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Holten: ND loses another rodeo legend

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Kevin Holten2 / 2

Guess what North Dakota? You lost another legend the other day.

If you didn't know him, that's too bad. Other people around the country certainly knew him and knew him well. Or if they didn't know him, they knew his name and respected and honored him for the pinnacles he reached that no one else ever has.

Of course, that's how you become a legend. You go where no one has ever been and you stay there because no one else can get there.

Bob "Aber" Abernethy, of Beach, was a real cowboy and straight-shooter who entered the rodeo arena on the boot heels of those other famous North Dakota cowboys -- Alvin Nelson, Jim and Tom Tescher, Duane Howard, Joe Chase and Dean Armstrong, better known as the "Six Pack." They dominated rodeo in the '50s and '60s.

Bob Aber was a nationally ranked competitor himself until fate intervened. At one point in 1959, when he was second in the nation in bareback riding, he broke his neck at a rodeo in California and that forever changed the course he'd take in the sport.

He still competed but he mostly went another route and became a rodeo stock contractor -- maybe the best in the country, or at least the most decorated, since he is the only stock contractor ever to have been honored for having the National Finals Rodeo bareback bronc of the year, saddle bronc of the year and bull of the year.

And when it came to rodeo, he knew them all. Everyone who was anyone in rodeo, he knew them and they knew him.

Not only that, he was known for treating his stock almost too well.

"I thought he'd feed us out of the rodeo business," his wife Sally said, thinking that he might get them too fat to buck.

But Bob Aber never found it necessary to push, prod and whip his stock into submission when sorting them through corrals and into the bucking chutes. He'd take his time and prove, in the end, that the patient route was the quicker route anyway, and it ultimately helped everyone involved in his rodeos relax and perform better.

Of course, for those of you who've been around for a while, you might have even seen him on that famous television show, "To Tell the Truth," when he appeared with Duane Howard after they created the first bronc and bull riding school in the country, earning them a spot on the show and a free trip to New York City.

Yet this man's greatest gift had little to do with the arena he competed in and everything to do with his ability to affect the lives of those he came into contact with so quickly, with one word, a handshake or a look into their eyes.

You see, Bob Aber said less in his lifetime than President Barack Obama in his last speech, Dave Letterman in his last monologue and A-Rod in his last denial. But his words meant more and impacted and entertained more. You could've built a house on his words.

At the same time, he could tell a rodeo story better than Will Rogers, Aesops and Jane Austen combined (and maybe even his own brother Don) and you could listen to him for hours. If he'd only sit still that long, which he never would, always leaving you longing for more.

I was lucky enough to become a friend of his sons, and he and his wife treated me as good as a son. And when I rode in one of his rodeos years ago and my saddle bronc, his bronc, went across the arena and made a sharp turn at the grandstand, I went over the top so fast that I landed face first and snapped my head back.

When I came up for air, Bob Aber was yelling at me from the chutes and chiding me for messing up the ride. But really, if you knew him, you knew that it was his way of showing concern and I think, for him, that ride was a little too much like his ride in California in 1959.

At any rate, he was laid to rest on Saturday and he was one of your heroes, North Dakota. I just wanted to make sure you knew that.

Holten is the manager of The Drill, which is a part of Forum News Service. Email him at