Holten: When the champion met the King
There was a time when two stars came together in the stairwell of an Army barracks in Germany, with only one knowing the other was a star.
That was in 1959, when Alvin Nelson of Grassy Butte was drafted into the Army and had an outstanding career as a saddle bronc riding world champion interrupted and was briefly separated from his new bride.
A week ago Monday, I had the unique pleasure of asking him an array of questions during the taping of a two-hour interview at the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame in Medora and for me, it was one of life’s most precious moments.
Now, as you may know, Alvin was a member of the famed “Six Pack,” a group of six North Dakota cowboys who were linked together simply because they dominated rodeo in the ’50s and ’60s.
As Alvin said, there were plenty of other good North Dakota cowboys, many of whom never had the opportunity to travel across the country for a variety of reasons. But Alvin arrived at professional rodeo’s ultimate pinnacle early on in life and set an example for all who were to follow by saving his money and buying a ranch, and then another, near Grassy Butte and combining the two only three years into his professional rodeo career. He was a role model from that point until today.
The word humble does not even come close to describing his actions and attitude, his inner being and personality. Because this is a man who was cheered on by thousands at rodeos all across the country, a Wrangler jeans model and still he describes himself as someone who was lucky and, “Did OK.”
You did more than OK, Alvin. You were a star.
This was at a time when South Dakota cowboy, Casey Tibbs, was appearing on the cover of Life magazine, the preeminent magazine of its day, driving a purple Cadillac, wearing colorful clothes, dating Hollywood starlets, riding a bronc blindfolded, partying plenty, blowing his money and getting all kinds of attention.
Meanwhile, Alvin was dating and marrying Kaye, a rodeo queen from southeast of Watford City, investing his money wisely and, by the way, beating out Casey for the world champion saddle bronc riding title.
Still, if you were sitting in my chair across from Alvin on Jan. 6, you too would have discovered how hard it was to get Alvin to say anything that might give glory to himself, and you know what? You’ve got to love it.
He talked glowingly about his rodeo buddies like Jim, Tom and Alvin Tescher, Duane Howard, Joe Chase, Dean Armstrong and others, and about his ranch, his son, family, his many experiences and his wife and how they met. But try to get him to talk about how good he was and it’s easier to lift an oil tanker off the highway with one hand. He just doesn’t go there.
Having Alvin’s memories recorded for posterity — along with those of four-time world champion Brad Gjermundson and others — for the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame is like finding a gold seam and mining it daily for 100 years. It’s a priceless and unique gift for the people of North Dakota and beyond.
Yet, at the time, Elvis Presley didn’t know he’d run into a star when he said “Hi,” to Alvin in the stairwell of the same Army barracks that they’d been assigned to on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
Nor would we have ever known about this chance encounter unless I had asked Alvin, out of the blue, if he had happened to meet Elvis, having put two and two together knowing that Elvis was there at the same time.
Alvin, of course, would never have brought it up.
As it turns out, it was Elvis’s loss. Because had he known more about Alvin, he could have heard a lot of good stories and he would have had as great a day as I had a week ago last Monday.
Holten is the manager of The Drill and is also the executive director of the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame. Email him at email@example.com.