Jim & Julie Sutton shaped event into Rodeo Rapid City | TSLN.com

Jim & Julie Sutton shaped event into Rodeo Rapid City

Julie and Jim Sutton have been involved in Sutton Rodeo together for the entire 64 years of their marriage. Courtesy photo

Update: Julie Sutton passed away, surrounded by her family, July 21, 2021, just a few days after Jim was inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame July 17, 2021.

In 1978 Jim Sutton convinced the building manager of the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center to let him bring truckloads of dirt into the brand new building, and put on a rodeo. A few years later he suggested the Black Hills Stock Show move from the Central States Fairgrounds to the heated facility. Suttons have been producing Rodeo Rapid City in conjunction with Black Hills Stock Show ever since.

When Rodeo Rapid City started, Jim’s wife, Julie Sutton, was a rodeo secretary, and managed all the other details of entries, timing, promotion and paychecks. That was when entries all came in from pay phones or landlines as contestants headed down the road. Judges’ sheets were rolled into a typewriter, and the rodeo secretary wrote every check.

Jim Sutton doesn’t remember the dollar amount of the first-place paycheck at the first Rodeo Rapid City in 1978. “Let me ask Julie. She wrote ’em all,” he said. Julie said she didn’t remember exactly, but it was around $500, and she could look it up.

That’s the kind of details the family has always gone to Julie for. If she doesn’t remember the answer (and she probably does), says her daughter-in-law, Kim Sutton, she knows where to find the answer. 

“You could give her the credit for everything,” Jim said. “When we cranked up to start with, she was doing about everything. It wasn’t just the show in Rapid City, she’s been involved in every rodeo we’ve had, and probably more-so than any of us.”

Kim said, “I always felt like Jim had great ideas, and innovative things that he would come up with, but she really worked on the details of making that happen.”

Jim agrees, and adds, “She’s been a major part of everything we’ve ever done, as far as the ranching and the rodeo. I think she would know as much about how good a bucking horse is, or how long he’ll last, or what he’s going to do next, as anybody in the outfit. She doesn’t have that background at all, but she’s been around it that much, and is smart enough to realize what’s going on.”

Jim and Julie have been married for 67 years, and raised their family producing rodeos. Many members of their family are still involved, or have been involved over the years. Brent Sutton, their grandson, was a pick-up man at the National Finals Rodeo this year, following in the footsteps of his father, Steve.   

Jim and Julie’s daughter, Tanya Yackley, lives on a farm near Onida, with her family. The year they started Rodeo Rapid City was memorable for another reason. Their daughter, Teri Sutton Melvin, who had been Miss Rodeo South Dakota, and attended the first rodeo in Rapid City, died later that year of Hodgkin lymphoma. She was 24. “It was a hard year for everybody, but everybody managed,” Julie said.

Jim and Julie’s son, Steve, and Kim, have taken over most of the production of Rodeo Rapid City, but Jim and Julie are still involved, asking, “What can I do? What needs to be done?”

“Now we can go and enjoy the event, and help where we can, but don’t have to do a lot of the preliminary,” Julie said.  

The “preliminary” starts around the first of January, when Suttons head to Rapid City, and doesn’t end until after the last bull leaves the grounds. The family has been an integral part of rodeo, from their hometown rodeo in Onida, South Dakota, to the National Finals Rodeo, for decades. The 2020 NFR would have been the 50th straight NFR Jim and Julie attended, but COVID and health issues kept them home, to their disappointment.
Julie timed for the NFR in 1970, when it was still in Oklahoma City. She passed that legacy on to Kim, who passed it on to her daughter, Amy. “I learned how to time from Julie,” said Kim. “It was good schooling. She was very serious about it. I learned right from the beginning that this is very important. This is deciding who goes on to winning a World Championship buckle. That $25 they lose the world title by in December could have been at any rodeo. Every run is crucial to be accurate and correct.”

Kim has timed at the NFR seven times, and her daughter, Amy has timed three NFR’s. Kim says it’s no more nerve-wracking than timing at Onida in the summer, because the stakes are the same, regardless of the venue. She learned that from Julie. “That’s really a blessing for me,” Kim says.

The Suttons have an office at the Civic Center, and their friends know to find them there. After more than 40 years, a lot of friends look for them.

Both Jim and Julie say that’s their favorite part of Rodeo Rapid City.

“We’ve made a lot of friends,” Julie said. “The dates have stayed similar all the time, so people save their time to attend. I just like renewing friendships, the people you meet there, and who have continued to come for so many years.”

Jim agrees, “You always have a little something to talk about. Maybe a bucking horse you remember 20 years back, or a cowboy or a wreck. We don’t have a rodeo we enjoy any more than we do working Rapid City.”

This year may be different for many. For some, it may be the year they stay home, thanks to COVID, and health concerns.

For many others, though, this is the year to head to Rapid City because events in many other states, including the National Western Stock Show in Denver, were shut down due to the virus.

The PRCA rodeo contestant list, and the competitors in Xtreme Bulls and Xtreme Broncs, solo events the first weekend of the Black Hills Stock Show, indicate the quality and quantity of contestants will be worth the trip. Spectators can expect an NFR-caliber show, from the stock and the contestants, Kim said. Because of the number of entries, they’ve recruited five other stock contractors to bring their best, many of which bucked in Arlington, Texas in December at the NFR. And many of the contestants will be sporting world champion belt buckles, including newly-crowned bull riding and all-around world champion Stetson Wright.  

Kim said they accepted 40 of the 160 entries for Xtreme Bulls, and had to similarly limit the numbers for Xtreme Broncs, and the rough stock events during the rodeo. The timed event slack usually runs a day and a half, but this year will be three and a half days, to accommodate all the entries. That required a lot more coordination and negotiation, Kim said, to make sure they had the necessary extra stock, staff, and access to facilities. This year 688 contestants will ride in the arena for the ProRodeo Tour, compared to 518 last year. This will be the final year for contestants to ride into the arena at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center. Next year, provided all plans line up, the event will move into the newly-constructed Summit, an expansion of the Civic Center.

That’s something the Suttons are looking forward to as well, said Kim. They’ve grown Rodeo Rapid City as the demand and venue has changed, and plan to keep doing that. And Jim and Julie are following the details, asking about the scoreboard and the video screens, envisioning what kind of event the Sutton family will put together next year.

“They’re not retired,” Kim said. “Jim has always said, ‘I’m not going to retire. Ever.’ They’re an integral part of Rodeo Rapid City.”

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