Rodeo legend Cook enters in Badlands event
The first rodeo in Medora Rex Cook ever went to was in 1942.Yet even today, nothing has kept him from the sport.At the age of 88, Cook will be competing in the Medora Badlands Rodeo, which begins at 6 p.m. today and continues at 1 p.m. on Saturda...
The first rodeo in Medora Rex Cook ever went to was in 1942.
Yet even today, nothing has kept him from the sport.
At the age of 88, Cook will be competing in the Medora Badlands Rodeo, which begins at 6 p.m. today and continues at 1 p.m. on Saturday, at Ranch-O-Rama Arena. The event marks the North Dakota Rodeo Association season opener.
Cook, a 2010 inductee of the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame and NDRA champion in 1962, hasn’t officially been in a rodeo in decades, but still competes in team roping regularly.
“I suppose it’s ignorance, probably,” Cook joked about why he still rides. “I should know better. But I like to rope, and I like to ride. As long as I can do it, I’m going to do.”
Cook will be competing in team roping - which North Dakota Cowboy Association President Kevin Holten said Cook basically invented in the state - and will be teaming up with Holten.
“You’ve got the guy who originated team roping in the state of North Dakota,” Holten said, “and he’s roping in our rodeo this weekend. I don’t know how to compare it. It’s like having Babe Ruth play in your pickup baseball game.”
Cook, born at his parents’ homestead just north of Sentinel Butte in 1928, broke in his first horse when he was 12 and began ranching when he was 14.
He always knew he wanted to be a cowboy.
“I suppose I wanted to be around the culture,” Cook said. “A lot of people didn’t like to compete in rodeo, but I was around people who did and I just started doing it.”
After graduating from high school, Cook went to Dickinson State College and graduated in the 1950s. Cook married his wife, Ann, and has two children, Sally Reichert and Ryan Cook. Soon after, Cook served the military overseas in Japan.
Merle Aus, who grew up in Amidon but moved to Glendive, Mont., when he got married in the 1960s, was the first roping partner Cook ever had. Cook and Tex Appledoorn won the 1958-59 North Dakota team roping championship in Belfield, and Aus and Jim Jefferies were his roping partners.
“We roped together a lot until a few years ago,” Aus said. “It was an important part of our lives for both us.”
Aus, 91, met Cook when they entered in a team roping event in Belfield in the 1950s, but neither had a partner. They won that event and have been friends ever since.
“If it weren’t for team roping, I would’ve never had gotten very acquainted with Rex,” Aus said. “We just hit it off right away.”
After a few different jobs, Cook began teaching school in Dickinson and retired in 1989.
But throughout it all, Cook always had time for raising horses.
“Rex always knew what to do with the horses,” Aus said. “He’s just a good ole guy. ... He was a saddlemaker and knew how to build saddles. We just kept building them. Rex is a real artist. He could make one look really nice.”
But from what he’s watched, Cook has seen plenty of change in rodeo since he started competing when he was 17 years old.
“It’s gotten more popular, and like anything else, it’s gotten more competitive,” Cook said. “The skill level has increased quite a bit, I think. It used to be if you could tie a calf in 15 seconds you could win some money. Now if you tie one in 10 you’re probably not winning that much.”
Cook likes team roping more now because it’s something he can do - even now in his 80s.
“I needed to pay for my habit or my addiction,” Cook said. “Like anything else, if you like it, it’s a great thing. But you have to like it or have a passion for it. I couldn’t imagine anybody doing it if they didn’t like it.”
But Holten said Cook not only continues to rides horses, but he talks and acts unlike a normal 88-year-old.
“It’s like roping with somebody who’s still in high school,” Holten said. “He’s just not old. Everybody respects him. Everybody in the cowboy world knows who he is and respects him. … Roping with him is like roping with somebody 30 years younger. Everybody marvels at him.”
Holten added that Cook is still sought after for advice on things like brandings - he did custom brandings years ago - as well as horsemanship and riding in general. Cook is also a historian of the area, Holten added. In fact, Holten uses Cook as a source for the content he produces about rodeo with the NDCA.
“All those guys in the ’50s and ’60s who dominated rodeo nationally, they were his neighbors,” Holten said. “He grew up with those guys. At the age of 14, he was working with some of the legends in ranching in western North Dakota. You can always go to him with any question on horsemanship. … He’s a gift to us all right now because he has all that history, and we can tap into it. It’s almost someone going back into the past. Plus, he’s a great storyteller, and he’s got a million stories.”
On top of it all, Holten said Cook is encouraging and is a positive and patient reinforcement. Cook makes the lives around him better, Holten said.
“He’s looked up to,” Holten said. “He’s got your back. It’s great to have him around because it’s a certain level of expertise that you’re there with. It almost elevates you in your own mind. Whether it’s Brad Gjermundson, four-time world champion, or whoever, they all know him well and stop and listen to him. It’s a respect thing.”
Even at a social gathering like a branding, Holten said people make sure to watch Cook rope, or at the very least, get a chance to talk to him.
“He knew all of the legends and they knew him,” Holten said. “The current competitors, they know that, so they want to mix with him. It’s almost like touching the past.”
But because Cook is a legend, Holten confessed he’s nervous to rope with Cook. Holten doesn’t want to miss on his part.
“Everybody’s going to be pulling for him, and now the pressure is on me,” Holten said with a laugh. “It’s a great honor, but it’s a little added pressure.”
Just because he’s 88, Holten said Cook isn’t backing down from the competition - it’s no ceremonial go.
“It’s not like a gift that he’s competing,” Holten said. “It’s like, ‘Good luck beating him.’ Because he wins. … This is not a relic. This is a legitimate competitor in this rodeo at the age of 88. And he does it so casually and so smoothly. He goes out there and puts it on. I mean, I hope I’m riding a horse at 88. When you’re too close to it, you don’t appreciate it, but it’s a miracle, it really is.”