CRESTON - Deb Copenhaver, two-time world champion saddle bronc rider and many-time Omak Stampede competitor, died Feb. 6 at his home. He was 94.
Copenhaver called Omak his “rodeo home,” was inducted into the Omak Stampede Hall of Fame in 1978. He also was in the ProRodeo Hall of Fame and the Ellensburg Rodeo Hall of Fame.
“He’s been a true supporter of Stampede and rodeo life in general,” said Sarah Grooms, Stampede office manager. “He never wavered in his support for rodeo.”
His death marks “a chapter closing” in the history of rodeo, she said. “He was a good person. He touched the lives of a lot of people.”
Family and love of the Lord were important to him.
“They became his life,” Grooms said. “He was a remarkable person.”
“He’ going to be missed,” wrote Melissa Ives on Facebook. “Legends never die. His life will always live on.”
“We lost one of the greatest saddle bronc riders of all time today. RIP Deb Copenhaver,” wrote Michel Loyd Davis, also on Facebook.
During dedication of the Stampede Museum Association’ museum in August 2017, Copenhaver reminisced about the early days of rodeo and the people involved.
“We’re now to the point we can preserve the pioneering days,” said Copenhaver. He joked about the early days, in the 1930s and 1940s: “Day money here, in the beginning, wasn’t that much. You had to be proud of your sport.”
Among items displayed at the museum is Copenhaver’s 1947 Omak Stampede all-around championship saddle, which sits on a frame he built especially for the museum and the saddle.
Copenhaver won the saddle bronc world championship in 1955 and 1956. He also won titles in many rodeos, from Calgary, Alberta, to Madison Square Garden in New York City, and from Pendleton, Ore., to Salinas, Calif., Denver, Colo., and Fort Worth, Texas.
Copenhaver, who was inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in 1992, was considered “one of the greatest bronc riders to come out of the Pacific Northwest,” according to the hall’s website.
He was born Jan. 21, 1925, in Wilbur and, as a youngster, started breaking horses and exercising race horses.
He worked on ranches during the Depression and then caught and rode wild horses near the Colville Indian Reservation, he told the National Cowboy Hall of Fame’s Ketch Pen publication. He hit the rodeo trail, competing first in Keller in 1939.
Copenhaver enlisted in the Seabees at age 17 during World War II.
By 1948, he was back on the rodeo trail full time and by the early 1950s, was winning consistently. En route to his 1955 saddle bronc world championship, he traveled more than 90,000 from coast to coast and into Canada, according to the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.
“One weekend he chartered a plane to enter seven rodeos in five states (four of which ran concurrently),” the organizations said. “Copenhaver’s world championships were due to his dedicated concentration to what it takes to be a good rider. He did his best to score the highest possible marking on every bronc he drew.”
“I feel that one of the greatest assets I have had to inspire my career as a bronc rider is the access to the many great strings of bucking horses” from great Northwest rodeo stock contractors such as Moomaw-Bernard, Joe Kelsey and the Christensen Brothers, Copenhaver told the Ellensburg Rodeo Hall of Fame on his induction in 1999. “I’ve always said, ‘Show ’em good buckin’ horses and tough bronc riders and the people will come.’”
Copenhaver was known as a “thinking” rider, according to a story about him on Wrangler Network. He started the style of the “dehorned” saddle, now required in saddle bronc riding competition.
The dehorned saddle came about partly by accident. After a bronc mashed the horn when it ran into the unsaddling chute, Copenhaver whittled off the rest of the horn and a new style was born, said Wrangler Network.
Besides his championships, Copenhaver also placed second in the world in 1951, 1953 and 1954; third in 1952, and fourth in 1958.
His last ride came in 1974 in Pendleton, Ore.
Copenhaver served on the PRCA board of directors from 1986 to 1989.
After retiring from competition, he bred and raised quarter horses near Creston and operated Deb’s Cafe for many years in town. The restaurant, now closed, was known for its steak nights and country bands Copenhaver brought in to play on Saturday nights.
Copenhaver also taught at a rodeo school in Idaho and preached the gospel.
In addition to the ProRodeo, Omak Stampede and Ellensburg Rodeo halls of fame, he also was inducted into the Inland Empire Sports Hall of Fame in Spokane in 1974, National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City in 1991 and the Pendleton Roundup and Happy Canyon Hall of Fame in 2009.
He and his late wife, Cheryl, had five children, sons Jeff, Matt and Guy, and daughters Deborah and Kelly. Jeff was the 1975 world champion calf roper; Deborah was a former Miss Rodeo Washington.
A service will be later this week in Spokane.