By RAYMOND PARTSCH III
Written for the LSWA
There is toughness, and then there is rodeo cowboy toughness.
T. Barrett “T. Berry” Porter epitomized that vast difference throughout his storied and lengthy career as Louisiana’s first professional rodeo cowboy. Porter spent decades putting his body on the line as he saddled and rode his horses night after night while trying to lasso calf after calf in dusty rodeo arenas dotted across the American landscape.
That true grit of overcoming broken bones, torn ligaments and more nasty bruises than one can count, for the love of a sport, was apparent during an accident on his ranch seven years ago.
In 2012, the then-85-year-old was working on his massive ranch on the outskirts of Leesville. Porter was simply trying to move some dirt around on his property when the bulldozer jumped in reverse and threw him off.
The bulldozer ran over him, breaking his right arm above and below his elbow, breaking his right collarbone and shoulder blade, damaging the muscle between his shoulder and elbow, and pulling his right shoulder out of place.
Yet, Porter still managed to dust himself off and get into his five-speed pickup truck and drive to where his son was pressure-washing a building.
“I heard daddy pull up and he was honking the horn and then he honked it again,” T. Berry’s son, David, remembered. “I finally walked over to see what the commotion was all about. He rolled down his window and said ‘Son, I injured my arm pretty bad, they may have to take it. Do you think you could take me to the hospital?’”
Porter never lost consciousness and was coherent until surgery — when doctors were forced to take his right arm. A few weeks later, Porter was back on his farm checking on his cows, bailing hay, mending fences, and doing other daily chores.
The man Shreveport Journal Sports Editor Jimmy Bullock called “the Pelican State’s Mr. Rodeo” brings that toughness to Natchitoches as the 2019 Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame class is inducted Saturday, June 8. The ceremony, live on Cox Sports Television from the sold-out Natchitoches Events Center, culminates a three-day Induction Celebration June 6-8. Visit LaSportsHall.com for details.
Fittingly, Louisiana’s first pro rodeo cowboy is the first from his sport elected to the Hall.
“I am honored,” T. Berry said. “It is a very humbling honor. Not many people can be the very first anything nowadays. I always thought that somebody else was better than me or more deserving than me.”
T. Berry was born March 9, 1927, in Pineville. Porter’s parents, J.A. and Elsie Alton Porter, would move the family, in a truck without a cab, to Leesville in 1929. Porter’s father moved to run a Texaco filling station at the fork of U.S. Highway 171 North and Kurthwood Road. The elder Porter also traded horses and mules, put on the area’s first rodeo behind the old railroad depot in 1933, and even helped furnish the horses, as well as served as guide, for General Dwight Eisenhower to survey the wooded land that would become Fort Polk.
The family lived in the back of the filling station. On site was a small roping pen. It was there that Porter would perfect his skills that would one day lead him to become a world champion.
“I don’t remember when I started roping, I just always did it,” T. Berry said. “But there are still folks at the Lion’s Club here that call me the ‘goat roper.’ ”
The first victory of his storied career came when he was three years old, at the Vernon Parish Fair when he won the goat roping competition.
“I never knew how good I was,” T. Berry said. “I was always just lucky enough to win enough to keep on rodeoing.”
Porter would keep it going through middle school and then high school, where he attended Leesville High and played center on the football team for head coach Bill Turner. At the age of 14, he took part in a competition against older teenagers and young adults, and that was the first time Porter knew that he could ride with the best of them.
“I thought I could beat them,” T. Berry said. “(Being) a cowboy is little bit different than athlete. You know you’re not going to win all of them, and you have to be a little lucky. I always felt that I could ride as good as they could.”
At the age of 15, Porter joined his first official rodeo organization, the Cowboy Turtles Association (CTA), at an event in Beaumont, because they would not allow him to rope without having dues paid. Porter would remain a member with CTA until it was rebranded the Rodeo Cowboys Association (RCA) and finally the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA).
Porter would graduate from LHS and tried his hand at college but realized that institutions of higher learning weren’t for him.
“I went for a quarter at LSU and I was too smart so I quit,” he laughed. “Then I went to McNeese for a year but that was it.”
Porter already knew what he was supposed to do with his life — rodeo.
Porter would cross the state and take part in competitions from Shreveport to Baton Rouge to Lafayette, all the while practicing his craft every day in between on his ranch.
“If you are not practicing, then somebody else is,” T. Berry said.
