Legendary cattleman dies, age 81

Thomas Warren Butterfield, aged 81, died Sept. 16 after a lengthy illness. The eldest of pro rodeo’s Butterfield brothers, he was raised on a mixed farm west of P

  • Sep. 22, 2009 6:00 a.m.

Gary Harbin and Frank Mickey paid tribute to legendary steer wrestler and cattleman Tom Butterfield at the celebration of his life Sept. 21. Hundreds of family

By George Brown

Rodeo legend, independent politician and doting grandfather, Tom Butterfield wore many hats over his lifetime and will be remembered for being larger than life.

Thomas Warren Butterfield, aged 81, died Sept. 16 after a lengthy illness. The eldest of pro rodeo’s Butterfield brothers, he was raised on a mixed farm west of Ponoka.

Hundreds of Butterfield’s, family, friends and associates attended a celebration of his life Sept. 21. Fittingly, the service was held in the grandstand of the Ponoka Stampede grounds where he spend much of his time as a rodeo cowboy and later as a director of the association.

Son in law Greg Smith said Butterfield touched the lives of everyone he met across North America. With his cowboy values, love of livestock and the land, Smith said Butterfield was “born a hundred years too late.”

“He had a passion for his ranch and his feedlot and a vision of the future that was way ahead of his time.”

Smith said Butterfield’s management of Ponoka Feedlot Ltd. Custom Feeders made bankers and accountants nervous because he took business partners at their word.

“Most of Tom’s business dealings were done with a handshake and this meant more to him than any legal document.”

“Pops,” as Butterfield was known to his grandchildren, established a loyalty and bond by bringing them into his mischievous world of bending the rules and living a spirited life. “The kids to this day deny riding in the back of Pops’ pick up truck,” Smith said. “That’s the type of loyalty he had.”

Service to rodeo

Longtime friend Frank Mickey said that at the age of 16, Butterfield decided to enter the boys steer riding at the Asker rodeo in 1944; he drew a good animal and won third. He was then hooked on the sport 
and started to compete in bareback riding and cow riding.

In 1956 Butterfield joined the Cowboys’ Protective Association and turned his interests to steer wrestling and decorating, travelling with his brothers Brian and Bud.

In 1957 he was third in the Canadian standings, second in 1963 and fourth in 1965. 

Butterfield was the steer wrestling director for the Cowboys’ Protective Association in 1960 and 1961 and was elected president from 1962 to 1965. He was elected to the Canadian Professional Rodeo Association Board again in 1981 and 1982.

From 1968 to 2000 Butterfield was a director with the Ponoka Stampede Association, serving as president in 1978-79. At the time of his death he was a member of the rodeo committee.

Butterfield oversaw improvements to the grounds and the functionality of the rodeo events. “He wanted to make them better all the time,” Mickey said.

Always independent and suspicious of the government, Butterfield threatened to quit the association if the group accepted a grant for improvements.

They did and he did — if only for a few days. Point taken.

Political aspirations

Butterfield’s political aspirations seemed to stem from his love of the prairie, his desire to help his neighbour and his need to support the cattle industry.

Veterinarian Gary Harbin recalled meeting Butterfield for the first time as a young doctor in 1969. He was ready to test the young vet’s knowledge but he knew a good man when he saw one. “Tom was a tough man…but he was always fair.”

Active politically at many levels, Butterfield was a Ponoka County councillor, and a candidate for the Western Canada Concept (WCC) in the 1982 provincial election, which he lost to Halvar Jonson. Butterfield returned the donations he received in support of his failed campaign, feeling they shouldn’t be “flogging a dead horse.”

“When I think of Tom Butterfield, I think of things a cowboy stands for — toughness, honesty, integrity and a sense of fair play,” Harbin said.

Roy Clark, an associate of Butterfield’s on the Western Stock Growers’ Association (WSGA) board of directors, said he never missed an opportunity to educate a politician or bureaucrat about the way things should be done in the industry. “You could always count on Tom for his input and insights.”

Following one particularly rambunctious session before a judge hearing arguments on the refundable check off issue, a lawyer was over heard to say: “I didn’t know we were dealing with John Wayne.”

Apropos, as the movie legend was Butterfield’s favourite, said granddaughter Aleah Smith. Butterfield enjoyed the western movie “The Cowboys” and wanted to pass on his rancher’s skills to his grandchildren and take them on a cattle drive.

Grandsons Luke and Brock Butterfield and Nolan Smith, the next generation of cowboys and athletes, closed the memorial service by reading Red Deer poet Frank Pavlick’s piece “A Cowboy’s Way.” Excerpted here:

A Cowboy’s way is the simple way,

His eyes see more blue skies than gray,

Friends, horses, dogs and good clean fresh air,

Find these and you’ll find Cowboys there.

A Cowboy’s way is the simple way,

Enjoying God’s world every day,

Seeing what most eyes have never seen,

Sunrise, sunset and in between.

A Cowboy’s way is the simple way,

Which isn’t much, some people say,

But life would be a much brighter star,

If all folks were like Cowboys are.

Tom Butterfield is survived by his wife, Mollie; son, Greg Butterfield (Maria) and their sons, Luke and Brock; son, Blake Butterfield (Rose) and their children, Kelsy, Cole (Lacey) and Reid; daughter, Lori Smith (Greg) and their children, Aleah (Myuran), Jordan and Nolan; daughter, Dianne Butterfield (Verne); brothers, Bud Butterfield and Brian Butterfield (Verna); sisters, Joy Pritchard and Carol Anderson; many nieces and nephews; and special friend Danny.

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