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At Home on the Range

It’s a chilly January morning five days into the 2009 stock show, and the president and CEO of the National Western is pausing to chat with a hobo.

The man called “Hobo”—“mostly from Utah and Idaho,” he says—is between the Hall of Education and the Events Center. He’s trying to keep a tangle of tractors, hay haulers, mounted cowboys and Texas longhorns from running anyone over.

"We are a symbol of Western heritage," Pat Grant (pictured at center) says of the National Western Stock Show. Photo by: Marc Piscotty

"We are a symbol of Western heritage," Pat Grant says of the National Western Stock Show. Photo by: Marc Piscotty

Hobo has been part of the annual Denver stock show since 1994, when he hopped off a freight train from Chicago to find a few hours of work.

“I been ridin’ freights since I was 12,” the 60-year-old spits through riverstone teeth. “I’m gonna ride ’til I cain’t.”

As he directs traffic, Hobo updates the head wrangler—president and CEO Pat Grant (MBA ’73). For 18 years, Grant has been the executive ramrod behind the 103-year-old National Western Stock Show, Rodeo and Horse Show. It’s his job to see that exhibitors feel welcome, cowboys are treated well and hundreds of thousands of visitors have a good time.

Today, Grant is walking the grounds, carefully observing, checking, thanking volunteers and communing with the free spirits who help make the show hum. Like Hobo.

“I see you got yourself a nice new cowboy hat,” Grant says with approval, a disarming smile shining from under the brim of his own Stetson.

Hobo just grins.

Grant moves on.


Old school

The National Western, crammed under Interstate 70 near the Denver Coliseum, is the last working cattleman’s market in North America. It’s consistently among the top five indoor rodeos in the nation, and has a reputation as the “seed stock producer of the world.” It boasts Olympic-caliber horsemanship and oozes Wild West tradition, rural values and cowboy culture.

Cattlemen from 45 countries, ranchers from throughout the West, rodeo hands, farmers and herds of exhibitors drop by every year. They compete, show, perform, buy, sell and swap information and animals. They bring with them more than 10,000 head of livestock and nearly 4,000 horses. Tens of millions of dollars change hands in a few days.

It’s a calico-and-plaid, down-home style commodity exchange that entices more than 600,000 city slickers a year to holster their Blackberries, slide into blue jeans and gingerly step into the world outside the suburbs.

It’s business, it’s entertainment, it’s cornpone—and it’s a hoot. Kids ride sheep, wrestle calves, ogle rabbits, pet goats, nuzzle calves and cluck at exotic hens. Vendors barbecue beef, roast turkey legs, and deep fry corn dogs and Twinkies. Exhibitors hawk trucks, trailers, mobile homes, feeders, fencing, hats, buckles, belts, salt licks, alfalfa bales and kitchen gadgets. And everyone gets to feel like a cowboy for a while.

In the livestock arena, Grant checks in with veteran announcer Larry Handy, who is announcing a beauty pageant of 800-pound Hereford heifers. The huge animals waddle past the judge, hauled by teenagers who look barely 90 pounds.

The judge picks a winner then explains his choice. The crowd of several thousand soaks in tips on bovine body structure, balance and leg movement. Heads nod at the honesty. Too bad Olympic judges don’t come that clean, one woman quips.

Grant moves on.

He passes the sheep-shearing platform and heads to the goat area, where Boers bleat and the aroma could curl paint. All is well, announcer Richard Maxcy says.

The report is welcome news after a morning of headaches: a sticky parking agreement with the city of Denver, which owns the buildings but not the 90 acres of stock show grounds; a manure hauler who’s a little behind gathering the tons of animal waste that end up as compost; a leak in the Expo Hall roof that’s dousing a buckle vendor with snowmelt.

On the ground floor of the Hall of Education, animals are being carefully groomed for exhibition. Electric clippers buzz; blow dryers howl. Immobilized in metal frames, the animals don’t seem to care. But their owners do. Winning can mean big bucks.

