Days of ’76: Honoring Hunter’s heart and hustle

Carrie Stadheim
Sculptor Tony, "T.R." Chytka perfects the bronze statue of his friend, the late Howard Hunter. Photo courtesy Tony Chytka

A few of Hunter’s rodeo achievements:

• Qualified for the National Finals Rodeo in 1976, 1979 and 1980.

• The Badlands Circuit Saddle Bronc Champion in 1976, 1978, and 1982.

• Qualified for the Indian National Finals Rodeo 14 times since it began in 1976 and won the Indian National Finals Rodeo Saddle Bronc Championship in 1980, 1987, 1988 and 1990.

• First All-Around champion of the Great Plains Indian Rodeo Association in 1974 when he won both the bareback and saddle bronc championship titles. It was the first of 11 saddle bronc titles he won in the association.

• South Dakota Rodeo Association Saddle Bronc Champion in 1971.

• Howard’s bronc ride on the horse Banjo Eyes in Salt Lake City in 1976 became the logo of the Indian National Finals Rodeo.

–information courtesy Rapid City Journal

It is no wonder the talented athlete’s first and last names begin with an “h.” The late Howard Hunter is described by acquaintances as “humble,” “helpful,” “hardworking,” “a Hell of a bronc rider,” “hero,” and a number of other complimentary adjectives beginning with nearly every letter of the alphabet.

Hunter will be the subject of much “hullaballoo” July 23, 2015, when a bronze created by Belle Fourche, South Dakota, sculptor Tony Chytka will be unveiled at the Days of ’76 Museum in Deadwood. The public is welcome to attend.

Days of ’76 treasurer Joe Peterson, Deadwood, South Dakota recalls that Hunter was a “heck of a bronc rider.” The 25-year plus committee member said his peers competed against Hunter. “He was a real humble guy who would help anyone. Not only was he a great bronc rider but he was a great person so we thought it would be nice to honor him with that bronze,” Peterson said.

The legendary bronc rider was born in 1951 to Aloysius and Ethelyn Hunter and grew up on a small ranch outside of Kyle along with his eight brothers and sisters. He died April 4, 2015 after losing a battle with esophageal and stomach cancer.

““He was not a showboat outside of the arena — he was real soft spoken. But he was prominent in the saddle. I don’t think people realize how good those guys are until they are gone.”Joe Peterson, Days of ‘76 treasurer

He competed in his first rodeo at the age of 10 or 11 in Gordon, Nebraska, and he was hooked.

According to the Indian National Finals Rodeo Hall of Fame, in 1969, Hunter was the first and only cowboy to ever take first in bareback, first in bull riding, second in saddle bronc and win the all around in the South Dakota High School Rodeo Association.

An enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, Hunter competed in amateur, professional and Indian rodeos, racking up an impressive list of wins that seems to go on forever.

The INFR story reports that after filling his professional rodeo permit, Hunter headed out to the big, wide world to win, throughout his career, Cheyenne Frontier Days, Houston, Ellensburg, El Paso, Deadwood, Casper and Jackson just to name a few.

To say Chytka admired Hunter would be an understatement.

While the two rarely traveled to rodeos together, Chytka remembers seeing the legendary bronc rider around the arena.

“I’d see him at rodeos and he’d give you that grin and nod and it was like he was saying ‘glad you made it.’”

Peterson said Hunter didn’t have an arrogant or attention-seeking personality but that he was a “flashy” bronc rider. “He had extraordinary timing. It seemed like the tougher the horse, the better he was.”

“He was not a showboat outside of the arena – he was real soft spoken. But he was prominent in the saddle,” Peterson remembers. “I don’t think people realize how good those guys are until they are gone.”

Chytka chose to memorialize Hunter with a bronze that will be on display in Deadwood because he wanted to recognize “rodeo personalities that made the days of ’76.” Hunter won the saddle bronc riding in the 1976 rodeo, Chytka said.

Five years ago, the Days of ’76 Rodeo Committee recognized Hunter during the rodeo. A team owned by stock contractor Johnny Holloway gave Hunter a ride through the arena while the big screen displayed a slide show of rodeo memories.

Chytka hopes to honor many local rodeo legends – “some of these guys that maybe weren’t world champions but that are legends in their own right.”

The sculptor isn’t sure if the first bronze will be placed outside of the museum near the sidewalk or inside. “It started as an idea – the boulevard of bronc riders for the museum,” he said. He said the unveiling will be done outside of the museum.

“I thought Howard would be the first one. Hopefully we’ll do a series and every year there will be a new tribute,” Chytka said.

A former bull rider and steer wrestler, Chytka recalls one particular time it worked for him to travel to a rodeo with Hunter. “We were at a rodeo, I think it was Aberdeen, for the evening performance. When summer is going you are catching rides all the time, going here and there.” Chytka and two or three friends were afoot and searching for a ride to Cheyenne the next afternoon. They learned that Hunter was headed that way. “In those days you had single cab pickups. There were about three guys that jumped in the back and three in the front and we took off.” The rig hit a rainstorm but “when it started raining a little bit you could hear the gas pedal going a little faster and nobody got wet,” he recalls. The crew stopped in Hunter’s hometown of Kyle, South Dakota, for a few minutes and then headed south. “Some guys were laying down. We went through Nebraska and by the time we got to Cheyenne, the guys laying in the back, one side of their faces was really red.”

Chytka remembers that they “got there in time to ride,” and adds that “Howard was probably the only one to make any money.”

The bronze is patterned after a ride Hunter took on Ripcord, a C& E Rodeo Company bronc, in the 1970s. Chytka said Hunter’s family chose that particular bronc as he was one of the rider’s favorites.

While riding bucking horses is a “hazardous” profession, Hunter “honed” his skills and earned “hurrahs” from the crowd, while showing “heart” both inside and outside the arena.

North Dakota Rodeo Hall of Fame museum curator Phil Beard will speak briefly during the unveiling of the 30 inch bronze, and Hunter’s family has been invited to attend. Chytka said. The event will take place at the Days of ’76 Museum, 18 Seventy Six Drive, Crescent Dr, Deadwood, SD, before the Thursday evening rodeo performance and is open to the public.

Thirty half-size bronzes will be available for purchase. A portion of the proceeds will help finance the tribute bronze. For information, contact Tony or Paige Chytka at 605-645-0814.