My dad, John C. Cole, died on Sunday night, after a long battle with heart disease and diabetes. He was 78. While not exactly a shock, even knowing it would happen sooner rather than later hasn’t made this an easy week. There are arrangements to be made, food to order and an obituary to write.
I volunteered to write the official obituary for my dad, John Cole. It was my honor to do so. But I found that 300 words were far too few to pay tribute to a man I so loved and so many admired. So I sat down tonight to write not for a paper or a funeral home website, but for me. And I wrote for my daughter, so that maybe one day she will get to know her Big Papa, if only through my words. So this is what’s in my heart right now…
If I had to sum up my father in a word, it would be cowboy.
Dad didn’t ride horses or tend cattle as a rancher would, but he epitomized the western way of life and spirit of self-made America. Do what has to be done. Be tough but fair. Take pride in your work. Always finish what you start. Remember some things aren’t for sale. These are the tenets upon which the West was built, and a perfect summary of the personal, if unspoken, credo of John Cole.
It’s no surprise then that one of the things he loved most beyond his family and friends was Cheyenne Frontier Days, the world’s largest outdoor rodeo held right in our hometown.
Each July, our household would virtually shut down for the rodeo. Dad would rise early every morning to announce slack (the extra timed-event contestants that can’t be fit into the daily performances), run home for a quick bite to eat, then return to the grounds to assist with the afternoon performance. He would run the first aid gate, help the announcer or just keep wild horse racers in line. Whatever was needed to keep CFD running smoothly. After the performance, you could always find him holding court at Chute 10 and later the Contestants Office. Sometimes he would take in a night show or haul me to the carnival, too. But usually he would finish supper, pull out the next day’s information and begin studying cowboy names, standings and silly jokes in preparation for the next day’s slack. Then late into the night, he’d crawl into bed and do it all over again. Day after day, year after year.
So it’s little wonder the CFD theme song would get stuck in my head every summer, or why I still know most all the words. Frontier Days was his happy place, his rodeo friends a second family.
“Part of Western History, A Legend Walking Tall…Cheyenne Frontier Days, the Daddy of ‘Em All,” goes the song.
It is only now that I realize the song is as much about a man I loved who ran the event as it is the rodeo itself.
John Cole was truly part of western history, a legend walking tall. He stood out among men, not for all his accomplishments but for his undying commitment to servant leadership and his family. His achievements are many and well documented. Eagle Scout. Nominated to attend the Air Force Academy. College football player. Head of Right-of-Way for the largest state agency in Wyoming. Cheyenne Frontier Days General Chairman. CFD Heel. CFD Hall of Fame Inductee. Laramie County Fair Board Chairman. Member of the Kiwanis, Chamber of Commerce, University of Wyoming Alumni Board. Active in St. Mary’s Cathedral.
But my dad was never one to work for a title or a trophy. He worked hard and did the job well because that’s just the kind of man he was. A man leading by example. He was often asked why he didn’t pursue public office, because he could surely get elected. I remember asking him about it once, and his answer stuck with me.
“Communities are not built by politicians,” he said. “They are built by ordinary citizens like you and me who care enough to give their time, sweat and tears.”
The work, he said, was done not in the boardroom but in the trenches. Being a leader was about serving your organization in any way you could. And strong organizations and churches meant a strong community and a place we could all be proud to call home. He portrayed character, compassion, foresight and commitment through his actions, not his words. Dad sat on numerous volunteer boards and committees, volunteered at my school, announced my horse shows and was always there to lend a hand to do whatever was needed. For many years, I was known not by my name, but as “Big John Cole’s daughter.”
But for all his notoriety in the community, for me he was still just my dad. A man, not perfect, but certainly perfect in my eyes. We disagreed and fought, especially in those tumultuous teen years. But I never doubted his love for me and our family.
My father taught me many things…practical things like how to play cribbage, how to do my taxes, how to change a flat tire or jump a dead car. He helped me learn there is honor in simply trying your best and keeping your word. He taught me to be a gracious winner and a gracious loser, to put the needs of my animals above my own, and that the best gift we can give ourselves is the gift of forgiveness.
One of my best and worst memories from childhood is of when I kicked a hole in my bedroom wall because I was angry that I had done poorly on a 4th grade spelling test. I’d gotten a C, and for a kid that received nothing but As and praise, it was a huge blow to my ego. I just knew Dad would be furious, and holed for hours in my room, crying and fearing the worst. But when I showed him the wall, there was no lecture or scolding. Only forgiveness. All he said was “Well, it looks like you’re going to learn to fix drywall.”
My strongest bond with my dad was over our shared love of rodeo, animals and the outdoors. A lot of kids had parents that sang nursery rhymes and tossed them a ball. I had a dad who sang me Ghost Riders in the Sky and taught me the meaning of words like houlihan and piggin’ string. He announced rodeos in his spare time, everything from local high school rodeos to the National Finals Steer Roping. But his favorite was announcing the slack at Cheyenne Frontier Days. I loved rising early during Frontier Days to sit next to him while he announced. I’d look up facts about cowboys, fetch a doughnut or warm his coffee. I used to dream of someday getting to be his co-announcer. I had to settle for seat warmer and gopher, but any job was okay as long as I got to spend my mornings with my hero.
Dad was also the biggest proponent of getting me horseback. He and my mom found a way to provide me with riding lessons and later a horse, which proved to be a my life-long game changer. Dad would take me to ride Peppermint, patiently straddling the fence while I rode the my brown mare in circles for hours. He hauled me to horse shows, gymkahanas and drill team practices. More often than not, he would announce my horse shows, even teasing me via the loudspeaker that my barrel racing times would be better off being timed with a calendar instead of a stopwatch.
He was excited for me when I started at Game and Fish, eagerly sharing stories about his days fishing or hunting. I felt his love and enthusiasm when he gave me his .22 rifle and double-barreled shotgun, because, in his words, if I was gonna work with the wildlife boys, I better be armed. And I think Dad took an incredible amount of pleasure knowing his littlest granddaughter, my daughter Emily, would be raised in his old pheasant hunting stomping grounds at the Springer Wildlife Habitat Management Unit, with the chance to run wild, chase birds and occasionally dunk a worm or two.
He also shared with me his love of cowboy music. Together we’d listen to classic county on the radio or the 8-track. I cut my teeth on Marty Robbins, Jim Reeves and the early, early Chris Ledoux. I accompanied him to a Barbra Mandrell concert, and got to ride Charlie Daniels horse in a parade. My dad made me country long before it was ever cool.
The last time I saw my dad, I had stopped in for a quick visit between running errands in Cheyenne. Wyokiddo entertained him with her big stories and silly personality. And I am forever grateful for that memory, of a quiet, final moment between three generations of Coles.
I find peace and comfort thinking of my dad in heaven, free of the body that long ago failed his mind and spirit. I know he’s petting a heap of mutts that have missed him and his treats. I’ll bet he enjoyed seeing the red roan colt he helped me raise finally all grown up. I’m sure he hugged his own parents, played a round of golf , and then drank some whiskey at the afterlife’s equivalent of Chute 10 with his good friend, Bob L. Walker. And he probably watched a sunset and shared poo poos with his Aunt Betty and Uncle Ernie. Maybe not exactly in that order. But it makes me feel good knowing he’ll be as loved up there as he was down here.
I will miss my father and his wise-cracks, wisdom and guidance. But his legacy of service will live on his community, and his legacy of integrity will live on through his family. As long as I live, I can think of no better compliment than to forever be known and Big John Cole’s daughter.