What it's like to meet your childhood hero (in this case, Roy Rogers)
Editor's note: With the news that the food chain Roy Rogers is set to open 10 new locations across Northern Kentucky, Cincinnati and Southeast Indiana over the next six years, we thought it apt to resurface this story from WVXU Senior Political Analyst Howard Wilkinson, about the time he met the King of the Cowboys (and to some, roast beef sandwiches).
People often tell me I have been lucky because I have been in a profession that has enabled me to do a lot of things that most folks will never have the chance to do.
And they're right. I am grateful for that.
I try not to make a big deal of it. But it's been a good run.
I've met and interviewed seven American presidents. Covered (and sometimes irritated) seven Ohio governors. Been to 16 presidential nominating conventions, for whatever that is worth. Not much, actually. Although I was able to sneak in to a few towns early and see some baseball at major league parks I'd never visited.
And, oh yes, if you are a long-time reader of this column, you know that I had a chance meeting with supermodel Christie Brinkley in front of the Century Plaza Hotel in the Century City section of Los Angeles.
Now, that was truly memorable.
But there was one person I have met in my career as a reporter who stands taller than all the rest – the man who, on our family's little black-and-white TV, galloped into our home every week to protect the weak and battle the bad guys. My childhood hero:
Roy Rogers, King of the Cowboys.
If you are a baby boomer like me, you probably know who Roy was and why a generation of us little buckaroos admired the cowboy who rode the horse called Trigger.
If you are younger, you may not have heard of him. If so, I hope you have childhood heroes of your own.
And I hope that hero was as good-hearted and dedicated to doing the right thing even when it was hard.
There's something you might have in the dusty photo albums of millions of American men of a certain age – of my age, the baby boomer age.
It's a somewhat faded black-and-white photograph, taken with a clunky box camera on a Christmas morning, long, long ago.
The photo is of a little boy standing in front of a Christmas tree downing in too much tinsel. He's dressed in his pj's. On his head is a too-big cowboy hat and on his waist is strapped a gleaming rhinestone holster; he has a silver-painted toy six-shooter in his hand.
And he's smiling from ear to ear, because on this Christmas morning, Santa has made his dreams come true: He is Roy Rogers, King of the Cowboys.
What better thing to be?
I spent all of my childhood and many of my years as a grown man hoping that there would come a day when I would come face to face with Roy and shake his hand.
And, at long last, when I was 35 years old – too old to be a young buckaroo, except in spirit – it finally happened.
It happened in 1988, at Cincinnati's bicentennial celebration on Fountain Square, where famous Cincinnatians from Doris Day to the Isley Brothers to Roy himself came back to their hometown to join in the festivities.
And, somehow, this Enquirer reporter found himself on stage, face-to-face with the man he had admired since he was a toddler.
In that moment, as I reached out my hand to grasp his, I thought about that photograph from Christmas morning and how much it meant to me then, and still does now.
His real name was Leonard Slye. He was born on Cincinnati's riverfront in a rough-and-tumble neighborhood called The Bottoms. His family's home – the home where he was born – was somewhere very near where Freedom Way and Joe Nuxhall Way come together in front of Great American Ball Park.
Leonard wasn't even a year old when his family pulled up out of the tenements of The Bottoms and moved far to the east to the banks of the Scioto River, where they settled in a microscopic village called Duck Run, not too far from Portsmouth and the Ohio River.
He became Roy Rogers because he could sing and because Hollywood needed a new handsome, rugged cowboy star. And when he became Roy, he also became a role model at a time long before people talked of such things. But he was one – a living symbol of all that was good and right and decent.
We wanted to be him. We wanted to yodel our way across the lonesome prairie on a palomino named Trigger. We would fiddle with the rabbit ears and watch Roy on the big box TV, ropin' cattle and rustlin' up the bad guys.
We learned from Roy. We remember that Roy was never one to back away from a fight. He wouldn't start one, but if one started, he would, by gum, finish it. Slow to anger, but always ready to stand up for himself and the ones he loved.
Roy would do the right thing.
We watched him with Dale, his life-long companion. Dale Evans was no fragile paper doll; she could sit astride her horse Buttermilk and gallop alongside Roy and Trigger like she was born in the saddle. They were pardners. They rode their happy trail together, singing that song, the one that will stay in our minds forever:
"Who cares about the clouds when we're together? Just sing a song and bring on sunny weather...Happy trails to you, until we meet again."
We watched Dale and Roy and learned a little about what it meant when two people loved each other and treated each other with respect.
We're a lot older now. It's been 20 years since Roy passed away.
Still, I remember that moment on the stage on Fountain Square, grasping him by the hand and telling him how I had waited a lifetime to get to meet him.
"You were one of the little buckaroos, but you're all grown up now," Roy said to me. "Put 'er there, pardner!"