Meet Roy W. Lilley, Just As He Is
It was an era during which countless American children endured immeasurable hardships. The stark reality of the 1929 stock market crash, and ensuing Great Depression that lasted throughout the 1930s, destroyed families and futures.
Roy W. Lilley was born in Fort Collins, Colo., in 1930 but, unlike numerous others with one of those Depression years stamped on their birth certificates, he fared well and thrived under intense parental love and diligence. His was an idyllic youth spent out in nature among ponies, horses and cattle.
Lilley and older brothers Frank and Charlie happily played upon a grand Western panorama while their parents, Charles W. and Julia F. (nee Williams) Lilley, sustained the family via successful, noteworthy careers.
For the first 10 years of Lilley’s life, the sibling trio was raised on Table Mountain Ranch, a sprawling cattle/horse property on the Colorado/Wyoming line between Laramie and Fort Collins, near Virginia Dale.
“It was a wonderful place for boys to be raised,” Lilley wistfully recalled of the mountainous homesteading area in which erratic amenities of the day and wild wintry weather were not for the faint of heart — but cherished by adventurous young boys.
“The Lilley family took their horses seriously,” Roy wrote in his 2018 book, “Just As I Am – A Unique Memoir.”
They raised Quarter Horses from 1946-1991. One horse they stood at stud was Little Nick (by Nick Shoemaker), a top stallion they’d bought from Frank Monroe. Mom Julia had grown up on an 18,000-acre ranch and dad Charles spent his youth learning to train horses to ride and drive at his father’s Littleton, Colo., livery stable. So, theirs was not a rhinestone cowboy kind of farm but rather a genuine equine operation.
During Lilley’s boyhood, 4-H was “just being invented,” he said. So, rather than organized rural activities like competing at fairs, he initiated his country school years by riding a pony to classes. It was a cumbersome task, though, complete with lunches regularly squashed from being tied on behind the saddle.
Between his first and second grades, Lilley’s father bought a $10 farm sale buggy for his lads to drive to their one-room schoolhouse in Virginia Dale. Their gentlest work horse, Old Lu, was assigned the task of chauffeuring the youngsters in that one-seater. As youngest, little Roy sat scrunched on the floorboards between his brothers’ knees; on bitterly cold days, it was happily the warmest if not smoothest spot.
Unlike in today’s over-crowded, high-tech classrooms defended by security guards, electronic monitors and alarm systems, Lilley didn’t need to so much as elbow his way to class or scan a thousand faces to find his buddies at lunch. There were a grand total of 11 kids in his school, five of which were in his third grade.
While his pinto pony, Tony, patiently awaited the ride home, first grader Roy played a recess game called “Ante-Over.” One kid would lob a ball up and over the school roof to eager children monitoring the other side. The lucky child who caught the flying sphere then raced around to tag someone.
This rustic take on regular “Tag” was only for girls and little boys. The big boys travelled farther afield (to the rascally side) for their fun. Lilley said his brothers, Frank Smiley and the Moen boys often ran up into the foothills before school and at recess. Conveniently out of earshot of the teacher’s hand bell, they could pseudo-honestly claim to have not heard it when they returned tardy.
Today’s health department regulators would shriek and curl up in the fetal position at sight of the community cup and bucket from which all the school kids drank. Surprisingly, Lilley doesn’t recall ever catching even so much as a cold!
From 1934-1936, dad Charles relocated the family to Denver during part of his first year as a Colorado state legislator. They subsequently made another move, this time in autumn 1940, to Grandma Lilley’s house on Magnolia Street in Fort Collins. She’d had a stroke and was rehabilitating in Denver. Regularly commuting from Fort Collins, Charles managed Producers Livestock Commission Company in Denver. Next came homes in Lakewood and then back to Fort Collins.
But those initial years on the ranch stuck with Roy Lilley. All three Lilley boys, in fact, rodeoed and worked on Virginia Dale area ranches. Roy did so during summers at Trail Creek Ranch on the Cherokee Park Road for eight years — through high school, college and beyond.
