Johnson: Dwayne Erickson remembered as a legend of the North American rodeo world
Herald scribe, who died Monday at age 75, was a veritable expert of his beat, respected far and wide
Dwayne Erickson was inducted into the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame in 2008.
Photograph by: Dean Bicknell
There’s a wonderful line from director John Ford’s elegiac early ’60s ode to the old west, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance:
“This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Dwayne Erickson dealt in legends, in the western lifestyle, in the indomitable spirit and the restless romance of the cowboy way. Even those among us who mistakenly believed Midnight was a time of day and not a bucking horse, the Black Snake a slithering, fork-tongued viper and not a long, winding ribbon of highway that led into the next town, the next rodeo, found ourselves lured by his words anyway.
Dwayne, you see, could spin barn straw into gold on a printed page.
That’s what can happen when you have a gift and fiercely love what you’re writing about; when you care deeply for the people whose stories you’re committed to tell.
Cowboy, as everyone in the media knew him, passed away Monday. He was 75.
“In my opinion, the best rodeo writer in Canada, maybe in North America,” said Strathmore bull rider Scott Schiffner in tribute. “He had a real passion for it. No offence to other reporters, but they don’t really know the sport. Dwayne did. You’ll be at a big event like Stampede, a lot of reporters around, and someone will ask you: What’s the longest you’ve ever stayed on?’ And you’re like ‘Are you kidding me? Haven’t you read the rule book?’ And then you’d see Dwayne, out of the corner of your eye, kind of chuckling.
“I remember when his number would come up on your phone, it was exciting. Kind of a badge of honour. You knew you’d done something successful, and he wanted to talk to you about it.
“So when you saw Dwayne’s number come up, you knew you’d kind of made it.”
Oh, he could be cantankerous. Obstinate. Outspoken. Intimidating. Dwayne Erickson stories littered the newspaper landscape. He was one of the last of those old-school journalists you always hear about, the indelible personalties that used to populate the business and, sadly, are leaving us one by one.
Inside the tough-as-old-boot-leather exterior, though, beat a heart as wide, as vast, as the sky his chosen people rode and roped under. He wanted others, the uninitiated, to see the sport he cherished in his way, the best possible way, and he also wanted it done right, so he was willing to lend a helping hand to any greenhorn flung into what is a rather tightly-knit world.
A nod and quick aside to a cowboy — “Hey, this kid’s all right” — under the stands or behind the Stampede stage after a $50,000 final gave you unlimited access to the story.
If Dwayne trusted you, then you could be trusted.
Understand, there are a lot of pretty fair hockey writers and football writers and baseball writers around. There was only one unimpeachable authority on rodeo.
Writing about Cowboy’s entry into the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame five years ago, fellow Hall of Famer John Down told the story of how Dwayne got hooked back in 1958 after Edmonton Journal sports editor Hal Pawson first assigned him to pen a rodeo yarn.
“I didn’t know the back end of a horse from the front end,” Dwayne told Downsy. “I really didn’t want to do it, but Hal told me I either covered it or should look for another job.”
Not keen on checking the want ads, he covered it.
And in the process found his life’s calling.
He covered his first Canadian Finals Rodeo in 1979, his first Calgary Stampede in ’82 and every National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas since ’85, working not only for the Herald and the Journal, but both the Edmonton and Calgary Suns, the Winnipeg Free Press, CBC-TV and the Canadian Rodeo News.
“As a rodeo writer, I don’t think anyone could carry his saddle,” says Down, who collaborated with Cowboy off and on since 1965. “He wrote in their language. I didn’t read rodeo until Dwayne. But his stuff just grabbed you. They’re really gonna miss this guy. He was rodeo’s champion.
“Anybody who ever worked with Dwayne, will never forget him, especially in later years — with all this new technology — because within five minutes, he would erupt. Thing was, he was never mad at others, usually he was only mad at himself.”
When inducted into the Canadian Rodeo Hall of Fame a decade ago, Dwayne summed up his philosophy:
“What I have tried to do is explain that cowboys are not million-dollar hockey players or football players. They are good, everyday people who have the greatest sense of community that I have ever seen. It makes me so proud of this sport, because there isn’t a moment when they wouldn’t stick out their hand and help, in competition and in life. Rodeo is a life teacher.”
It’s going to be exponentially different this summer. Not seeing him sitting there, in the media trailer late afternoon during Stampede, nursing a beer, cigarette at the ready, cursing silently (or not so silently), hunched over his computer, spinning barn straw into gold.
A strange, empty feeling. The quiet is sure to be oppressive.
There’s an oft-told story of a full-of-himself young cowboy being interviewed by the old master. The young cowboy prattled a bunch of cliches for a few minutes, uninterrupted. Dwayne listened politely.
“Did you get your story?” the cowboy finally asked.
“No,” said Dwayne, fixing the kid with a stare.
The youngster, suddenly uncomfortable, then proceeded to open up about himself.
After the kid had finished, Cowboy quietly turned off his recorder. “Now I’ve got my story.”
This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
Well, in cowboy circles, Dwayne Erickson, a great friend to rodeo and to a lot of the rest of us, as well, became something of a legend himself.
Follow George Johnson on Twitter/GeorgejohnsonCH
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