Training a bison -- more commonly called a buffalo -- to jump through a hoop of fire. Teaching chickens to play Tic-Tac-Toe. Traveling the continent with 200 farm animals. These are the things that make Bunky Boger of Springdale unique and got him elected last year into the Rodeo Historical Society Hall of Fame.
The 87-year-old was inducted during a December ceremony at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. The Rodeo Historical Society started the museum in 1955.
Boger got his start in rodeo as a bull fighter -- one of the guys in clown makeup drawing the attention of the angered bull onto himself rather than a downed rider.
Later, he developed a rodeo "specialty act," taking the arena during the change between events.
"He was always good at whatever he did," said George Doak, a former bull fighter himself, invited to the National Finals Rodeo in 1971 and 1977 and selected for the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame in 2000 and the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in 2001, among other honors. He said he met Boger in 1961.
Doak told the story of a rodeo in Claremore, Okla., when Boger was the clown in the barrel trying to draw the bull's attention. "He poked his head out at the last minute, and that bad bull hit the barrel and knocked him out."
"He was always trying to make the rodeo better," said Doak, who nominated Boger for the Hall of Fame. "He was well-deserving and had been overlooked for years. I thought he was in there."
"He lasted a long time in rodeo," said Dilton Emerson, who campaigned for Boger after the nomination. "He went all back on the East Coast and out West with his acts. He covered a lot of territory.
"He worked hard trying to satisfy the people in the grandstands," Emerson said. "He didn't worry about the rodeo people and trying to have an act that suited them. It's hard to entertain another cowboy. He listened to the people."
"He was just always funny," said Pat Hutter, current president of the Rodeo of the Ozarks Board of Directors and daughter of one of the rodeo's founders, Thurman "Shorty" Parsons. "If you saw a crowd, everybody was gathered around him."
Boger was born in in 1930 in Fort Smith, wrote his wife, Connie, in a biography for the Hall of Fame. His father was a firefighter, and his mother worked at the phone company. Through her job, his mother met people who invited a 6-year-old Boger to spend the summer learning and working on a 70,000-acre ranch in Wyoming.
"One of his first memories was harnessing teams of horses to put up hay," Connie Boger wrote. "They harnessed 50 teams for morning work and then would harness a fresh 50 for the afternoon. He might not remember what he had for breakfast yesterday, but he remembers his morning team was Mouse and Major and the afternoon team was Sonny and Sandy. His first saddle horse was Midnight, and they put in a lot of miles on the 2X ranch. He probably wasn't as much help as he thought he was, but he assisted in every way he could in taking care of 1,000 cows."
After he married and settled in Northwest Arkansas with his first wife, Boger's desire to be around animals drew him to local rodeos, where he rode bulls and wrestled steers. "It didn't take him long until he realized that the bull fighters and clowns were getting paid for every performance, and sometimes he didn't bring home a paycheck," Connie said.
Over the years, Boger worked for some of the top rodeo producers in the country, a veritable "Who's Who," including Erv Korkow of South Dakota, Bob Barnes of Iowa, Jim Shoulders of Oklahoma, Matt Dryden of Florida, the Beutler Brothers of Oklahoma, Cotton Rosser of California, Neal Gay of Texas, Harry Vold of Canada, Homer Todd of Fort Smith and Del Hall of Oklahoma and Harper Morgan of Louisiana, both former stock contractors for the Rodeo of the Ozarks in Springdale.
Boger's rodeo career stretched from 1946 to the late 1960s. He was chosen to work the barrel at the 1975 National Finals Rodeo in Oklahoma City.
As he rodeoed, Boger also got to know the folks who trained animals and fed from their trough. His acts included dogs, chickens, a blanket appaloosa horse, mules and a miniature Brahman bull.
"Bunky's animal acts and reputation for his ability with animals go so well known, that Frank Curry, a circus producer, talked Bunky into sharing his 'western way of life' with circus fans," Connie said.
"The King Brothers wanted me to break eight buffalo to pull a hitch," Boger recalled. "It was a two- to three-year job, and I didn't want to do it. I told them to 'use your animal people.'"
People kept telling Boger no one could train a buffalo. Yet, wearing a white Comanche war bonnet, dressed as Chief Silver Eagle, he brought the buffalo into the arena at a full run.
"Bunky has taken the buffalo further than anybody else ever has," Connie said. "He trained a buffalo to jump through a hoop of fire."
"Everybody in show business wanted something different, something unique," Boger said. "Every clown has a mule, but no one mentioned a buffalo until we came through."
Boger and his buffalo were featured in National Geographic magazine and on "Late Night With David Letterman." Before the show in New York, Boger tied the buffalo to a lamp post on a Manhattan street with feed and then took the animal for its first elevator ride.
"He can do anything in the world with animals," Hutter said. "He's worked at it all his life."
"A lot of people have had trouble with buffalo, but I never did," Boger said. "Everything we've got, we got from rodeo and buffalo."
More recently, Boger and Connie have been traveling 17,000 to 18,000 miles, 221 days a year, from Florida to Washington, on the fair circuit with their petting zoo aimed at educating children about animals and agriculture. Boger credits Connie as being the real animal trainer today.
The couple's son Kelly travels to casinos across the United States with part of the family's Animal Specialty business, supplying tic-tac-toe-playing chickens for special promotions in casinos.
"He's got the best petting zoo in the world," said Doak, who also works with those chickens.
A HELPING HAND
"He made a lot of friends in his rodeo career," said the 81-year-old Emerson, who met the bull fighter as a young bull rider. "I don't know of him ever having any enemies."
"He never met a stranger," Doak, 80, said.
Doak told the story of "somewhere in Iowa," when he and Boger were eating breakfast. Jimmy Dean, the entertainer and creator of the sausage brand, came through, looking to get away from his "goofy" assistant. Boger invited them to the dog track races.
"The right-hand man threw all his money away at the milk bottles," Doak related. "I guess Bunky knew them from his fair days and told them to give the man his money back.
"He'd always help people, and you'd never know about it," Doak said.
Harold Parsons of Springdale, son of the Rodeo of the Ozarks founder, said Boger was instrumental in helping start the Farmland Adventures corn maze. "He gave us ponies and loaned us goats," Parsons said. "He's got all kinds of animals, and told us, 'You can have whatever I've got.'"
"He was always nice to me, and I looked up to him," Emerson said. "He would've given me money to go home from a rodeo if I needed it. I wouldn't have taken it, but he never had to."
"Bunky has a soft spot in his heart for people who are in need," Connie Boger said. From "adopting" families at Christmas, to donating to Cowboy Crisis funds and scholarships, to paying the way to rodeo events for those who can't afford it, to putting money in the Salvation Army's red kettles at Christmas, "he has always tried to give to those in need."
"As far as cowboys, we don't think about why we like somebody but other than we just like them," Doak said.
NAN Our Town on 03/01/2018
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