by Matt Spielman
August 3, 2016
Over 55 Years, Cooley Has Seen It All In Gerry
Ever since moving to the hamlet to begin his teaching career, Cooley has been heavily involved in the community.
Near the top of Cooley’s list of yearly priorities is the annual PRCA Gerry Rodeo in early August.
In the weeks leading up to the rodeo, Cooley, who serves as the rodeo’s media coordinator, is busy crafting articles detailing every aspect of the rodeo from the entertainment, to food offerings and the history of the event.
But ask the 81-year-old Cooley, who also types a nightly recap after working in a concession stand on the grounds each evening, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I moved in here to teach as a stranger. It’s been amazing. I’ve been involved in the fire department, baseball, other town things and helped get the town park upgrades,” Cooley said as final preparations were ongoing Tuesday night. “I’ve been a part of this town for the entire time. If you are going to live someplace, you ought to be involved.”
While it’s understandable why Cooley has such high praise for his community, the nearly 200 professional cowboys and cowgirls that will compete in the 72nd annual event that begins tonight and runs through Saturday with 8 p.m. nightly performances seem to agree.
“It’s a family atmosphere. It is ideal small-town America,” Cooley said. “Everybody pitches in and works together to give it a wonderful reputation. It is thought of very highly across the United States by the cowboys and cowgirls that come. They love the atmosphere here.”
That reputation has helped the Gerry Rodeo become the longest running rodeo east of the Mississippi River. While rodeos are common in the western United States and in western Canada, they don’t happen every weekend in the east.
“It’s an unusual event. Rodeos aren’t something that are all over like football and baseball,” Cooley said. “It’s unique. Volunteers – 200 of them – do everything. Kids wash silverware, senior ladies cut potatoes, we run parking lots, get dinners ready… Without the volunteers you couldn’t do it.”
Cooley may be the ultimate symbol; of how good those volunteers are. In addition to his media coordination, the 55-year rodeo volunteer works in his concession stand until nearly 10:30 p.m. each night when the rodeo ends. But his night isn’t nearly over yet.
“I work on the corner where I can take my computer down, take notes, run home and try to get a story done by midnight,” Cooley said. “With (Post-Journal Sports Editor) Frank Hyde and (Post-Journal sportswriter) Dent Thorpe they came out every night, but eventually I was asked if I could start sending stuff, so that’s how it got started.”
While Cooley has been taking in the action since the 1960s, fire department Vice-President Dave Hall, who also serves as the rodeo’s assistant chairman, has been to every rodeo since it started in 1945.
“Dave’s retired and in his 70s, but he has memories of the cattle arriving by train and being herded down Route 60 with the horses and bulls to the rodeo grounds,” Cooley said. “The train was still running, but the livestock was already coming by truck when I started.”
While his other duties take him away from a front-row look at the competition, Cooley still calls bull riding his favorite event.
“I can watch them all from where I am. I love the bull riding,” Cooley said. “It’s the last thing and at the opposite end of the arena from my stand. I would love to go down there and watch it – that close-up action with those bulls. It’s all great. It never gets old.”
Being outdoors and in Chautauqua County during the summer, a lot of tomes the changing weather can make for some of the best memories.
“We’ve had some bad storms. I’ll never forget one night there was a terrible thunderstorm. The kids were crying and scared so we opened the back door to the concession stand. It was shoulder-to-shoulder with people and we were handing out free coffee while trying to keep people dry,” Cooley said. “Another time it was the most fun evening. There was a terrible downpour and the arena at that time was a little bit lower near the chutes. There was 6 to 8 inches of water. It made for a fun night. The crowds were cheering for cowboys to get thrown off that night. They splashed and slipped. That was a lot of fun that night.”
The weather can also put an emotional damper on rodeo week. Cooley estimated that it costs about $100,000 to put on the rodeo with profit benefitting the Gerry Volunteer Fire Department. Even a single night washed out by rain can seriously diminish how much money the fire department makes off admission and concession sales.
“We pay a contractor and for advertising as well as food. If we get two or three nights of rain and the crowds are down, sometimes we get pretty discouraged,” Cooley said. “We talk about trying to find something else to do. How else can we raise money? But then we have a good year like last year and everybody’s ready to go again. We had four good nights last year. It went very, very well.”
Events included at the rodeo grounds about 7 miles north of Jamestown on Route 60 each night include: Bareback Bronc Riding, Tie-Down Roping, Saddle Bronc Riding, Bull Riding, Steer Wrestling, Barrel Racing and Team Roping. Dinners, including barbecue beef, “secret-recipe” barbecue sauce, kettle-browned potatoes and gravy, corn, tossed salad, cottage cheese, roll, ice cream and beverage are served from 5-8 p.m. nightly in the air-conditioned dining hall.
“I usually go and eat the first and last night. Those dinners are great,” Cooley said. “The potatoes are my favorite thing. People working my stand love those so I usually go over and get a plate of them and a jar of rodeo sauce to dip the potatoes in.”
For more information, visit www.gerryrodeo.org., call 985-4847 or 1-888-985-4847 or like Gerry Rodeo on Facebook.
The additional financial assistance of the community is critical to the success of the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame. We gratefully acknowledge these individuals and organizations for their generous support.