Sunday, April 16, 2006

A Story About My Uncle, Who Turns 90 on May 24th

A visit with the man known as 'Cowboy'

By Brenda Cannon Stancil

ORANGE, TX - L. J. "Curley" McCarey of Orange said when he met his wife, Shirley, "She had a good horse, a nice car, an obedient dog and a new rifle, so I married her." And then the old cowboy slaps his leg and laughs good and loud along with Shirley. Mrs. McCarey then adds, "Yea, that's right. I married him, he got me pregnant, sold my horse, gave away my dog, drove the car and somebody broke into our house and stole my rifle." From this introduction alone, one can easily see the McCareys are a fun couple that know how to have a good time and have the art of making guests feel comfortable on their 16-acre ranch down to a science.
Curley said he was working out near Death Valley building a plant when he first laid eyes on Shirley. The agile woman worked at a pack station and could outwork almost anyone there, according to her husband. "She had worked for Disney for over five years and knew her way around a horse. I said, 'She's for me,' and I married her. Been together ever since," he said. Curley said Shirley is either 82 or 83, but no one would know it by looking at her or watching her work rounding up the horses, hauling feed or working at her computer.
Curley and Shirley will be celebrating their 58th wedding anniversary on May 29. They have two sons, Mike and Pat and three grandchildren. Their two granddaughters are horse people, too, and ride well and compete in rodeo barrel racing events. Pictures of the winning granddaughters now join those of their famous grandfather.
Curley will be celebrating another important milestone on May 24th when he turns 90 years old. "You can bet I'll celebrate by riding old Brian, my favorite horse, some that day, too," he said. Brian, now 26, plays peacefully out back on the ranch with his friends; three other registered roping horses, under the watchful eye of Shirley who's an excellent horseman herself. "Horses are our life," said Shirley as she pointed to one framed photograph or another and took guests on enlightening tours of the 16 or so documentary photo albums of their exciting life together.
Curley was born in 1916 in Murfreesboro, Ill. and from the earliest time he can remember, he loved animals and was good with them. "My daddy was a railroad man and we moved around and lived in a lot of different places, but we always had animals wherever we were," Curley said. The family moved to Ranger, Texas when Curley was a teenager and he found he had a way with horses especially. He was riding, roping and breaking hard-nosed critters as a very young man.
His first love has always been the cowboy way of life and he has been called the last of a dying breed. "There's nothing like riding and roping," Curley said with a gleam in his eye. Working in the oilfields, perfecting his trade as a structural ironworker, building huge plants as a supervisor for the Fluor Corporation (now called Fluor Daniels), traveling all over the world, serving in the U.S. Navy in WWII and working on various ranches, as well as owning several others, seems to be quite a full life, but there's more.
Always owning, breaking and training horses, Curley made a point of taking his animals with him whenever possible. "Sometimes it was pretty near impossible," he said. "Why, we've lived and worked in New York, New Jersey, Canada, London, Iran and Saudi Arabia and other places, too."
While living in Cowtown, N.J., Curley was asked by Dennis Weaver and the Screen Actors Guild to provide the horses for the movie series, "McCloud." Curley agreed, but said it wore on his patience. "Some of those guys they brought out didn't know which end of a horse to get on or which end to face," said Curley. "They brought out this one big dude and said he was a stunt double. I had a horse there, fact is, Popeye was my own horse and the guy said he needed a good horse for a particular scene in '42nd Street Calvary.' I told him he could ride Popeye. Now, this was on Manhattan Island, mind you."
Curley said the guy was dressed up real fancy and had on some little short spurs. "Not like we wear in Texas," he said apologetically. "Well, he gets on old Popeye and I could tell he didn't have a clue about what he was doing. First thing I know he sticks them little sharp spurs in Popeye's side and the horse takes off. I mean he is going. And, all of a sudden he runs under a tree limb and the actor is jerked right off. He falls hard. Well, the guy gets up, puts his hat back on and walks over to where we are and says, 'Did you see me take that fall?' just like it was part of the script. Oh, Lord, did we laugh."
Curley said in the old days when he started out cowboying, he worked hard for $1 per day and room and board. "We'd round up the cattle and brand them with the ranch's sign and then we'd go down to the river, jump in and clean up."
Shirley said that when he bought a new pair of jeans, he would also go down to the river and jump in. "In the old days, the Levi jeans were really blue and if you didn't wash them good before you wore them, you'd get the blue all over your legs so the cowboys and cowgirls would put on the new jeans and go swimming in the river to get the color out a little. It also made them draw up to fit you tighter, too," she laughed and said.
The McCareys bought the comfortable Orange ranch in 1978 and Curley retired from his job, building a plant for Texaco, in 1982, to spend time with Shirley and their horses.
Curley has won so many awards for his riding and roping feats that they are impossible to list in one article. He's ridden and won in Madison Square Garden in New York; Cowtown, N.J.; Houston; Los Angeles; Des Moines; all over Texas and other arenas around the world. His best time for bulldogging is 3.8 seconds. His team-roping partner of many years, Roy Greer of Sour Lake, died on Dec. 8, 1988, but is still fondly remembered on the Orange ranch. Greer gave Shirley an oak tree seedling before he died that has now grown into a huge oak tree. "We call it 'Mr. Greer,' after Roy," she said.
Curley has won somewhere between 22 and 25 genuine leather saddles for his efforts and won his last one in 1995. He said, "I guess I am just a real, old-time cowboy, and there's nothing better to me." He won his first trophy belt buckle in 1962 and still proudly has it at the ranch among his large collection of other awards.
Curley is a member of the Old Timers Rodeo Cowboys Association and is a 32-degree Mason and has recently celebrated his 50th year with this organization. Curley says his favorite music is country and he loves Willie, Merle and some of the new ones. He particularly likes George Strait because "George and his son are both ropers and he can sing, too," said Curley. He's fond of the Oak Ridge Boys and is taking Shirley to the concert at Delta Downs on April 22 where they plan to enjoy the night. "They put on a great show," he said.
Reflecting on his long and full life, Curley said, "I'm happy where I'm at. There's not much we've missed. I'd like to leave everybody happy and I think I can do that." He added, "I've never turned away a young cowboy who wanted to learn. I've helped them as best I could, taught them to ride or to rope and spent time with them. Everybody needs an encouraging word from time to time."
Chad Cooper, sports editor for The Examiner, first met Curley and Shirley at their mutual doctor's office in Beaumont. Cooper said, "I knew from the minute I met them in Dr. Hoffman's office that there was a story in that old cowboy's eyes. Our love of horses drew us together and we immediately hit it off well. They're good people."
The western saying that, "Old cowboys never die. They just ride off into the sunset toward that great round up in the sky," surely is true of Curely McCarey, the man known as "Cowboy."

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