Lee Pitts: The Duke And I
December 13, 2017
I received tons of feedback to the column I wrote about meeting celebrity animal stars like Jet Deck, Peppy San Badger, Bertha the Elephant, Poco Bueno and Borden's Elsie the Cow.
Okay, so I only received one letter in response, but it was a long one. In that missive the writer wanted to know what famous people I'd met and if I considered myself a "celebrity."
I should say so! People used to line up to meet me at book signings. Okay, so only one person lined up. But in my 65 years I have managed to meet a few notable celebrities.
The most valuable piece in my collection of people is a photo of me and Ronald Reagan as I presented him the honorary state farmer degree when I was President of the California FFA and he was Governor of California. The second most valuable item is a book written by Nolan Ryan that he autographed for me after my buddy E.C. made it possible for me to eat lunch with Nolan and his wonderful wife. E.C got me the book as an apology because the photo he took of me and Nolan "didn't turn out." That happens to me a lot as I'm not what you'd call photogenic.
I still think the beef industry should have made Nolan our permanent "pitchman."
I got to meet one of my favorite authors, James Michener, at a Texas Brangus sale, and we have a cocktail napkin signed by Joe Dimaggio. What a gentleman he was! As were my two all-time favorite rodeo cowboys: Gene Rambo and Larry Mahan.
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When I was writing feature stories for Cowboys and Country Magazine I got to interview stars like Lynn Anderson, Randy Owen and Rex Allen. I also had a radio relationship with Paul Harvey and I have a drawer full of cassettes of him reading my essays.
I've always been more interested in collecting celebrities in the cattle and horse trades than in seeing Hollywood stars and I loved interviewing Walter Merrick and Reba's little sister Susie. What a great gal she is! And Baxter Black has pounded on our piano, fed our cows and slept in our bed, although there's no sign saying so.
Many celebrities are attracted to cattle and horses and seem to love auctions. The purebred cattle business attracts celebrities like it does IRS auditors. Some of the stars who have cattle include two members of Alabama, and one half of Brooks and Dunn and the Bellamy Brothers. I once worked a horse sale where George Strait was present and an Arab horse sale for Wayne Newton. I met Mrs. David Rockefeller on a plane as we were both headed to the same Simmental sale and by the time we bid adieu the next day we were old buddies. I met Huey Lewis in the San Francisco airport and we had a good chat about his fondness for Red Angus.
Sports stars are also drawn to the cow business and in one of the first sales I ever worked we sold some cattle for Harmon Killebrew. I met Bobb McKittrick, former longtime offensive line coach for the 49ers, through Paul Harvey and sat with his lovely wife through many 49er games. Another extremely enjoyable celebrity I met was Bill Bertka who used to coach the Lakers. I loved talking hoops with him. Speaking of basketball, Horace Grant, who played on four of the same World Champion teams that Michael Jordan did, was in my section at a charity auction and he was extremely cordial. As was TV's favorite bachelor, Andrew Firestone. Rob Lowe did a great job announcing one auction I worked.
I suppose the biggest star I ever worked for was John Wayne. I worked his 26 Bar Hereford sale for many years and his cattle sold for a lot of money while he was alive and on the auction block. After he died they brought far less. The difference is what I call the "celebrity factor."
I fear in that respect the Duke and I may be very much alike. For my wife's sake I hope there is at least some celebrity factor attached to the books I autographed for her as I was counting on that being the life insurance I never bought.
I hope that answers the deluge of mail I received.