Rodeo legend Lecile Harris passes away
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – A rodeo legend has been lost.
ProRodeo Hall of Famer Lecile Harris, dubbed the “Dean of Rodeo Clowns/Bullfighters,” passed away in his sleep in Jackson, Miss., Feb. 13. Harris, who lived in Collierville, Tenn., was 83.
The last rodeo Harris worked was the Dixie National Rodeo in Jackson, Miss., Feb. 6-12, working the night before he passed. Rodeo announcer Mike Mathis worked the Dixie National Rodeo with Harris.
“(Lecile) said he was getting lightheaded and thought he might be getting the flu,” Mathis said about what Harris told him after the Feb. 12 rodeo in Jackson. “He said he was going to go to bed. I left Jackson this morning (Feb. 13) and came to Hattiesburg (Miss.). We start it with an event here and then the rodeo Friday and Saturday. Lecile told me that he was not going to get up early, he was going to sleep a little later and he would see me at Hattiesburg this afternoon (of Feb. 13). This morning, the people at the hotel went in and found him unresponsive. I was shocked.”
Harris worked the Dixie National Rodeo 35 times.
The first time Mathis and Harris worked a rodeo together was 37 years ago.
“We’ve done lots and lots of rodeos together, and there was only one Lecile,” Mathis said. “He has timing like no one else and he loved comedy. Lecile fought bulls forever before he began to just do comedy. He was unique. He was a really good athlete. He was a musician. He was an entertainer. He had a varied career, but he loved rodeo and was a legend.”
Scotty Lovelace, the general manager for Harper & Morgan Rodeo, became emotional when talking about Harris. Lovelace was the stock contractor for the Dixie National Rodeo.
“Lecile was a dear friend of mine, and I’m heartbroken,” Lovelace said. “God put Lecile Harris on this Earth to make people laugh. He just had a wit about him, and he had timing. He always believed in timing. … They loved Lecile all over the United States, but especially in the Southeast.”
Harris got his start in rodeo as a bull rider and then a fill-in bullfighter while still in high school. He evolved into one of the sport’s most respected funnymen over a career that spanned more than half a century. He was PRCA Clown of the Year in 1992, 1994, 1995 and 1996.
At his peak, Harris performed at more than 100 rodeos each year, his timing, inventiveness and classic style the envy of his contemporaries. He became well known for his signature end to a performance – The Original Bulldancer – in which he would dance with a bull from the bucking stock.
His specialty acts included a baseball act, piano act, magic act, robot, taxi, shootout, fiddle act and whip act. Harris published a book of short stories, titled “Lecile: This isn’t my first rodeo” in 2016.
Harris’ style was influenced by the work of several comedians he grew up admiring, including Emmett Kelly, Red Skelton, W.C. Fields, and Laurel and Hardy. The painted face he used in his act has been part of his persona since 1955 when he was asked to serve as an emergency replacement at Sardis, Miss., and used shoe polish and lipstick from the local drug store to prepare.
Harris fought bulls for 36 years, and when he was injured at age 52, getting picked up by a bull and taken through a fence at the Reno (Nev.) Rodeo in 1989, he pondered his next move. He returned to rodeo life as a clown in October that year.
“I’m doing what I want to do,” Harris said in the May 11, 2005, issue of ProRodeo Sports News. “I’m working the rodeos I want to work, the ones I enjoy. And, when I get to where I’m not enjoying it and I can’t get a little golf in on the side, then I’ll quit.”
Justin Rumford, the 2012-19 PRCA Clown of the Year, had fond memories of Harris.
“He was one of my favorite clowns ever, and besides that, he was a cool guy,” Rumford said. “Growing up in rodeo from the time I was little until I started clowning, every time he did the baseball act, I laughed, and I must have seen it 150 times. Lecile was special because when he would walk in the arena, he could make a first-time rodeo fan feel like they had known him forever.”