Even before she got inducted into the Cowgirl, Cowboy and Pro-Rodeo halls of fame — Payson’s own Nancy Sheppard could bring ’em to their feet in the rodeo arena doing rope tricks atop a cantering horse.
And darned if she didn’t do it again on Friday, when the now-82-year-old trick roper twirled two lariats to celebrate her induction in the Payson Rodeo Legends Ring of Honor.
Well — actually — she balanced on the black and white tile checkerboard of the Mazatzal Casino ballroom rather than the back of a running horse — but she definitely brought the crowd of more than 100 people to their feet — including the other local, world champion rodeo riders inducted with her.
“When you’re young, you dream of being a cowboy,” said Farrell Hoosava, a Tonto Apache Tribal official who raises bucking bulls and played a key role in organizing the launch of the Ring of Honor, to honor the superstars of the World’s Oldest Continuous Rodeo — held each August in Payson.
“These guys were larger than life when I was a kid — you wanted to be somebody when August came around,” recalled Hoosava, of his youth working for local ranchers and camping out for the roundups.
Hoosava then paused a beat and added: “Of course, a hundred years before that, we used to chase cowboys,” he deadpanned, as the room erupted in laughter.
“Burned a few wagons –— but the cowboys won that one.”
Master of ceremonies Jinx Pyle noted that many Apache hid out in the hills even after General George Crook forced most of the bands to relocate to the malarial flats of the San Carlos Reservation. But some Apache families stayed and eventually drifted down out of the hills to work on the local ranches.
“How’d you like it so you could be a cowboy and an Indian both — pretty good deal,” joked Pyle.
The evening honored some of the best riders and ropers in the history of the rodeo, all with strong local connections.
The stars of the evening were the seven, still-living top riders who ambled up to the front of the room to pick up their plaques and a round of applause.
Sheppard cut quite a figure in a silky blouse with flowing sleeves and a pair of trick ropes. She’s now reportedly writing a book looking back across 70 years as a rider, roper and performer.
But the honorees included lots of other vivid characters.
Harry Shill was there, the town’s official Rodeo Ambassador — who used to parachute into the arena, unfasten his harness, tip his hat to the crowd and climb onto some mad-as-hell bull.
He survived 50 years of riding bulls sufficiently intact to take the microphone and do a song once the Hashknife Band started up later in the evening.
Penny Conway was inducted. A rancher honored as a world champion team roper in 2001, she now runs a motivation and drug awareness program for schools based on cowboy ethics.
Tammy Kelly seemed unassuming and wryly ironic — considering she’s in the Cowgirl Hall of Fame as a result of winning the Women’s World Champion Bull Riding title six times — in 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998 and 2003 — just for good measure. She’s also a member of the local, prolific, pioneering Haught family.
She brought along her husband for induction as well — Frank Kelly, nicknamed “Machine Gun Kelly,” for the sound of his spurs. A world champion, he spent 50 years making folks’ mouths gape open with the things he could do on horseback.
LeRoy Tucker showed up, Arizona All-Around Rodeo Champion in 1957. A rancher and a legendary roper, he won the team roping and the calf roping in his bid for All-Around Champion, but had no experience in any third event necessary to win the All-Around title. So he entered the bulldogging competition — and placed third, enough to win the All-Around title.
Eddie Conway rounded out the slate for the living legends. He placed in the top 10 for bull riding every year for a decade, in addition to winning national titles for team roping in 2001.
Pyle enlivened the proceedings with a patter of anecdotes about the unassuming riders and ropers who strode to the front of the room, not one of them bothering to brag on themselves.
Pyle recalled that one year Tammy Kelly was sitting in the audience watching the national bull riding championships, when someone running things asked her if she wanted to try her hand at riding an “exhibition” bull.
Of course, the only bulls on tap were the toughest, trickiest, most ornery bucking bulls in the world — all of them top 10 bulls.
“Tammy said, ‘no problem, I’ll ride him’” recounted Pyle.
She snugged on that bull and rode him for the full 8 seconds.
“Tammy vaults off, plants both feet like a world-class gymnast, and threw her hat to the crowd,” said Pyle.
Everyone in the ballroom clapped. Tammy just rolled her eyes and looked down at the floor.
Ah, the indignities of inductions.