Grant quizzes Laurie Hall and Brent Pick, two of the show’s 500 volunteers. Hall takes off from her job during the month of January so she can donate time to the stock show. It’s her 16th year. She’s especially looking forward to “Wine and Swine,” an unadvertised spectacle that occurs the day the pigs are unloaded.

“The men wear tuxedoes and the ladies wear ball gowns and the pigs are runnin’ this way and that,” Pick laughs. “Some of them get loose and it gets pretty wild.”

Pick and Hall credit Grant’s leadership.

“He’s a very visible, very approachable, very good CEO,” Hall says. “You know where you stand and what he expects from you.”

“We all know he’s an important man in the community,” adds Pick. “And it means something to us that he takes the time to come down and say thank you.”

Without volunteers, about 1,000 seasonal workers and a full-time staff of 40, the National Western can’t be a quality show, Grant explains. Without quality, all the marketing in the world won’t bring people in the door. It’s a key principle, the application of an idea Grant learned at DU.

“You’ve got to have a quality product, then you can consider how to promote it. People reverse that and get into trouble,” Grant says. “I’ve never forgotten that.”

The veteran executive credits his MBA courses at DU with developing the business sense he brings to the National Western. They blended beautifully, he says. As did his agricultural roots, service in Vietnam, history degree from Colgate, law degree from Drake, four terms in the Colorado General Assembly, and a family legacy of civic involvement stretching back to the 1870s.

The National Western is the last working cattleman’s market in North America. It’s consistently among the top five indoor rodeos in the nation, and has a reputation as the “seed stock producer of the world.” Photo: Mark Piscotty

“My great, great uncle was the first Democrat governor of the state of Colorado, Gov. James B. Grant. My grandfather, W.W. ‘Pop’ Grant Jr. (honorary LLD ’53), ran for mayor of Denver in the ’30s against Ben Stapleton. He got whumped. My Uncle Bill (W.W. Grant III) ran for mayor of Denver as a Democrat; he was beaten by Tom Currigan in ’63.”


Western stock

Grant’s love of politics might have been in his blood, but his connection with agriculture was in his roots on Grant Farm, a corn, barley, wheat and livestock operation that his father, Edwin “Ned” Grant, ran west of Littleton. The farm stretched from about Sheridan Boulevard to Simms Street and Bowles south to Belleview, and it previously belonged to Gov. James Grant, writes Thomas Noel (BA history ’67, MA librarianship ’68) in Riding High: Colorado Ranchers and 100 years of the National Western Stock Show.

“My first job was hoeing weeds for $1 a day. I was 9, 10, 11,” Grant chuckles. “It was the beginning of the work ethic to which I was exposed, and it really is an important part of who I am.”

Part of the farm became the community of Grant Ranch, but the heart of it is the Raccoon Creek Golf Course, which the Grant family still owns and operates. Barns that once held milk cows and horses now house golf carts and grooming gear. The two-story home where Grant and his siblings grew up is the golf course clubhouse and Grove restaurant. Photos of the family hang with homey familiarity, and a plaque marks the spot where brother Newell Grant blasted a hole through the wall with a hunting rifle.

“[He] blew a book to smithereens,” Pat Grant recalls with a prankster’s smile. “We opened the window, aired it out and took the book out to the back yard and buried it.”

Most days in his youth were less explosive, spent learning to ride, raise animals, tend crops. Swimming and fishing in Bowles Lake with Newell and sisters Susan, Cecily and Anne. Working on the farm, going to Denver Country Day School and attending the National Western with his dad, who served on the executive committee.

“My brother and sisters and I used to tag along behind him at every show whenever we could get out of school,” Grant recalls fondly. “I have great memories.”

Ned Grant was an avid horseman and once owned Granville, winner of the 1936 Belmont Stakes. He was also a committed rancher, who in 1967 bought a sprawl of prime property south of Steamboat Springs, where U.S. 40 meets State Road 131.

