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Dude Smith: One of the few remaining Turtles

Vernon “Dude” Smith Jr. is one of the oldest living Gold Card members (No. 159) and one of the few remaining members of the Cowboys’ Turtle Association – the forerunner to the PRCA.

“It always makes you feel good when they ask your card number and they want to take pictures,” said the 89-year-old Texan, noting that numbers were assigned as cowboys entered.

Smith was presented with a Montana Silversmiths buckle for being one of the four oldest Gold Card members – No. 159 – along with his friend, Tater Decker, who was No. 6. Decker passed away on March 31, 2017.

“Neal (Gay) and I are the only two left of the bunch,” Smith said.

Smith joined the CTA two years before the association’s name changed to the Rodeo Cowboys Association, which went on to become the PRCA.

“All it did was change names – it was the same bunch,” Smith said.

During that time, he was rubbing elbows with some of the ProRodeo Hall of Fame’s most notable cowboys who helped shape the sport as it stands today.

“We all knew each other back then, but the guys today don’t all know each other,” Smith said. “I don’t know what happened, but there’s not as many cowboys anymore.”

Smith competed in every event, except for team roping, since it wasn’t a common event during his ProRodeo career.

“I only roped one steer, and that was it,” Smith said, noting that entering the steer roping was a spur-of-the-moment decision. “They said ‘people won’t know you never roped one,’ and so I roped him, tripped him, and tied him like a professional – like I knew what I was doing. I can actually say I beat a bunch of good ropers.”

Getting in the saddle

As a kid, nobody would have guessed that Dude (then known as Little Dude, after his father) would go on to compete in rodeo, let alone do so professionally. He was the first member of his family to compete or have anything to do with horses or cattle – aside from his great-great grandfather, who traded horses.

His parents took him to his first rodeo when he was 13 years old and the action sparked a fire that still burns brightly 76 years later.

“I told my mother that’s what I want to be and she said, ‘You don’t know how to do that,’ but I guess that they didn’t either, at one time,” Smith said. “I would get on anything that would buck a little, like a milk cow. 

“I was very popular with my family when I started rodeoing and they couldn’t wait to go watch me,” Smith said. “My aunt would cover her eyes, she couldn’t watch me do it.”

He went on to compete across the country, from the Cow Palace in San Francisco to Madison Square Garden and on down into Houston, Fort Worth, and San Antonio – but he made most of his money competing in Kansas and Nebraska.

Smith worked along the way, earning money as rodeo staff or even as “rodeo police,” in addition to whatever cash he won from competing. And when that didn’t pay enough, he’d win money by challenging cowboys to foot-races.

“When we didn’t have money, we would do foot-races,” Smith said, noting that he’d wager as much as $100 in the mid-1940s (approximately $1,100 in 2017 dollars). “I hustled enough money to get a plane ticket and won over $1,000 at Philadelphia,” Smith said.

Going big

Smith made his Madison Square Garden debut in 1947 by riding 15 bareback horses, 14 saddle broncs, 15 bulls and competing in 11 bulldogging rounds. He estimated he won about $6,000 ($68,239 in 2017 dollars).

“The riggings we had, you could wad up in your bag, and the ones today are like I am – just stiff – and they have to wedge their hand in there,” Smith said.

Three years later, Smith married Frances Crane in 1950 and she went on to win the first National Finals Rodeo barrel racing title in 1967, the first year the event was included. 

Smith never made it to the NFR, having topped out at No. 16 in the world standings in 1966. But, his son, Vern Smith, competed as a bull rider at the NFR in 1980, placing eighth in the average to rank 11th in the world standings.

Making friends

The rodeo road wasn’t always a smooth ride.

“I wanted it so bad that I didn’t mind sleeping in the barn and hitchhiking – it wasn’t easy, but I loved it,” Smith said. “There’s no telling how many people I’ve known.”

Smith traveled with Neal Gay, Casey Tibbs, Bud and Bill Linderman, and others – hitting the road and the airports to rodeos.

“My best friend is Neal Gay and we’ve been sidekicks for years,” Smith said, noting the two met through Gay’s cousin, who owns the dairy that Smith worked at as a kid. “He (Tibbs) was a thrill every day – you could bet something was going to happen, he was a prankster,” Smith said.

When traveling to rodeos, anything that can go wrong, likely will, such as the time the brakes went out and Smith wrecked Tibbs’ Cadillac while they were traveling near Fort Worth. Smith was behind the wheel and Tibbs was resting in the passenger seat.

“I smashed on the brakes, but there were no brakes and there was a car coming, so I whipped to the right and the car left the ground. He was hollering, ‘Stop! Stop! I lost my pillow!,’ and I said it’s going to get worse than that,” Smith said with a laugh while noting nobody was hurt. “We thought we had brakes, it was a new car – but the pedal went to the floor.

“I called my wife and told her we needed another car and she didn’t want to give it to us and Casey said he’d get even and wreck my car.”

Just like today, it wasn’t unheard of for cowboys to get a little rough and rowdy while having fun. Even a fistfight could spur a friendship.

“One of my best friends was Bill Linderman and his brother (Bud) and I fought the first time we saw each other,” Smith said.

Smith and Bud got into an altercation at a bar in Tucson, Ariz., when Smith was about 17 or 18 years old that led to even the bartender joining them at the rodeo grounds to watch them fight.

“Bill said, ‘If you don’t whoop his ass, I’ll whoop it for you,’” Smith said. “I said (to Bud), ‘it’s your fight, what are the rules?’ and he said anything counts. 

“We ended up becoming friends and that’s the way it was in my day. You had a fight and then get a beer after – no knives and guns. It was part of living.”

Smith’s last time in the chutes was around 1973 when Tibbs invited him to compete.

“I said, ‘I haven’t got any equipment,’ and he said I could borrow some and I got in the bareback and I made a good ride,” Smith said. “He said, ‘If you rode like that when we rode for money, you might have won something.’ I actually won a lot of money and I felt like I had done better than those guys who won all those buckles … I wouldn’t trade my life with anybody’s.”
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