The Payson Pro Rodeo Committee honors the memory of Gary Hardt when the action hits the arena at the Payson Event Center this weekend.
Among those who remember him fondly is his son, Shawn, now a teacher and coach in Queen Creek. Shawn recalls his father was a star athlete, excelled in bull riding, was a seasoned outdoorsman and owned a John Wayne-like reputation, mostly due to his physical and mental toughness.
“Everyone looked up to him and admired him for all that he had done,” he said. “He was a very unique individual.”
Over the years, Shawn — who was 22 years old when his father was killed — has listened to endless tales of his father’s exploits in high school and on the rodeo circuit.
“In high school in Phoenix he made the varsity team as a freshman and scored 26 rushing touchdowns,” he said. “When he began bull riding, he rode with Larry Mahan and J.C. Trujillo, who are both world champions.”
Shawn also recalls the story of how his father, who in the late 1960s was helping search for bodies after a flood near Tonto Creek, stumbled across an angry bear.
“My dad shot him once with his .38 pistol but it only wounded the bear,” he said. “The bear crawled into some brush thickets, but dad didn’t want to leave him wounded and dying.”
As the story goes, Gary got on his hands and knees and crawled into the thicket after the bear.
“Not many men would be brave enough to do that,” Shawn said. “Dad eventually got within a few feet of the bear and was able to shoot him with his pistol.”
Shawn also remembers his father had a reputation for being quick with his fists, but said that characterization is unfair.
“Sure, Dad got in a lot of fights, but he was never the one to start them,” he said. “He wasn’t that kind of man.”
The best memories Shawn has of his father are the times the two spent outdoors.
“We did something every weekend,” he said. “It was usually hunting, fishing or going to rodeos — he was a very good dad.”
Shawn continues to honor the memory of his father by wearing one of the buckles Gary won during his seasons on the rodeo circuit every day.
“They are pretty special to me,” he said.
Ronnie McDaniel, a former Gila County sheriff’s deputy and justice of the peace — and one-time rodeo cowboy — agrees his former sidekick excelled in most everything he set his mind to, including fishing.
“We fished some tournaments together — he was a very good fisherman,” he said.
At Payson High School, Gary starred in track and field, especially the high jump, and in basketball.
Following his graduation from PHS in 1962, he was selected to play in the Arizona Coaches Association All-Star basketball game in Flagstaff but opted out.
“He wanted to go to a rodeo instead,” McDaniel said. “I think his family was a little upset with him.”
The family’s displeasure over not playing in the all-star game is understandable — his father, Jiggs Hardt, was a longtime high school basketball coach and is a member of the Arizona Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
Gary satisfied his lust for bull riding for about 20 years before turning his attention to team roping.
“He was good at that too,” McDaniel said. “We roped together a few times.”
Although Gary spent most of his adult life working in construction, he served a short stint as a Gila County Sheriff’s Department deputy working alongside McDaniel.
“He was just then starting a family and couldn’t make a living as a deputy, so he went back to construction,” McDaniel said.
Following Gary’s death, the Spring Rodeo was renamed in his honor and all the proceeds from the annual event benefit local youth through scholarship awards.
His sports legacy in the Rim Country continues in the coaching contributions of Gary’s brothers, Chuck and Billy.
Chuck, who recently retired after having coached football, basketball, track and cross-country at Payson High School, has been honored with enough coach of the year plaques to cover an entire wall of his Payson home.
Billy is a longtime youth football league coach who has led the Payson Raiders to several undefeated records and Central Arizona Youth Football Association championships.
During its earliest years, Payson’s Spring Rodeo was part of the National Old-Timers Rodeo Association, now known as the Senior Pro Rodeo Tour. In 1987, it became the Gary Hardt Memorial Rodeo to honor the memory of the Payson native who died in 1987.
Hardt was a well-known roper. He was recognized throughout the Southwest for his bull riding and roping talents. His rodeo career began in 1962 at the World’s Oldest Continuous Rodeo in Payson. As a member of the Rodeo Cowboys Association, Hardt rode bulls for about 20 years. During the last 10 years of his work in rodeo, he became a well-established roper as well.
This memorial event benefits local youth in pursuit of educational and athletic achievements. Scholarships are awarded to graduating seniors and assistance is provided to athletic and other programs offered by the Payson Unified School District.
The Payson Pro Rodeo Committee, led by Bill Armstrong, coordinates the event.
Membership in the committee is open to any interested Rim Country resident. It meets the second Tuesday of each month at the Best Western Payson Inn. Call Armstrong at (928) 474-9440 for more information.