Dr. Jim Baker was born in Lusk, Wyo. His dad was a dirt contractor. “When I was a kid I thought if you didn’t play […]
Back When They Bucked with HL Todd
Written by: Ruth Nicolaus< Back to Articles
HL Todd was larger than life. Whether it was riding his famous horse Rufus as he steer roped, hosting cowboys at his home in Burlington, Colo., or chewing on one of his signature cigars, he stood out in people’s minds.
The Colorado cowboy, who will celebrate his 79th birthday this year, qualified for the National Steer Roping Finals four times and took numerous victory laps at such rodeos as Pendleton, Cheyenne, and everywhere in between.
He grew up the son of John and Bernice Todd, hardworking farmers in northwest Kansas who were good people but had no use for rodeo. “They didn’t like nothing about it,” HL remembers. “It was like pulling teeth, when you loaded up to go to one.”
Their middle child of three, born in 1937, began roping at the neighbor’s. Elmer and Albert Garrett had a roping pen, and that’s where HL got his start. He was sixteen or seventeen years old, and he was looking for something different than farming. “I’d be out there, (in the field) in August, in the dust and it’d be hot and I’d be sleepy, and I was going to figure out some way to make a living without running this tractor,” he recalls.
He roped in high school a bit, then in college at Kansas State University, he competed in the calf roping and steer wrestling.
After college graduation, HL moved to Burlington, Colo., where he worked for an insurance company for ten years. In the early 1970s, he got into the feedlot business, with a 10,000 head operation. After ten years in the cattle business, he went broke and went back to the insurance company, living in Kansas City and Oklahoma City before moving to a ranch near Chickasha, Okla.
He roped steers on weekends and when he could get away from work. He won rounds and placed at rodeos across the country: Cheyenne Frontier Days, Walla Walla, Wash., Miles City, Mont., Pendleton, Ore., Ponca City, Okla., everywhere he went.
And he and his wife Rita’s place became a stopping spot for fellow cowboys. Their home north of Burlington included an indoor arena. It was on the way for those cowboys from Texas as they headed north for the summer run. “A lot of those steer ropers and calf ropers would come and stay with us,” Rita said. “They were coming from south Texas, and Burlington was over a day’s drive. They’d camp there, go to county fairs, and then go on to Cheyenne and Pendleton.”
Some of the names legendary to the sport of rodeo stayed with the Todds. James Allen, the father of eighteen-time world champion Guy Allen, came with his kids. Sonny Davis, Olin Young, Roy Cooper, Dick Yates, Jimmy Brazile, and more sat at the kitchen table with the Todds. They stayed in their campers or living quarters, and Rita cooked supper for them. Beef was plentiful, in the feedlot business. Cowboys often brought their families along, and HL and Rita’s two daughters, Kim and Kelly, loved it. Their home was a gathering place. “The kids loved it,” Rita said, “and I did, too. It was fun.”
Clark McEntire, the father of country music superstar Reba McEntire, roped steers in the same era as HL did, and he often stayed at the house with his four kids. After roping all day, Rita would fix a big cook-out, and the McEntire kids, mainly Pake and Reba, would pull out their guitars to sing and entertain. “Mom jokingly said they had to sing for their supper,” Kim remembers.
Jeff Todd, HL’s nephew and a team roper, remembers the big personality his uncle had in his rodeo days. “He was just always a figure that was larger than life,” he said. People comment to him that they always wanted to be like HL when they grew up. “He was the guy who, everything he did, was first class. He wasn’t flamboyant, but he always had nice horses and took good pride in his stuff.”
He didn’t always catch, but if he did, he won, Jeff remembers. “That was his mojo. He had that winner’s knack. He might completely miss one in the first round, and then win the next round. He was always a go-round threat.”
HL rode good horses and his best-known horse might be one he raised, a roan gelding named Rufus, who was the AQHA’s 1995 Steer Roping Horse of the Year at the age of nineteen. Rufus was also ridden by HL’s son-in-law, Jimmy Hodge, who made the National Finals Steer Roping three times. The horse was the envy of every cowboy in the arena. One time, at Cheyenne after slack, as HL went to put horses away, one of his granddaughters said to her grandpa, “I want to ride Rufus.” Tee Woolman, overhearing her, said, “Yeah, and so does everybody else around here.”
HL qualified for the National Finals Steer Roping in 1973, 1975, 1976, and 1982, and continued to rope professionally till he was in his sixties. He won a go-round at Cheyenne at the age of 52, and went on to rope in the National Senior Pro Rodeo Association. He quit competing about seven years ago.
HL mentored young cowboys, including the 1978 Tie-Down Roping Champion Dave Brock, and another steer roper, Rod Pratt. As a youngster, Pratt and his family neighbored the Todds, and Rod worked for HL, rebuilding his arena. “One thing led to another,” Rod remembers, “and he taught me how to rope.”
Rod remembers HL with the big cigar in his mouth. “He always chewed on a cigar,” he said. “He’d light it twice, and it’d go out, and then he’d chew on it.” But when he spoke, it was time to listen. “He was pretty quiet and laid back, and you could tell when he spoke seriously, you needed to listen.”
Pratt qualified for the National Finals Steer Roping eight times, winning the average in 1987. He rode one of HL’s horses for the last five rounds in 1987, and placed in every round. “If I needed something, he always helped me,” he said.
HL worked hard to be a good roper, Rod said. “He was a good athlete. He had to work at it, but he wanted to, so that’s the driving factor right there. The ‘want to’ makes you do a lot of things well.”
In addition to teaching him how to rope steers, HL taught Rod some life lessons, like how to enjoy the moment. “It didn’t matter where you were, he enjoyed life. Wherever he was, he enjoyed being there. He never did let life get him down.”
HL and Rita enjoy retirement in Johnson City, Texas. Their older daughter Kelly married Mark Dykes and they have two daughters and a son, and their younger daughter, Kim, married Jimmy Hodge, and the couple has twin daughters.