Harding County’s Rhett Fox remembered for his cattlemen’s mentality, mischievious acts
December 5, 2018
Before reaching school-age, Rhett Fox was striving to be a great rancher. "He'd read and research anything and everything," his dad, Rob, says. The family would run errands in Belle Fourche when Rhett was a child, and Rhett would ask to check out books from the library, including those about building corrals and managing pasture. He also taught himself to read EPDs, often ordered his own bull sale catalogs over the phone, and would watch online cattle sales as soon as the family had internet, all before he was in kindergarten. His early self-education likely put him ahead of his peers, and elementary school was not challenging enough for him. "It was not enough to keep his interest. He started getting in trouble because he was so bored," his parents say. In one comical incident, Rhett's idea of recess recreation landed him in trouble. After watching and playing poker with adults he knew, Rhett was caught gambling at recess with other elementary school children for real money. His playing cards were confiscated by the principal, and he resigned to gambling only on the school bus. Rob and Kelly began homeschooling him in third grade. Kelly says, "If he wasn't getting his homework done, we wouldn't let him watch online bull sales and we'd take the Tri-State Livestock News away from him." His mother also remembers Rhett's style, even at that age. "He always had to be dressed to the nines. He'd never wear town clothes."
Rhett Warren Fox of Redig, South Dakota died Nov. 15, 2018, at the age of 21 in a motor vehicle accident near his home. On that day, the sport of rodeo lost a fierce competitor, the pastures of northwestern South Dakota lost a true steward, and friends and family lost a beloved man. Rhett is survived by his parents, Rob and Kelly, and sisters, Abby of Redig and Kelly Marsh of Tacoma, Washington..
His life was celebrated on Nov. 21, during his funeral in the packed Harding County High School gym with stories told by close friends, a poem read by Abby, a violin solo by his sister, Kelly, and a letter of remembrance read by Rob. A frequent comment by funeral-goers was that Rhett lived more fully in 21 years than most do in a full lifetime. His mother reflects on his straightforward personality, saying, "He always said, 'I'm going to wear who I am on my sleeve.'"
His passionate nature did not change as he reached 4-H age. His father says, "It was never anything just a little. It was all or nothing. If it was chickens, it was every kind of chicken. He didn't just show two or three chickens at fair, he showed a whole pickup load of them. Rabbits were no different." After small animals, Rhett was interested in hogs. Rob says that after having a few weaner pigs, Rhett and his dad learned to AI a sow, which had piglets, and Rhett built his own pig shed from scrap lumber and fence posts. His interest in ranching only grew, along with the size of his animals.
“(Rhett) always said, ‘I’m going to wear who I am on my sleeve.’” Kelly Fox, Rhett’s mother
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Rob says that when Rhett was around three years old, the family sold most of their cow herd in order to pasture buffalo for others. Rob says, "I sold a lot of them privately and I got down to three, and they were culls, but they were bred. One had a cancer eye, one was really stifled and the other prolapsed every year. Cull cows weren't worth anything, so I told Rhett that I would give them to him. They all had heifer calves that first year." His herd grew into 10 cows after five years. Rob says, "One day out of the blue he asked me, 'Dad, do you think the bank would loan me money to buy more cows?' I kind of giggled at him, because he was probably 10 years old." Rob co-signed the loan and Rhett bought 20 more cows.
By the time Rhett was a teenager, he had a new obsession: rodeo. He had learned to ride and rope by helping his dad with ranch work and riding colts, but after trying all of the rodeo events, he decided to be a bronc rider. His passion for the event was likely sparked by his father's career as a bronc rider and Rhett's friendship with professional bronc riding neighbor, Jake Costello. He attended rodeo Bible camp and sought advice from Dickinson State Rodeo coach, Udell Larsen, and Pete and Bud Longbrake, to improve his riding. Rhett's favorite high school rodeo was in Takini, South Dakota. Kelly remembers when Rhett paused his routine at this rodeo to help young Christian Stangle, son of Dave and the late Char Stangle, fix his chaps. Char later said, "Nobody does that."
Unfortunately, Rhett's riding career was riddled with injuries. He broke his leg on his third horse while learning to ride in high school. He received a scholarship to compete on Panhandle State University's rodeo team and reached as high as third place in the region, before breaking his arm. He received two surgeries on his arm and was recovering from the second when he died. Despite these struggles, his father says, "It never really seemed to bother him."
"It was his passion," says his mother. A few career highlights include traveling with his mentor, Jake Costello at 18 years old, finishing 13th place in the permit standings, winning the PRCA rodeo at Ponca, Nebraska, and qualifying to the Montana Circuit Finals this summer, despite being injured and missing the rodeo count. He and his traveling partner, Taylen Nelson of Wibaux, Montana had plans to rodeo as hard as they could in the coming year. Kelly says, "They were kind of just waiting on each other to heal." Nelson also received a recent surgery on his shoulder.
At the time of his death, Rhett managed his own fencing and leatherworking businesses, and owned a herd of 100 cows. He was self-taught in leather and obtained his maker's mark in 2016. He learned to fence by working with a friend, Taylor Snook for a summer before beginning to fence on his own. Rhett employed his cousin, Tanner Fox, and a school friend, Cahden Howrey, in the past summer to help him fence while his arm healed.
Kelly finds comfort in knowing that her son was content in the last months of his life. "Even after having infection and surgery, he was happy." Rhett's body now rests on the highest hill at the family's ranch in Redig, with a view of Terry Peak and the Slim Buttes. Rob says, "He can see everything from up there."