He died unexpectedly six months later, and the family struggled to keep the Yampa Valley Land and Cattle Co. running. They hung on until the late 1990s, when most of the ranch was sold to the Trust for Public Lands so it wouldn’t be developed. Today, the property is some of the breathtaking open space on the doorstep to Steamboat.

“It was a cattle ranch,” Grant recalls of those early days. “You’d get up and feed the cattle, then break ice so they can water in the Yampa River, then shovel snow off haystacks.”

The work bred an understanding of the ranching life. A July 4 ride on a bareback bronc in a 1971 Steamboat rodeo bred a healthy regard for cowboys.

“This college friend and I had a bet, after about three whiskies, of who would last longest.”

A successful bareback ride is eight seconds. Grant won’t say how long it took Stinkin’ Water to send him flying, but it was quick.

“I got kicked as I was thrown off the horse and limped around for a couple months. I decided there had to be a better way to make a living.”

Like studying business at DU. So he enrolled, commuting to campus from the farm in Littleton and earning an MBA in 1973.

“I have always felt a fondness for the education I got at DU, and that was one of the reasons my wife, Carla, and I started the Grant Family Scholarship Fund,” a need-based scholarship to aid undergraduates from rural Colorado.

After DU came a law degree from Drake in 1976, then a spot in Pop Grant’s law firm after clerking for an appeals court judge for a year.

Law was interesting but politics more compelling. In 1984 Grant won a seat in the state House of Representatives representing the tony Denver neighborhoods of Belcaro, Hilltop, Bonnie Brae, Country Club and part of Capitol Hill.

“He was a lawyer from metro Denver, but he looked more comfortable in jeans and a cowboy hat,” recalls legislative colleague and former Gov. Bill Owens, now affiliated with DU’s Institute for Public Policy Studies.

Grant waded into the most difficult issues he could find.

“I carried the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD) bill with Ted Strickland. I carried the bill to annex Adams County land for Denver International Airport. I carried tort reform legislation with fellow Rep. Bill Owens. I was asked by Gov. [Dick] Lamm to head up the effort to get ethanol-based fuel to help clean up our air. I carried the historical preservation tax credit bill.”

Grant pauses, afraid the list will appear boastful. A warm smile and down-home sincerity mask the tenacity it took to ram the bills through the legislature. But the results speak for themselves. The SCFD bill has become a national model. The 1985 package of tort reforms that he and Owens hammered through in response to a crisis in medical malpractice costs is still working.

Owens can remember the fight.

“I’m defending the [tort] bill in front of the House. There were maybe 20 or 30 amendments; you have to think on your feet. The Democrats came down with a tough amendment. I was thinking, ‘Damn, I know I don’t like this, but I’m not sure how to argue it.’ All of a sudden I see Pat Grant walking up. He very effectively took over the microphone, argued and saved the day.”

Grant wanted more.

“From the early ’70s my goal in life was to be governor,” he says. His first chance was in 1988. But Democratic incumbent Roy Romer had sewn up much of the Republican business community. Grant feared the race would be tough and unsuccessful, so he passed on running.

Two years before the 1998 election, he geared up again and was in the thick of it when family issues surfaced and forced him to quit. He endorsed his friend Owens, which helped the then-state treasurer fight his way through a crowded GOP field. In the general election, Owens narrowly defeated Lt. Gov. Gail Schoettler and served two terms.

More than a decade later, supporters still urge Grant to run for governor, but he declines. He feels a commitment, he says, to help “lay a foundation” for the National Western’s next 100 years.

That may be harder than running the state. Over the years the stock show has faced everything from steer-doping and lamb-cheating scandals to animal rights threats, rodeo injuries, E. coli scares and worries about mad-cow disease. Mostly, though, it’s had to cope with deteriorating facilities and lack of space.

