When 11-time World Champion cowboy Dean Oliver of Greenleaf, ID decided to become a calf roper, his goals weren’t to become a rodeo record setter, to be inducted into seven different halls of fame or to be written about in Idaho history school books. His goals weren’t that lofty. His aim was to earn a living and to buy a place of his own. Everything else that came along was just gravy. Considering the background he came out of, those odds were still almost insurmountable.
Born November 17, 1929 in Dodge City, Kansas to Vesper and Vernon Oliver, even the odds of survival were pretty low for the boy they named Dennis Dean. He was what was commonly called a “blue baby” born with RH negative blood. He was the fifth of seven children born to the couple.
Tragically, Oliver’s father was killed in a plane crash. Vesper Oliver was faced with the task of raising her seven children alone. It wasn’t easy, and they had to depend on welfare to help them get by. Dean Oliver remembers wearing ill-fitting clothes from the Salvation Army, and he recalls the agony of wearing the hand-me-down clothes and facing the other kids at school.
Oliver was a frail youngster who developed breathing problems, especially whenever he did strenuous activity. His mother took him to a doctor and was told that he had a bad heart. He was given a special diet and told to avoid heavy activity.
Oliver couldn’t keep his mind on his school work. During school hours he gazed out the windows, daydreaming of being a cowboy on a ranch and herding cattle. He quit school in the ninth grade to work to help supplement his mother’s income.
Although the Snake River Stampede rodeo was held in Nampa and very near their home, Oliver says he never went as a youngster. His family just couldn’t afford it. The 15 year old high school dropout got his first job at a place near what is today’s Karcher Mall. He did milking, haying and general farm work. For this, he earned $15 a month plus room and board.
The following July, Oliver and his brother Dale went to the Nampa rodeo grounds one morning to watch the cowboys riding around and exercising their horses. A city boy, he had never been around horses. He was impressed by the nice quarter horses, cowboy clothes, boots, cowboy hats and the gear on the horses.
“You can’t imagine how appealing that life seemed to me. I was in awe of the cowboys and the free, unconfined life they led. That night, Dale and I snuck in to see the rodeo. I watched a little guy wearing glasses win $300 in calf roping. That seemed like $3,000 to me sitting there broke and hungry and wearing second hand clothes. I figured, if that little guy could do it, so could I”, he remembers.
In 1947, Oliver hoed and topped beets for Alex Reisenstein in Nampa. While working there, he met the Reisenstein’s oldest daughter, Martha and in February, 1950 they were married. She worked at a drive-in and had $11 that she had saved in tips. “About that time, I bought a green untrained horse”, Oliver remembers. “I had never forgotten the dream of becoming a rodeo cowboy. The people I bought the horse from said I could train him to be a rope horse and I was dumb enough to believe it. I gave them $400. At that time, I was picking up ropes and throwing loops at fence posts, but I had not roped calves. Someone had shown me how to tie a calf, but I didn’t have money to spare to buy calves for practice”.
He soon broke the horse to ride and bought a practice calf for $10. Without the proper pens and chutes for practice, he would have Martha hold the calf until he was ready and she would turn it loose. He admits today that he didn’t know how to teach the horse to work the rope and while he roped and got off, the horse circled around him while he was trying to tie the calf.
Oliver was still working at the dairy for $165 a month when he won the calf roping at the Kuna rodeo. He remembers driving home elated and thinking what a big win it was. He told his boss he might quit because he was beginning to win in roping.
“You stay with me and I’ll give you a raise,” he was told. Hoping he would get a substantial raise for the hard work he was doing, Oliver stayed another month. That month’s paycheck was $170, so he told his boss again that he was quitting. The fellow got mad and as Oliver was walking away, he said “What makes you think you can be a rodeo star? You can’t even walk a straight line.” Oliver never looked back. His path was set in front of him.
Oliver’s first rodeo as a professional was in Jerome, ID and he won first place in calf roping. He went on to Albuquerque, NM where all the top professional ropers were entered and won second place. This convinced him that he could compete with the “big guys”. By this time, he had given up on the horse that he was trying to train and was riding experienced borrowed horses, giving the owners one fourth of his winnings.
Oliver spent the winter of 1953-1954 living at the ranch of a calf roper in Texas. This proved to be the boost he needed and in 1954, he finished up the season third for the year in the Rodeo Cowboy Association. His winnings were a little over $11,000 that year and even after expenses; he claims he was a little ahead at the end of the year.
At the end of the 1955 professional rodeo season, with $19,963 in winnings, the shiny gold buckle proclaiming him the World Champion Calf Roper was given to the lanky 6 foot 3”, 200 pound Idahoan. The rest of the rodeo world was amazed. Never before had someone from the North bested the Southern ropers for the World Championship.
In 1959, Oliver flew to Texas to enter some rodeos and borrowed a horse called Mickey from fellow roper Lee Cockrell. Mickey fit Oliver’s style of roping and he won money on him. Cockrell agreed to sell him the horse that was 11 years old at the time. That was his real age. That was May, and Oliver won $18,500 on the little sorrel gelding from May to November. He won his third world title in calf roping the following year. In fact, he won five world calf roping championships in a row, 1960-1964.
In 1961, he entered the steer wrestling competition at a rodeo and won $47. That seems a meager amount, but that small win put him in second place for the year in standings for the title of World Champion All Around Cowboy. In order to win that title, a cowboy must win money in two or more events. He saw how easy it would be to win a few thousand dollars in a second event and win the All Around World Title. In 1963, he won $3,000 in steer wrestling and that plus $28,375 in calf roping earned him his first title as World Champion All Around Cowboy, a feat he repeated again in 1964 and 1965.
Mickey suffered a stifle injury in 1964 and was never able to come back sound enough to be hauled. “It was a freaky accident,” Oliver says, “I went to New York to do a television commercial and turned Mickey out on the pasture. When I got home, I walked out to the fence to look at him. He was feeling good and ran over to me, then turned and kicked up his heels and ran away at full speed. Somehow in that process of turning and running and kicking, he stifled himself. I can easily say today that was one of the biggest losses of my life”.
Although Oliver had never thought much about the world championships as he was winning them, he won his seventh World Calf Roping Title in 1964.
Oliver won the world championship in calf roping in 1969 and set a new record, $38,118 for the most money ever won in a year in one rodeo event. It has since been broken many times, but this was a time when the world champions were averaging about $24,000 in a winning season. He also had his elusive record eight world titles in calf roping. That record still stands today.
During the years when he was competing, Oliver was chosen to serve on the board of directors of the PRCA. He has been inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame, the Idaho Hall of Fame the Idaho Athletic Hall of Fame, the Pendleton Roundup Hall of Fame, the Ellensburg Rodeo Hall of Fame and the St. Paul Rodeo Hall of Fame.
Oliver won every major professional rodeo and many of them more than once. The cowboys say your home town rodeo is always the hardest to win. Oliver won the calf roping championship at the Snake River Stampede 10 different years and won the championship at the Caldwell Night Rodeo eight times.
After all of the accolades and accomplishments in his life, many people would be surprised to see that he listed winning the sixth grade marble championship in the Nampa schools as one of his five biggest life accomplishments; that day and that win will remain a strong memory for him and at that time in his life, it was a big feat, although it is not first on the list.