In college, he was a member of the Colorado A&M (which later became Colorado State University) rodeo team from 1948-1952. During summers, he rodeoed professionally.
In his senior year, A&M won the Inter-Collegiate National Championship. Lilley placed in Saddle Bronc, Bareback, Bull Riding and was second All-Around for the year. Plus, he won Bull Riding at the National Finals Rodeo. After graduation, he joined the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.
With his animal science degree in-hand, Lilley was immediately drafted into the Korean War, where he saw combat and spent its final four months as a supply sergeant. He was rotated home in 1954. Just two days after his arrival back in the states, he made a really bad decision: he rodeoed.
“I was fat and out-of-shape,” he sheepishly admitted, “but thinking I could ride just as well as before.”
He didn’t win but managed to ride both horses. All summer after that Oakland Park event he continued terribly. But, after about a year, Lilley said, “I got my lick back.”
He competed until he got a job as assistant executive secretary of the American National Cattlemen’s Association. That was the beginning of a 45-year career: executive with the California Cattlemen’s Association (where he suffered distress as a cowboy lost in urban San Francisco); four years as executive secretary of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association; in 1964, executive vice president of the International Brangus Breeders’ Association in Kansas City, Mo. After 17 years there, Lilley became executive vice president of the Nebraska Stock Growers Association. During his tenure, it merged with the Cattle Feeders Organization to become Nebraska Cattlemen, for which he served as executive vice president.
Throughout all these years, Lilley was anything but alone. He’s been married three times, first to Ingrid Arko, who’d taken on his old job as dude wrangler at Trail Creek Ranch. He first spotted her as she returned from a ride leading a string of dudes.
“She knocked me off my feet!” Lilley said so many decades later of the girl he courted all that summer. He gallantly commuted 90 miles round-trip to do so, stopping at Ted’s Place for a six-pack of beer each time.
The couple eventually wed, had one daughter, Elizabeth, but they sadly divorced in 1965.
While in Kansas City, he met and fell in love with Maxine McClanahan. She had two children, who he adopted after their marriage. Desiring a yours/mine/ours family, they had baby Jennifer in 1970.
In 1991, just two weeks after the death of Lilley’s mother, Maxine died suddenly at age 54 from a heart-related ailment.
After retiring from NC, the grieving widower moved to Manhattan, Kan. While there, he reconnected (by old-timey Postal Service mail) with Donice Logan Whitney. He’d known this neighbor girl since age 6 and danced with her in their teens. Not only did he put a stamp on each letter he sent to her but also on their former relationship. They married in 1997 and moved back to Colorado (Wellington).
Now age 88, Lilley spends time traveling around to cattlemen events, partially to promote his new book. It’s 567-pages contain entertaining anecdotes, timelines and upwards of 70 photos and documents of historical interest. One of the latter, signed in 1927 by then-President Calvin Coolidge, transferred a land title to Charles Lilley.
When asked why he wrote his comprehensive memoir, Roy Lilley concisely replied with a wide grin, “Because I’m so verbal.”
He further explained that whenever people asked him questions he’d always go on and on. So, he ultimately decided to write his autobiography. Lilley has previously written columns, including “Cow Pony Corral” and “Food for Thought,” Because he considers himself a rodeo cowboy as well as a semi-intellectual, he settled on the book’s title, “Just As I Am.”
As is he, his words are witty, warm-hearted and uplifting. Anyone who reads this charmingly enchanting commentary on Lilley’s life of nearly nine decades spent among family, horses, cattle, rodeo and war will not be disappointed.
“Just As I Am – A Unique Memoir” can be ordered on Amazon by title, or by author, Roy W. Lilley. For a signed copy, call (970) 568-4212, or email Roy Lilley at email@example.com. ❖
— Metzger is a freelance writer from Fort Collins, Colo. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.