Talk all you want about Deb Copenhaver’s legacy as a rodeo cowboy, but it would be a mistake to overlook his long, rich life as a man of many parts.
In his day, the jockey-size fellow from small-town Lincoln County was a giant on horseback. Later, he operated a restaurant, created a construction company, raised horses, developed racetracks and devoted the last third of his life to doing good.
He’s also remembered as a gregarious guy, a wonderful dancer and a singer.
Copenhaver, 94, died in his sleep Wednesday night in his Creston, Washington, home. Six decades ago, he was a transcendent figure during the heyday of the national rodeo circuit.
Born Jan. 21, 1925, in nearby Wilbur, Copenhaver grew up on the family ranch and broke colts for the neighbors until he quit high school, lied about his age and joined the Seabees, the construction arm of the U.S. Navy. He drove bulldozers in North Africa for the last two years of World War II then came home, determined to rodeo for a living.
After a couple of years riding saddle broncs in regional arenas, starting in Keller, Washington, he hit the big time in 1948. Two years later, he was a star. Where did he win? Just about everywhere worth noting: New York’s Madison Square Garden; the Calgary Stampede; Denver; Pendleton, Oregon; Salinas, California; Fort Worth and Dallas; and even the Silver State Stampede near Bing Crosby’s big spread near Elko, Nevada.
The Northwest has produced its share of top hands, but Copenhaver, short, bowlegged, friendly and confident, set the standard.
After finishing second three times to Casey Tibbs, another all-time great, he won the World Saddle Bronc championship in 1955 and 1956. He won three titles at Calgary, two at the Garden and scattered others among various Western states.
Among the earliest cowboys who widened their horizons with air travel, Copenhaver covered 90,000 miles in 1955, crisscrossing the country from coast-to-coast and border-to-border. Once, he entered four rodeos in as many states on the same weekend.
Copenhaver retired, as he had planned, at 35 in 1960, but launched a comeback five years later and didn’t quit for good until 1974.
In time, he was named to the ProRodeo Hall of Fame, the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and a fistful of others, including those for the Ellensburg Rodeo and the Pendleton Round-Up. Here, he’s a member of the Inland Northwest Sports Hall of Fame after being named amateur male athlete of the year in 1955, before there was a category for pro athletes.
He served on the 1958 Rodeo Cowboys Association board that created the National Finals Rodeo, now the sport’s championship event. He spent 1986-89 as a member of the ProRodeo Cowboys Association board.
Although Copenhaver lived in Post Falls during his competitive years, he returned to Lincoln County and Creston following his retirement.
He invested some of his earnings in land, began to breed and raise quarterhorses, and started a construction business. He and his late wife, Cheryl, who lived on the opposite side of U.S. Highway 2, expanded his father’s small eatery into Deb’s Cafe and brought in top Western entertainers. They also raised five children.
He developed and promoted quarterhorse tracks, Rimrock Meadows in central Washington, Sunrise near the Washington-Idaho state line and another in Canada.
Rodeo did run in the family. Copenhaver’s oldest son, Jeff, longtime pastor of Cowboy Church in Texas, was the 1975 tie-down roping world champion. A daughter, Deborah, is a former Miss Rodeo Washington. She’s now a nationally prominent sculptor whose works in bronze include Gonzaga University’s Crosby statue and the Washington Horse Racing Hall of Fame’s bust of Turbulator, Spokane’s foremost racehorse.
Then, in 1982, encouraged by Jeff, Deb and Cheryl were baptized, sold the restaurant and devoted their remaining years to Christian ministry. He helped Jeff build a Northwest-looking church in Texas, using truckloads of logs from Republic. Years later, he built a roadside chapel on their Creston property. For almost 20 years, he led annual Christian camp meetings in the town’s indoor arena.
Their other sons, Matt and Guy, operate the construction company. A second daughter, Kelly, a missionary, operates an orphanage in Haiti. Cheryl Copenhaver died in 2016.
“Dad was happiest about building the church in Texas and the roadside chapel,” Deborah Copenhaver Fellows said from her home in Arizona. “He loved his horses and he was proud of his kids.”
In her father’s final days, thoughts of his past were not far away.
“Daddy was going to come down next week and go to the Tucson Rodeo.”
Services have been scheduled for Feb. 15 or 16 at Spokane’s Life Center Church.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter