Observe him at the opening of any rodeo. Lights dim in the stands. A spotlight picks out the Stars and Stripes. Echoing discordantly, the first bars of the national anthem crash through the P.A. system. Oliver, hitherto oblivious to perhaps the 1,000th opening ceremony of his career, stops talking without apology or ado. He removes his hat unobtrusively, in the manner of a man who has decided to scratch his head. Throughout the anthem he peers intently at the hatband, as if to check that the size has not gotten too small.
It has not. Oliver, seven times top calf roper, views the economic insecurities and promotional inequities of his sport with equanimity sufficient to exasperate a stone Buddha. A friend confides, "I told that committeeman, 'If you advertise Dean Oliver, world champion cowboy, you'll get just as big a crowd as advertising any movie star, and a lot cheaper.' " Oliver politely agrees, but without great conviction.
Instead, like most of the riders at the Central Wyoming Fair and Nite Rodeo (even the rodeo itself gets second billing), he enjoyed hearing country-and-western vocalizer Eddy Arnold sing Cattle Call. "Boy, that ol' boy can really sing," he said ungrudgingly. "It just comes out like you or I would talk." Only when Arnold continued 45 minutes past his allotted 30 (as he did every night of the Casper rodeo) did admiration fade. "Thought he was pretty good when he started," someone growled, "but he ain't singing worth spit now."
"There's disadvantages to any line of work," Oliver responds to any discussion of rodeo's shortcomings. That imperturbability is about 95% a Westerner's natural, amiable stoicism. For the rest, some $30,000 a year in prize money comforts a man who says, "Rodeoin' was my only real chance to ever have anything."
"I never did like workin' for wages, anyhow," he reflects. "Before I rodeoed I worked on a dairy farm—$175 a month, seven days a week, getting up about 4 in the morning, ending up at 7:30 at night."
Such recollections come easily to Oliver, even after winning better than $300,000 roping calves and wrestling steers. Besides being athletic, humble, handsome, gentlemanly and too abstemious to smoke or drink so much as coffee, Oliver has entirely made his own way in the world.
The full story would abash Horatio Alger. Oliver was born in Dodge City, no less; lost his father in a light-plane crash at age 10; dropped out of school in the 10th grade to work as a regular ranch hand to help support his mother and six other children; never saw a major rodeo until he was 19; and seven years later, in 1955, won his first world calf-roping championship, becoming the first Northerner ever to triumph in this event.
"Backing, money, good calves to practice on, someone to work the chutes—he never had any of that," says his brother Dale. "When Daddy was killed it was pretty tough on all of us for a long time. We were destitute—on relief and all for food, clothing, the whole ball of wax."
Dean seldom speaks of those times. When he does, it is without embarrassment and with a kind of wistful humor. "I won a marbles championship in sixth grade," he suddenly said one day. "We was real poor, you know, and my shoe used to flap. The sole was loose. We still have a picture of me trying to shoot with one hand and hold my shoe with the other so it wouldn't flop open."
When Oliver finally did attend that first rodeo the measly $250 he saw a rider win looked like a lot of money to make in a few seconds. He went back to the dairy farm and started practicing holds on ornery milk cows. "I practiced tying guys' calves, too," Dean remembers ruefully. "I went out at night and tied 'em in the dark. Just tied. If you roped 'em they'd ketch you.