Students by day, horses by night
By day, Justin Ungeheuer is the stereotypical elementary school principal.
Clad in a cardigan sweater, slacks and dress shoes, the 39-year-old walks through the halls of East Memorial Elementary School laughing with students and teachers, focused on his opportunity to improve the lives of hundreds of kindergarteners through fifth-graders.
But by night, there is a side of Ungeheuer that even some of his closest colleagues in Greeley-Evans School District 6 aren’t aware of. It’s a side, however, that Ungeheuer says is closely related to his day job.
“There is a lot of carry-over between students and horses,” said Ungeheuer, who spends his free time on the rodeo circuit as half of a team-roping duo. “They both learn with consistency, patience and kindness. To see the hard work staff and I do here pay off by seeing kids learn something they didn’t think they could is rewarding, and when you put in all that time and effort – when a horse learns something and wants to do something to help me – it is rewarding. A student and a horse can both look at you and tell what kind of mood you’re in and know how to react to you.”
In team roping, two participants on horses chase a steer into an arena, with one participant on each side. The “header” tries to lasso the steer by the horns at the same time the “heeler” lassos the hind feet of the animal. The fastest team to accomplish the feat wins the pot. Ungeheuer is a “header.”
Since he was big enough to crawl up on a horse, Ungeheuer has made rodeo his life. There was a time in Ungeheuer’s life where rodeo was all he knew. But 17 years ago, he traded in his lasso for a ruler. He’s glad he did.
“Some call it a hobby, but it’s more of a habit,” he said of his rodeo life. “Hobbies are much cheaper.”
It didn’t stop him completely, however. Although he used to make three to five rodeos a week, he’s down to about two a month, just enough to keep the drive in him alive.
In December, he participated in the World Series of Team Roping Final in Las Vegas, Nev. He didn’t win the big prize, but he said he was satisfied – as satisfied as the competitor in him can be. It was Ungeheuer’s first time riding in the event. Participants must win a regional at some time during the season to compete. Ungeheuer won in Frederick last year to get his entry.
“It was a great learning experience,” he said. “It was good to know I can compete with the best. I won a bit to help pay my way there and back, but I’m never happy unless I win it all.”
Ungeheuer, who is in his third year with District 6, grew up in eastern Kansas. He taught special education for seven years in Kansas and then spent another seven years in the St. Vrain School District teaching elementary physical education. He came to Greeley three years ago as the assistant principal at East Memorial, and this year, was promoted to principal when Mark Thompson was transferred to the new Maplewood Elementary School.
He and his wife, Jasi, who is a teacher and assistant principal at Riffenburgh Elementary School in Fort Collins, Colo., live between Wellington and Nunn on 40 acres of land where Ungeheuer built a lighted arena so he could practice. The nearly 40-minute drive to work each day gives him time to shift from one focus to another, he said.
“I can get my mind set for what I’m doing here, and going home, I can get my mind set on roping or family life,” he said. “I never get out of here before dark, so I bought lights so I can upset my neighbors because I can’t ever rope during the day.”
He calls rodeo his therapy. He’s only given up the sport one time, while he was in Kansas and experimenting in dirt-track auto racing. He won six year-end point championships in the five years he competed.
“When I moved to Colorado, I was ready to get back into rodeo where my heart was,” he said. “It’s a passion. It just keeps me looking forward to something else every day.”
But his new love for the nearly 600 kids who walk through the door every day at East Memorial is what really keeps him going, he said.
“If I had to choose between the two it would be a hard decision,” he said. “It’s great to keep winning, but to see the scores keep rolling in that show you are affecting these kids’ lives forever, that’s an ongoing feeling that I don’t know if it can be matched.”
The only thing Ungeheuer struggles with, he said, is time. He doesn’t like to rob either of his attention.
“Sometimes I feel guilty to leave work when something’s not done,” he said. “And sometimes it’s hard to shut the lights off in the arena, but I’ve got 580 kids here the next day that don’t care how tired I am.”
At one time he dreamed of making it to the National Finals Rodeo, but that would mean giving up his education career. Since he’s done well balancing both his passions, he has no intention of giving up either one. He’s content with what he has, he said. And he’ll keep at them for as long as his body allows.
“This is my NFR,” he said. “What I can give these kids and teachers – that’s pretty high up. Being able to be passionate and get reward from both roping and educating kids, I don’t know what else I would want.”