‘Earl’ cartoonist Wally Badgett honored for Western Art
It was a back injury that laid Wally Badgett up and gave him time to hone his cartooning skills. After decades of riding bulls and saddle broncs, ranching and enforcing the law in eastern Montana, a back injury isn’t surprising, but the way it happened could have come straight out of one of Badgett’s iconic Earl cartoons.
“I was walking down the road and stepped on a rock,” said Badgett.
“It was probably accumulated over numerous wrecks in my lifetime, but that was the straw that, broke the, well, you know…” said Badgett said.
After his back surgery, with a month to recover, Badgett took up an old hobby.
“I started drawing cartoons to entertain myself. I’d always fooled around drawing my whole life, but never gave it a serious thought, like I could make any money off it,” he said.
Badgett discovered a talent and eventually put it to good use. “It got to the point, I had to make a decision, ‘am I going to draw cartoons for the rest of my life, or finish up the career in law enforcement? Drawing cartoons seemed a lot safer,’” he joked.
Badgett said he has no shortage of inspiration for his much-loved Earl cartoons that depict a hard-luck rancher whose cows tend to be thin and whose wife outwits him quite often.
Badgett is relatable to many a rancher who has creatively explained to the banker the need for a bigger note for less cattle, or has questioned his sanity after being bucked off the same horse yet again.
Badgett, whose grandfather was an early pioneer rancher in southeastern Montana, grew up on a ranch with his family, on Otter Creek, in southeastern Powder River County, Montana, and later took over the same place, working together with his brother.
The family ranch, however, had in the meantime been sold to a coal company, from which he and his brother leased it back.
“My dad was a really good operator,” he said. “And my mother, Lora (Daly), was a school teacher. But when I was about 4, she had a terrible stroke, and lived as an invalid for about 25 years after that,” he said.
His mother’s difficult health situation was financially costly for the family – not only did they lose her income but because she was physically and mentally unable to function as before, outside help became necessary. This financial strain eventually forced Wally’s father Kirk to sell the ranch when coal was discovered on the place.
Later the Badgett sons leased the ranch back, but Wally didn’t want to witness the ranch being mined for coal, so he eventually took a job as a deputy sheriff in Rosebud County.
“I told my wife Pam, we don’t want to be here when they come and start drilling this place up,” he said. In a strange twist, the coal company never did drill, and eventually sold the ranch back to neighboring landowners.
“If I’d have known that’s what would happen, I’d probably have never left,” he said.
Before he and his brother leased the family ranch, Badgett spent time riding roughstock – winning the college national championship in bull riding in 1971, and ending up eighth in the world in bull riding in 1974. Had he ridden the 10th bull, he’d have won the average that year.
Badgett said he got started rodeoing simply riding calves in the pens at brandings and riding horses bareback. “I also rode saddle broncs. That might have been my best event,” he said.
Badgett and a friend, Bill Pauley, often practiced together on semi-loads of horses that Eddie Vaughn would put together for the Miles City Bucking Horse sale. “We’d try them out to see if they were possibly bucking horses to sell. I don’t know how many of those horses we tried out,” he said. “For two years we had a steady diet of bucking horses,” he said. Denny Looman coached the boys through the rides.
“The bull riding deal just kind of came along from riding calves, and I think most of my bull riding skills came from riding horses bareback on the ranch. It’s good for balance and body control. But the reason I did it as a kid is it was fun. And I think it made the learning process for bull riding easy.”
Badgett said that like most ranch boys, he didn’t’ like school. “I hated every bit of school, it was like a prison sentence for me,” he said. And the 120-mile daily round trip to Broadus saw him “catching the bus to catch the bus,” he said.
“Although I didn’t like school, I’m pretty well educated. I think I have a doctorate in mistakes, and I’m still adding to it,” he joked.
Badgett had no formal art training, and didn’t learn to draw from teachers, yet he credits one educator in particular for being a big reason for his eventual drawing career.
His first grade teacher taught him to read, and he could read almost anything by the end of the year, he said.
“That was a lifesaver. I read Will James books and other westerns. I found a dog-eared copy of a Will James book in our country school library and I was mesmerized by it. I looked at all of his art. I looked at it and looked at it. I don’t compare myself to Will James but I learned to draw horses from studying his drawings,” he said.
Badgett would practice his own art while eyeing Will James’ cowboy drawings. “I’ve drawn from the time I was a little kid,” he said.
“But nothing really gelled until I was well over 40 years old. I’ve always said, I’ve never done anything in my life until I was too late.”
Once Badgett decided to make a go at cartooning, he started off with “inside cowboy humor,” he said. “If you weren’t in this style of life, you didn’t get it. But then I realized, if I’m going to get this out on beyond, without changing what I’m doing, I have to make it understandable to the butcher, the baker the candlestick maker,” he said.
His motivation for each “Earl” cartoon comes from everyday life. “I get inspiration everywhere. I think of things myself – in our lifestyle out here, you know – sometimes you’ll be talking to someone and they say something that’s not intended to be funny at all, but it’s hilarious. I’m always listening for that kind of stuff. I usually have a pad in my pocket to write it down so I don’t forget,” he said.