In 1989, taxpayers ponied up $30 million in bonds to expand and improve the stock show grounds, which helped. But being stuck under Interstate 70 near the Denver Coliseum continues to be a problem.

“The Colorado Department of Transportation has announced that they want to rebuild and realign and reconstruct I-70. One of the four alternative routes is going right through these buildings,” Grant says. “RTD and FasTracks are going to do something along the Burlington Northern railroad corridor, so they will take land. Our future is challenged.”

A task force that included former DU Chancellor Dan Ritchie spent months agonizing over the mess. Its conclusion, Grant says, was that the National Western couldn’t survive in its present location. But the panel didn’t say what to do, where to go or how to pay for it.

A possible answer roared into view when International Speedway Corp. decided Denver was ripe for stock-car racing and proposed a 75,000-seat facility in Adams County. The company owns 13 major tracks, including Daytona, and promotes NASCAR events. Its interest in sharing the site with the National Western was “significant,” but the drive hit the brakes when priorities shifted gears and the economy soured.

“It’s not off the table,” Grant says. “It’s just quiet.”

Lines of concern etch the CEO’s face when he speaks of the stock show’s future. “The business model under which we now operate will not sustain National Western for the next 100 years,” he says flatly.

Putting on a good show isn’t enough.

“What we do is terribly important. But we have to have some major relationships and alliances with corporations or organizations with whom we can share assets and costs.

“It’s painful,” he adds. “The only reason we get people to come back is because they love the show. They’re willing to overlook the inconveniences of the muddy lots or the snow or the cold or the difficulty of figuring where to go. But over time, they’re not going to do it.”

For now, Grant is trying to keep rickety facilities patched, cattlemen confident, exhibitors satisfied and performers pleased. Mostly, though, he tries to figure how to persuade urbanized Coloradans to put a foot in the stirrup at least once a year.

It’s a tall order. Attendance in 2009 was about 30,000 fewer than the year before, even though it was the 12th consecutive year that the 16-day show has drawn more than 600,000. By comparison, the Denver Zoo, the top Denver-area attraction in attendance, is open every day of the year and draws about 1.5 million visitors.

Certainly the economy was a factor this year, Grant acknowledges, but ticket prices were modest. There were only 23 criminal offenses, mostly for thefts and shoplifting, says security director Tim Leary, and all of the 59 kids who got lost were reunited with their families in an average of six minutes.

“It’s a very safe environment,” says Leary, a retired Denver Police captain and former SWAT commander. “It goes very smoothly.”

Which leaves the simple fact that fewer Coloradans feel quite as much at home on the range as they once did. Many have never ridden a horse, Grant points out, petted a sheep or touched the wet nose of a steer. How can the National Western connect Old West traditions to the iPod-enchanted, hip-hop world of Generations X, Y, Z?

Tough question, says Grant, the show’s ninth president. He doesn’t have all the answers. What he does have is confidence in his leadership, an unwavering belief in the importance of the stock show to Denver and Colorado, and an unbridled passion to succeed.

“We are an icon,” he says. “We are a symbol of Western heritage … and people want that Western heritage sustained and preserved. That’s what the rodeo is all about and what the stock show and horse show are all about—dimensions of the West.

“If I have a frustration, it is that people take us for granted.”

They shouldn’t, he insists. The National Western works hard to remain significant to stockmen and exhibitors and entertaining to the thousands who attend.

“We will not rest on our laurels,” he says with conviction. “We are always looking to do better and be better.”

Some days the job is overwhelming. That’s when Grant climbs on his horse, Easy Jet, and ventures into scenic solitude near Fort Collins or his ranch on the Wyoming border. It’s welcome relief from stress and “a great, great way to get away.”

Then it’s back to holding the reins of tradition and driving the National Western to the future.

“I work hard. I’m committed. I’m focused, and I believe strongly in what I’m doing,” he says proudly. “It’s been a huge honor.”

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