John Wayne died last night.
Not that John Wayne. Fort Worth’s John Wayne.
W. R. “Bob” Watt Jr., 88, said “adios, pardner” and rode off into the sky to visit with the likes of John Justin and Dee Kelly, Fort Worth business leaders and icons.
He’ll say “howdy” to rodeo producer Neal Gay, who recently passed away, and hello to rodeo heroes such as Jim Shoulders (the “Babe Ruth of Rodeo”) and Casey Tibbs.
All of them tough old boys.
“Tough as whit leather,” Dee Kelly used to say when describing this group. I still don’t exactly know what whit leather is, but I can feel it.
Sometimes, Kelly would regale me with stories about watching our rodeo with John Justin and these rodeo heroes. Bob Watt would be close by in his rodeo box. Beer would be flowing, an argument ensued and there would be a fistfight in the chairman’s box. Then the boys would make up and watch the rodeo. One night, Kelly said, these old cowboys fought at the rodeo, calmed down, and then went to John Justin’s house to spend the night.
Before they retired for the evening, they got into another fight and rolled out of the house and onto the front lawn of John Justin’s home. Justin was mayor at the time.
The police came, settled everyone down and the cowboys went back in the house and went to bed. They left the next day, laughing and in the same truck.
These were tough rodeo cowboys and Bob Watt knew them all. He could hold a stern visage but behind it was a dry wit and wry sense of humor. I just told the rodeo fighting cowboy story to give him one last laugh.
Bob Watt, quiet and reserved, knew these men as friends and mourned the loss of each one of them – remnants of old rough and riding rodeo days.
He, by contrast, was coat and tie and cowboy hat during the day as he presided over our Stock Show & Rodeo.
When he left us on Wednesday night, Bob Watt also reconnected with son Trey, a young man gone too soon from this world and a treasure to his father when the two worked side by side, just like Bob and his father, running what was once known as the Fort Worth Fat Stock Show.
He leaves behind wife, Jerri, and his daughter, Susan, who keeps the family rodeo flame lighted.
He ran our rodeo like Gen. George Patton fought wars, stoic, straight and tall in the saddle and on the ground. He set the direction and folks followed. He knew victory and he knew deep sorrow, but he never let it show.
John Wayne, mythical through the house of distorted mirrors that is Hollywood, was just that – mythical.
Ours was real flesh and blood.
Born into a family almost destined to run the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo, Bob followed his father, W.R. Watt Sr., into the role of president and general manager of the show. The legendary Amon G. Carter Sr., newspaper owner and builder of this city, ordained that Watt senior would run the show, leave his lucrative career, and put Fort Worth’s rodeo – largest indoor rodeo in the world – on the map.
Son Bob kept it on that map.
He was a man of precision and rules. If you wanted to be part of his inner circle you knew the rules and followed them. Punctuality was one that was inviolate. Laugh and have fun at the Stock Show & Rodeo but honor its cowboy traditions and know it was serious business and you would be fine with Bob Watt.
My relationship with Bob Watt came with the job I had as president and publisher of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The Watts and the Star-Telegram worked together long before me and long after Amon and Bob’s father were gone. Bob and I honored the loyalty and partnership of the past.
I learned early the way the relationship worked.
One day, Bob Watt and John Justin came to my office. They wanted me to help raise money and oversee a civic project.
“I’m honored and will think about it,” I responded.
Bob Watt smiled and without disdain or a trace of condescension, said: “Well, we didn’t come here to ask. We came here to outline your responsibilities.”
I’m a slow learner. This happened more than once.
Because of his Western, cowboy demeanor, many folks would not know that Bob attended a prep school in the East, The Hill School near Philadelphia, for his high school years.
Always, I’ve loved the image of Bob, young cowpoke full of Texas pride and. hubris, living with the East Coast snobs that often inhabit those schools. He traveled to Philadelphia, by the way, on a train, alone, and a mere teenager.
Think about it. He had to leave the ranch and then hang with the sons of the scions of East Coast banking and finance and law and medicine. It had to be an odd mixture. Just imagine, those boys had never eaten a calf fry.
Bob didn’t just act the part of cowboy in his job as rodeo executive. He was, for many years, a rancher with a spread in Throckmorton. Cowman, cowboy on weekends. Cowboy executive in a suit during the workweek.
The Stock Show & Rodeo lasts several weeks in the winter and then is gone but the work is year-round, full time.
Bob, every day, running a big business, personally drove to the Fort Worth post office to pick up the mail. No task was too small for him.
One of my honors in Fort Worth was the day Bob and John Justin came to the Star-Telegram and asked me to join the executive committee of the Stock Show & Rodeo.
I attended my first meeting of the committee, which was somewhat small in those days, and when the meeting ended I turned to my wonderful, gregarious friend Marty Richter, now also sadly gone, and he shook my hand.
“Great job,” he said.
“I didn’t say anything at the meeting,” I said.
“That’s my point,” he said.
Here’s why. Bob Watt was in charge.
The annual meeting was called to order in those days and Mr. Justin, the chairman, said a few kind words about Bob’s job performance, and then Bob gave a brief report about results from the show. Meeting adjourned. No votes. No discussion. Bob was trail boss. You did not ask questions or challenge authority.
Bob Watt was the kind of person who once you were fortunate to know him you wanted his respect. You wanted him to like you and therefore bestow upon you the badge of stoic, loyal, fearless and loving cowboy.
You wanted him to like you.
He built our Stock Show & Rodeo into a world class event. He was world class. And, yes, he was our John Wayne. Only he was real.
There’s one more empty saddle today but Bob Watt’s legacy will live on and on.
Richard Connor is president and publisher of the Fort Worth Business Press. Contact him at email@example.com