hall of Fame in 2003. He has only missed one performance of the rodeo he started 48 years ago. “I missed my first performance this year due to calving and bad weather.” He brought more than 800 athletes through the rodeo program during his 34 year tenure. 28 have gone on to the NFR with 60 filling their permits. More than 61 have made the IFR – 41 of those becoming world champions. The list of accomplishments is long.
“The mix of teaching and coaching worked for me. I had time for my kids –they rodeoed, and even though they didn’t rodeo in college, we got to go everywhere. They made the high school and little britches finals, and we traveled all over.” His wife is retired from hospital administration and the couple spend time working on the ranch. “We don’t drive as much as we used to.”
Rodeo allowed Don to meet some great friends and be part of the sport that he loved since childhood. “It was some of the most enjoyable times of my life.”

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