If you said rodeo is in Kelly Riley’s blood, you would not be wrong. The 2017 Ben Johnson Memorial Award recipient’s parents – Lanham and Mitzi Lucas Riley – are both Rodeo Hall of Fame Inductees, as are his grandparents, Buck and Tad Lucas, and his uncle, Doyle Riley.
As a child, Riley spent summers traveling as his father competed in many traditional PRCA rodeos throughout the West. Riley concedes that many of his fondest memories are of adventures “behind the chutes” at various summertime rodeos.
While attending Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas, Riley served as President of the Tarleton Rodeo Club, was recognized by Who’s Who Among Students in American Universities and Colleges, and was voted Senior Class Favorite. Prior to graduating from Tarleton State in 1972 with a bachelor’s degree in economics, he traveled to Europe with Rodeo Far West, a group that produced and performed rodeos in France, Italy, and Switzerland. He also spent a summer with Howard Harris III’s weekly Cowtown Rodeo in Woodstown, New Jersey, where he received hands-on experience in rodeo production and marketing.
Following college, Riley worked for his father starting colts and training roping horses. However, he reserved summers to compete in the PRCA rodeo circuit. He also gained valuable experience while working for legendary rodeo contractor Harry Vold.
In 1977, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company – whose Winston brand was the PRCA’s largest sponsor at the time – tapped Riley to be the assistant team manager for the Winston Rodeo Awards program. In this role, he was immersed in the relatively new field of sports marketing and sponsorships. Just four short years later, Riley was made team manager of the Winston Rodeo Series. In 1986, he was named team manager of the Winston Racing Series and the R.J. Reynolds’ NASCAR program; then two years later he became team manager of the Camel GT Series, a prototype endurance racing competition.
Returning to his home of Fort Worth, Texas, in 1990, Riley established and managed Justin Boot Company’s event marketing department. In 1996 he married the love of his life, Pat Weatherford. Riley served a brief stint in 1999 as the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association’s director of development. He then returned to Justin, where he spent the next 15 years as the event marketing manager for Justin Boots affiliate Tony Lama Boots. He retired from Justin in 2015.
Beyond Riley’s pedigree, his summers roping at PRCA rodeos, or even his years as a marketing expert for several major rodeo sponsors, Riley was chosen as the 2017 Ben Johnson Memorial Award honoree because of his positive impact on the sport and on those around him. Presented annually since 1998, the Ben Johnson Award – established by Gordon Davis and Cecil Jones and supported by 10 donors ¬– is presented to a living gentleman who epitomizes Johnson’s lifestyle and creates a positive image for rodeo and the Western way of life. The recipient must also have youth or community involvement.
A native Oklahoman, whom 2016 Ben Johnson Memorial Award recipient Jack Roddy called “the epitome, to me, of what a cowboy should be,” Johnson was the Team Roping World Champion in 1953 and winner of an Academy Award in 1971 for his role in the film The Last Picture Show. Despite his high profile, Johnson was known for his down-to-earth attitude, sense of humor, and support of children’s charities through the Ben Johnson Pro Celebrity Team Roping Competition.
Like Johnson, Riley, too, has made an impact both inside and outside the arena. Throughout the years, he has spent countless hours supporting rodeo heritage. He serves on the board of directors for the Southwestern Exposition Livestock Show and Rodeo in Fort Worth; he has served as President of the National Cowboy Museum’s Rodeo Historical Society (RHS) and is a current RHS Board Member; and he is a member of the Rancheros Visitadores horsemen’s group in Santa Barbara, California.
Riley has long dedicated his time to serving youth and the community as well. He has acted as a mentor to a number of aspiring ropers and horsemen. He served on the Tarleton State Alumni board of directors encouraging student participation in rodeo and agricultural activities. As a Southwestern Expo director, he has consistently chosen to be part of the Greeting Committee that interacts closely with junior livestock participants and their families. He led the development of an equine program at Camp Crucis Episcopal Church Camp, which introduces youth to the Western way of life. Finally, Riley was instrumental in developing the Justin Cowboy Crisis Fund, which provides need-based financial assistance to athletes injured through their participation in professional rodeo.
To understand the scope of Riley’s impact, PRCA Gold Card announcer John Shipley, a close friend of Riley’s who presented him with the honor onstage at the 2017 Rodeo Hall of Fame awards ceremony, noted he asked several rodeo friends to describe Riley in just a few words.
According to Shipley, RHS Board Member Mike Hudson and past RHS President Christie Camarillo both described Riley as “classy, kind, and knowledgeable.” 2015 Rodeo Hall of Fame Inductee Bob Feist described him as “professional,” adding Riley was “the guy who achieved the impossible by keeping everybody happy all the time.” Rodeo photographer Sue Rosoff called Riley “picky, but generous.” Announcer and 2007 Rodeo Hall of Fame Inductee Bob Tallman said Riley has “gotten more done behind the scenes for the Western way of life than any other individual ever.” National Cowboy Museum Board Member John R. Wroten described Riley as the “ultimate living, breathing example of the Code of the West.”
This praise by an array of his rodeo colleagues makes clear why Riley was chosen as the 2017 Ben Johnson Memorial Award recipient. In accepting the honor, Riley related how, in the mid-1970s, he was showing horses with his father Lanham at the Houston Rodeo when Ben Johnson himself came walking through the crowd and greeted Lanham, who introduced his young son, Kelly, to the Western legend.
“I’ll never forget that moment,” Riley said. “Ben Johnson was a larger-than-life hero, Academy Award-winning actor, stuntman, World Champion cowboy, and I was meeting him. So, for me, some 40 years later, to receive this award named in honor of a man I’ve always greatly admired is almost unimaginable.”
In his remarks, Riley thanked the RHS and the National Cowboy Museum for the evening’s events, and congratulated Tad Lucas Award honoree Karin Rosser as well as the Rodeo Hall of Fame Class of 2017 inductees. He also thanked his family, friends, and wife for their support. He then encouraged each attendee to join the National Cowboy Museum and RHS as a way to celebrate Western heritage.
Riley closed with a quote from Ben Johnson regarding working with infamous film director John Ford. “That John Ford, I worked with him for 6 years. If you’d listen to him, you could learn something. The last words Ford said to me were, ‘Ben, always remember to stay real.’”
“Mr. Johnson,” Riley said, “thought that was pretty good advice.”