Cowboy Heroes

by Jim Olson

Buff Douthitt – An Interesting Life

“I’ve had an interesting life,” states Santa Fe, New Mexico resident, Buff Douthitt. That is an understatement. He has been a rancher, cowboy, rodeo hand, trick roper, specialty act, Marine, entrepreneur, world traveler, model, movie wrangler and actor – to name a few. Most folk would be ecstatic to have experienced and seen half the things Buff has.

Born on a large ranch east of Roswell, New Mexico during 1924, Douthitt left home at the tender age of thirteen to find his place in life. He rode to Arizona where he worked for ranchers in the mountainous country northeast of Tucson as a burro hunter.

It seems the old-time miners let many burros go when they were done using them back around the turn of the last century. They became prolific, and over time, were over-running the cow range. The ranchers hired young Buff to hunt them like wild game – since they were just as wild as the country in which they lived.

Douthitt says, “Everything in that country was straight up and down . . . and cactus everywhere . . . but it was a good country.”

After sneaking up on the burros at a watering hole, he was to shoot them and then cut off part of their ear, so he could prove to his employers he’d been working and not just sight seeing. Buff says, “Things have changed a lot since then, those were different times.”

After about a year, he returned to New Mexico where none other than three-time world champion cowboy, Bob Crosby, took a liking to him and mentored him. Buff entered his first rodeo shortly thereafter at Carlsbad, New Mexico. From there, his life went into high-gear!

Under Crosby’s tutelage, the young cowboy excelled at the sport of rodeo. He mainly competed in the steer wrestling and calf roping events. By the time he was sixteen, he competed at Madison Square Garden – the worlds most prestigious rodeo of the day. In 1946, Buff was crowned the All Around Champion of the World! He had a long and storied rodeo career, winning or placing at most of the top venues back then.

Another interesting fact about Douthitt is he was also a trick roper and performed as a specialty act. He walked the high-wire while doing rope tricks!

As a young boy on the family’s ranch, he discovered he had a knack for balance. There were three windmills in close proximity to each other there at the headquarters. One day, for no explicable reason, little Buff strung a rope between two of the mills and walked from one to the other. It shocked the cowboys below.

Buff says, “I don’t know why I did it. I don’t know how I did it. Somehow I just knew I could do it.”

Fast forward a few years and Buff performed for crowds all across the country, and eventually in other countries as well. He walked the high wire (a taut wire about 100 feet in the air) and also the slack rope (a rope which bowed down to about five or ten feet off the ground with his weight). He did rope tricks while in the air. He also lays claim to being the only person who could climb a ladder on the wire.

It went like this: Buff would walk onto the wire with a ladder in his hands. Then he put the ladder on the wire and climbed up. All this was done due to his amazing sense of balance – he did not use a net except in the beginning! Another interesting fact was that he did all this while wearing his every-day cowboy boots, not special shoes like most wire walkers. He would also spin as many a five ropes at a time while balanced on the wire.

Along with being a rancher, cowboy, rodeo hand, trick roper and specialty act as a young man, he was also a professional model. During the early ‘40s, while warming his horse up in the Madison Square Garden arena, a man kept watching Buff. The cowboys kept joshing him about that and the youngster was getting embarrassed. Finally the man called him over and asked if he would go with him – to talk about a business deal. Buff says, “I was just a big ol’ dumb kid. I didn’t know what to make of it.”

As it turns out, the man was John Harkrider who ran the biggest modeling agency in New York at the time. He needed a cowboy for a Seagrams shoot that very afternoon. Buff was still a little suspicious, but when the man started pulling hundred-dollar bills out of his pocket, he decided to give it a try. He wound up modeling over the next ten years or so and became fast friends with Harkrider. “I modeled every year when I went back for the Garden (rodeo) and also during the garment season – which was about six weeks.” He modeled for Lee Rider jeans, Wheaties and Seagrams to name a few.

In between all of this, World War II sprang up and Buff spent three years as a Marine. He was an artillery gunner in the South Pacific. After rodeo, performing, going to war and modeling, this concluded the “younger part of life” and he stepped with gusto into the next phase. Entrepreneurialism.

Buff and wife Jane started a business. Based out of the Fort Worth, Texas area, they designed and built travel trailers and portable buildings of many kinds – including one model which may have been the first commercially manufactured living quarters horse trailer. The portable building business was a boon for the Douthitts as they won contracts with governments and military all over the world for the construction of these fast install buildings. It was a global business with over three-thousand employees at one time.

Buff claims that of all the places he went in the world, Switzerland is his favorite foreign country. “The people are so congenial there. They present themselves very well – it’s kind of hard to explain, but once you’ve been around it – you know it.”

After twenty years of running this successful business and traveling the world, the couple sold out in the early 1980s. They moved to Hawaii – supposedly to retire – but that did not last long. Buff is way too energetic for retirement and a few years later relocated to Santa Fe, his home of many years now, where he enjoyed jackpot team roping.

If you think his story ends here, think again. Buff now entered another phase of life – a career in the movie business!

Getting his start as a wrangler in the movies, he quickly moved into acting as well. Buff has worked on movies such as: City Slickers, The Hi-Lo Country, Lucky Luke, Tracker and he even had the job of teaching Emilio Estevez how to ride a horse for Young Guns.

Buff became personal friends with movie greats Ben Johnson, Mickey Rooney, Jack Palance, David Huddleston, Emilio and others. He knows many of the “Who’s Who” in and around the film industry, the rodeo world and the business community alike. Yet amid all those connections, the easy going Douthitt is just as likely to visit with neighbors down the street, or even a stranger. He is quite amicable and a friend to all.

Douthitt is still very active, even as he approaches completion of his ninth decade. In 2001, he was inducted into the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum’s Rodeo Hall of Fame, a well-deserved honor.

Hats off to a great cowboy hero and ambassador of the western way of life – Buff Douthitt.