Rodeo Country Radio members rodeo icon Winston Bruce through the memories and recollections of long term friends at the Calgary Stampede- Bob Tallman, Wayne Brooks, Dave Poulsen & Butch Knowles
Fortney: "Ultimate showman" Winston Bruce mourned by Stampede crew, competitors
Published on: July 14, 2017 | Last Updated: July 14, 2017 9:30 PM MDT
Former Stampede Rodeo manager Winston Bruce takes a break in the chutes where the horses romp at the Stampede Ranch in 1988.
“Grandpa died, the angels cried. And the sky opened up and God cried.”
On Monday evening, Bob Tallman received this heartbreaking text message from 17-year-old Zoe Todd, the granddaughter of one of his most beloved friends and colleagues.
“We had it all set up; Winnie was coming here Sunday, we had seats for him in the V.I.P. section,” he says of Winston Bruce, his friend of nearly four decades.
There was no warning of the 79-year-old cowboy’s impending death — according to his daughter Christie, “he was out at the Ranchman’s on the Saturday night prior.”
Just after rain and lightning halted the GMC Rangeland Derby chuckwagon races Monday night, Tallman, a voice known to all as a Stampede announcer, got the sad news his friend had died from pneumonia.
Since then, many tears have been shed behind the scenes at the Calgary Stampede throughout this mostly beautiful week of sunshine and hot temperatures.
For generations of contract personnel and contestants, Bruce, as his friend Tallman says, “was the Calgary Stampede.”
The man who would become famous for making the Calgary Stampede an event known around the world started life on a ranch near the east-central Alberta town of Stettler, learning the cowboy ropes from his dad Laurence Bruce, a bronc rider.
Raised around cowboys and the rodeo lifestyle, he took on the sport as a teenager. By the 1950s, he was well on the road to becoming a sporting legend, winning the Novice Bronc in 1954/55, the Canadian Saddle Bronc Championship in 1957/58 and the world title in 1961.
In 1959 — on his parents’ wedding anniversary — Bruce won his only Calgary Stampede saddle bronc riding championship.
“If somebody came along today with enough money, I’d lose 30 pounds and go out and beat ’em,” a still-energetic 65-year-old Bruce told a Calgary Herald reporter back in 2002.
The end of his riding career in the late 1960s marked the beginning of a new chapter, one that would further solidify him as a legend.
Taking on the job of rodeo manager and arena director for the Calgary Stampede, Bruce would soon play an instrumental role in transforming the Calgary Stampede from a much-loved Canadian event into one known around the world.
“I thought to myself, ‘Well, this could be a buzz,’ and things just went from there,” said Bruce in that same 2002 Herald interview.
He chose the distinctively coloured Appaloosa horse to ride as the arena’s director; he brought in special equestrian acts like trick riding and roping, clowns and the music and pyrotechnics that today make a visit to the Stampede Grandstand a visual and auditory spectacle. It was during his time that the famed Happy Trails farewell song was introduced, among many other innovations.
“I call him the ultimate showman,” says Tallman. “When the media saw Winnie go somewhere, they knew he was going to pull something big out of his hat.”
“He was a great mentor, a great man, a great producer and a visionary when it came to building a product that could be sellable to the world,” says fellow Stampede announce Wayne Brooks, who first met Bruce at a Las Vegas rodeo in the early 1990s.
Bruce, who was the first Canadian inductee into the Professional Rodeo Hall of Fame in 1989 and retired from the Stampede in 2002, will also be remembered for launching the Born to Buck breeding program, that Tallman says “is still the bar of excellence in equine breeding and continues to revolutionize the sport.”
For today’s rodeo stars, Bruce is an icon, a cowboy to admire in myriad ways. “He was a class act, a true gentleman,” says 22-year-old Zeke Thurston, who on Friday went into the Stampede’s Saddle Bronc competition as the top contender.
“He’s the epitome of bronc riding in Canada,” says Thurston, who hails from the central Alberta village of Big Valley. “I’ll probably never be half the guy Winston was, but to be a world champion and in the same category as him is awesome.”
While he will be known by others as someone whose fingerprints are all over the spectacle of entertainment and athleticism at today’s Calgary Stampede, to those who knew him well, Bruce will be remembered as the dearest of friends.
“He had a character different from anyone, but he didn’t let it shine or show if he didn’t trust you,” says Tallman, wiping a tear from his eye. “He was one of the true greats of our sport.”
Bruce is survived by many family members, including his two children Laurence and Christie and grandchildren Zoe, Alexandra and Josh.
“He was a Renaissance man,” says his daughter Christie. “He was a friend to all, an inspiration and the best dad and grandpa around.”
A celebration of life for Bruce is planned for early fall, complete with a roughstock rodeo, says his daughter. “I want to honour his legacy in this fashion.”