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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Buddy Heaton: Rodeo clown lived by his own rules

Buddy Heaton: Rodeo clown lived by his own rules



Buddy Heaton, a legendary rodeo Bclown who rode a buffalo named Old Grunter in John F. Kennedy's 1961 inaugural parade, died on Thursday at a Kansas nursing home.

He was 82.

Rodeo newcomers may never have heard of him; rodeo oldtimers have never forgotten him.

Heaton, who performed at the Calgary Stampede in the early 1950s, was always known simply as Buddy. But, he actually had a registered first name. It was Harold, though most never knew it.

Stock contractors Harry Vold and the late Reg Kesler first brought him to Canada and in the early 1970s, Heaton rented and lived at a place in the DeWinton area for about three years.

An outrageous individual known across North America, he rarely lived by the general rules of society.

Most notably, Heaton never had Secret Service clearance to ride in Kennedy's inaugural parade. He just fell in with a group from Fort Worth.

Near the end of the parade and at the tail end of it, Heaton swung Old Grunter around and, yelling and waving his arms, charged toward the stage where Kennedy was seated.

Stories say members of the Secret Service drew their guns but, after things settled down, wound up shaking his hand.

Demonstrating there were no hard feelings about his parade crashing, JFK later had Heaton perform for him on two occasions.

Heaton also performed in front of Queen Elizabeth II, Winston Churchill and Gen. Omar Bradley.

The imposing 6-foot-3, 217-pound skilled animal trainer began a 33-year career as a rodeo clown in 1944 at the age of 15. He also competed in professional rodeo's three roughstock events and the steer wrestling in the 1950s.

Calgary's Slim Weegar, now retired at 66, got his rodeo clown schooling from Heaton.

"We used to put on Wild West shows in Alberta, B.C. and the U.S. Northwest," Weegar recalls.

"We'd run three wagon chariot races and I was in one of them. I'd be in front and closing in on the finish line when we pulled the pin.

"The horses took off, the tongue hit the ground, the wagon flipped, a wheel flew off, away I went and Buddy would win the race -always."

Heaton not only trained buffalo, but also Texas longhorns and Appaloosa horses, one of which had a four-inch fifth leg sticking out of its knee.

"One of his Appaloosas would jump over a convertible car," Weegar reported. "At midways up here, he sold tickets to show off a five-legged horse and a longhorn he claimed had horns that were eight-feet long. Actually, I think they were 6-foot-2."

Heaton and Slim Pickins, a bullfighter who also worked the Calgary Stampede before going on to star in many Hollywood movies, often worked together.

"Pickins was a businessman, Buddy was all brawn, often undergoing enormous physical punishment," said Weegar.

Heaton and his buffalo also appeared on the TV show Wagon Train in 1960, as well as the feature films Bus Stop, How the West Was Won and Desert Sands.

He put on two rodeos at DeWinton and among his guests were a couple of stars from Wagon Train.

Heaton often staged outlandish pranks to garner media attention and on one occasion rode Old Grunter up a freight elevator at the Salt Lake City Tribune for a meeting in the newsroom.

Heaton was inducted into the Kansas Cowboy Hall of Fame in 2005 and spent the last seven years of his life at a nursing home in Ulysses, Kan. He is survived by wife, Laura Lee; sons, Ted and Tom; daughters, Rhonda, Linda and Cindy. He was preceded in death by son Buddie.

With files from Jim Bainbridge, Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association communications.