ProFile: Donna Keffeler

by Ruth Nicolaus

Donna Keffeler is surrounded by clowns, but she loves every minute of it.
As the marketing arm for one of the PRCA’s national sponsors, she works closely with 45 PRCA barrelmen and with rodeos, providing the right tools to go to retail and increase sales. She administers the Man in the Can program and provides the barrelmen with the buff colored tape and decals for their barrels.
It all started two days before the 1981 Miss Rodeo South Dakota pageant. Donna grew up rodeoing, breakaway roping, barrel racing and pole bending on a ranch in southwestern South Dakota. She had tried a rodeo queen pageant but was told she was “too cowgirly,” so she didn’t try again.
But two days before the state pageant, someone asked her to run, and she decided to give it a whirl. She borrowed clothes, a reining horse, and won the pageant.
No one had told her that as a state queen, she was obligated to run for Miss Rodeo America. She didn’t really want the title; with a semester left of college at Black Hills State University, she wasn’t interested.
But she ran, with the intent of having fun “I had a blast, the whole pageant,” Donna remembers. “I didn’t want to win, so I was myself.” She ended up winning the 1982 Miss Rodeo America title, and “my whole world changed.”
Donna spent the year traveling the country as Miss Rodeo America, having a ball. Two months before her reign was over, a national sponsor asked her to work for them. When she was done as queen, she began work for them in Denver.
She worked for them for three years, then spent four years in California working in the racing industry, for indie cars, off-road, Trans Am and truck racing.
Then her life took another turn. In 1990, the racing company she was working for declared bankruptcy and she would be out of a job soon. The national sponsor called: would Donna come back to Colorado and work for them again? “I said, I’m there,” she said. She had a job.
Since then, she’s been the “one-woman” show, putting the right tools in place so that more product can be sold. And as product sells, it sells rodeo tickets, too. “It’s all about rodeo retail and selling rodeo tickets.”
She works closely with the barrelmen and they are family to her. “They are probably the most loyal and dedicated men in our rodeo industry,” she said. “They live, breath and fight for us.”
They are her extended family, including their wives and girlfriends. “They call me Mama Donna,” she said. “When they start calling me Grandma Donna, I’m retiring,” she laughed.
John Harrison, a three-time winner of the Man in the Can award and a four-time PRCA Comedy Act of the Year winner, loves working with Donna. “She’s got our backs,” he said. “When it comes to going to bat for us, she takes care of her guys.”
Donna takes care of business, too. At the barrelmen’s annual meeting in Las Vegas prior to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, she is in attendance, “telling us what goes on with the national sponsor’s program, what changes are coming our way, or why they’re not selling enough product at a rodeo,” John said. “And she’s not afraid to jump in the middle of you, either. She’ll let you know what you need to do to help her.”
But when business is over, she’s willing to have fun. “When you walk out of the room, she has said her piece and she doesn’t hold a grudge,” John said. “She’s truly friends with us. She loves us.”
Donna has two daughters, Monique, age 24, and Gianna, who is 21, and they are her pride and joy. The girls are excelling in their chosen fields. Monique is a microbiologist working for the Jewish National Hospital. Gianna is working on her bachelor’s degree in geology and will study lava in Italy this year. “They’re so successful, and they’re amazing, sweet, beautiful girls,” Donna said. “We don’t go a week without seeing each other. We’re so close.”
When she started in the rodeo industry in the 1980s, she was the only female representative among the national sponsors. It wasn’t always easy. “I had to break down some doors to gain respect. I couldn’t make a wrong move or say anything wrong. I was very professional in everything I said and did.” She earned the high regard of others. “I did get the respect.” Her advice for other women in fields dominated by women: You have to be respectful.
She is grateful to her South Dakota rodeo family for the support they gave her when she started out as Miss Rodeo South Dakota, then Miss Rodeo America. “If it wasn’t for the Korkows and the Suttons, I wouldn’t have gotten through Miss Rodeo South Dakota. Those two families wrapped their arms around me and guided me.” Jim Sutton still teases her about the time when, as Miss Rodeo America, she was bored and cleaned out his tack trailer. He said, “Donna, what are you doing? You’re Miss Rodeo America!” She replied, “I know, but I’m still Donna Keffeler.”
She loves her job. “I’m living a career in the sport I grew up in and love. I get up every day and love what I do. And after 35-plus years, who can say that?”
Donna was inducted into the Black Hills State University (Spearfish, S.D.) Rodeo Hall of Fame earlier this year.

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