In 1949, all of that hard work would pay off as Porter would claim his sport’s highest honor — the World Champion Calf Roper title.
The 22-year-old rookie drove to New York City in his 1948 Pontiac, pulling his homemade horse trailer behind him for a competition that lasted nearly an entire month. Porter would take part in 42 performances in 28 days at Madison Square Garden.
“It took a lot longer in those days,” Tea Berry said. “My horses stayed underneath the Garden itself and I stayed for the month at the old Capitol Hotel on Broadway across from the Garden.”
He received his championship saddle from the singing cowboy himself, Gene Autry. Then, Porter rode his horse down Broadway.
“I was never one to really highlight things like that,” T. Berry said of all the pageantry that came with that title. “I just try to tend to my business. I rode a horse down Broadway and all that, but it was just another day. The next day I loaded up my horses and went on to Boston for another rodeo.”
Porter would go on to dominate the season in 1949, winning the calf roping title at the World Rodeo at the Boston Garden, then a trio of titles at Fort Smith, Arkansas. In the decades that followed, Porter would pick up titles, or place, from coast to coast at events like the Cheyenne Frontier Days, Calgary Stampede, and big rodeos in Fort Worth, Denver, Houston, and of course across Louisiana, in which he was awarded the Crawfish Belt Buckle for Best Louisiana Cowboy.
In his lengthy career, Porter won or placed at all the major PRCA events — Dallas, Denver, Salinas, and Fort Smith). He was a member of the Wrangler Rodeo Team in the 1950s. For some time, his image adorned the sales pouch on the back pocket of each pair of Wrangler jeans.
Porter was inducted into the Rodeo Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City in 2015.
“I did the best I could,” he said. “I was just hoping that I could win. As a rodeo cowboy you always got to feel like you are going to win.”
Despite getting his picture taken with a celebrity and riding his horse down Broadway, Porter never stopped working. In addition to working the circuit, Porter ran the family filling station, hauled garbage, drove a school bus for three decades, ran a sporting goods/western store, moved houses, and ran his own massive ranch.
Porter also made rodeo a family affair as all four of his children — daughters Judy, Cathy, Lindy, and son David — became high school and amateur rodeo champions. That was passed down to his grandchildren as well.
“We learned work ethic in our household,” daughter Judy Porter Weisgerber said. “We were taught to compete fairly and honestly. You learn to win and learn to lose graciously.
“We never thought we were different,” she said. “We just worked hard and competed and competed to win.”
Humility was more important in the Porter household than the hundreds of belt buckles and trophies Porter brought home from his years on the rodeo circuit.
“If you were good, then you didn’t need to tell people that you were good,” T. Berry said. “Your actions speak louder than your words.”
“It was just how I was raised,” he said. “What hurts me is when I see these professional cowboys turn people down—you know, turn the fans away. There was the one time when Hoss Cartwright (Dan Blocker) from Bonanza was at a rodeo with me. There was this lady there in the stands with a little boy and she said ‘Hoss, I went to school with you.’ She had the old yearbook, and he said, ‘I don’t have time.’ That never sat well with me.”
Porter didn’t just make time for regular folks, but he also made time for the younger generation of rodeo cowboys. He worked for free as a barrier judge at the National High School Rodeo Finals from 1966 to ’75.
The family ranch also became known as a welcoming place for traveling rodeo cowboys, as well as younger ones searching for guidance from Louisiana’s first professional rodeo cowboy.
“I never turned down a kid,” Tea Berry said. “I always tried to make time to talk to them.”
“He never turned away anyone to share his knowledge,” Judy said. “That is just the cowboy way. That is the type of camaraderie that cowboys or rodeo athletes in general have. That is something other sports don’t have. Cowboys will help you out, and my father always did.”
In the 1960s, Porter began slowing down as a rodeo cowboy after his first wife, Dorothy Wampler, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She would be confined to a wheelchair for 15 years before passing away in 1982. His wife’s illness slowed his career, but it didn’t stop it — and it didn’t prevent the Porter household from keeping mama involved.
“That was never up for discussion,” Judy said. “She was right there with us. We practiced every day and every night and she was right there.”
“We just put her and her wheelchair into the truck and went to the rodeo,” David said. “That is what we did. Family first.”
Porter also never shied away from being proud of being not only from the state of Louisiana, but also from Vernon Parish.
“I never shunned Leesville, Louisiana,” said Porter, the first man to carry the state flag at the 1959 National Finals Rodeo in Dallas. “I was always proud that I was from here.”