Sylvester honored with Ben Johnson Memorial Award |

Sylvester honored with Ben Johnson Memorial Award

The Ben Johnson Memorial Award honors recipients who have worked, like Johnson did, to impact youth and portray the sport of rodeo and the Western lifestyle positively. Chuck Sylvester, who served the National Western Stock Show as general manager for 25 years, will accept the Ben Johnson Memorial Award at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City on Nov. 12, 2022.

Chuck and Roni Sylvester. File photo

Sylvester said he’s excited to receive the honor named for Johnson, an actor who appeared in a slew of John Wayne and Western movies.

“But he was a greater cowboy,” he said. “Back in the 80s and early 90s we used to host a great cutting horse competition at the stock show and towards the end of the show, we would put some of the finalists together as one of the rodeo acts. We would have three horses come out to do some cutting. The superintendent came up with the idea for a celebrity cutting and we had Lynn Anderson, Larry Mahan, and one year I was introduced to Ben Johnson.”

He said the two had a good visit and when Johnson later ran into legendary Colorado stock contractor Mike Cervi, a college classmate of Sylvester’s at Colorado State University, Johnson asked Cervi to give his regards to Sylvester.

“He must have remembered me and that made me feel good,” he said.

Cervi, a hall of fame stock contractor, will be honored as the 2022 Legend of Pro Rodeo at the end of the month at the 15th annual Gold Buckle Gala at the South Point Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

Sylvester said he remembers Johnson taking a year away from the silver screen to compete at rodeos. He not only qualified for the National Finals in the team roping but earned the World Championship. Johnson, who won an Oscar for his role in The Last Picture Show, said of all his accomplishments, his world champion title in the team roping brought him the most pride. Johnson passed away in 1996 at the age of 77.

A young Chuck Sylvester exhibited his show steer, a black Angus, to a second place in class finish in 1952. It was, he said, a monumental year as they had just dedicated the Denver Coliseum for the rodeo and horse show. It was, he recalled, the biggest building he had ever seen. He said he had no inkling that years later he would stand in the same building as the general manager of the NWSS wishing the building were bigger.

Sylvester began working at the NWSS in 1961 as a group leader for the livestock judging contest, leading groups of contestants from class to class. He said he wanted to do a good job for the late Willard Simms, who was the general manager of the operation from 1955 to 1978. In the mid-60s, he became the superintendent of the judging contest and he remained at that post even during the four years he worked for the Colorado State Fair.

Simms asked Sylvester to establish a meat judging contest, which he did, and later work in the bull office, preparing the necessary paperwork for the bulls bought and sold via private treaty. That was about the time NWSS terminated their agreement with Denver Livestock Market and took over management of the southern end of the Yards from the Exchange Building up to the cross over bridge to the hog building and Cudahe Packing.


In 1975, he began managing the Yard and revamping and improving them, until Simms’ retirement in 1978 when he was named general manager.

“We made a lot of improvements to the Yards during that time,” he said. “It was thoroughly enjoyable for me because, to me the Yards is the backbone of the stock show that made the stock show great because it brings to Denver the purebred breeder, the commercial breeder — the people who buy bulls and animals — and they are the same ones who then go up on The Hill and buy livestock handling equipment because they put it to use.”

Sylvester was at the helm until 2003. Under his management, the NWSS grew from nine days to 16 days and grew attendance from 220,000 to 670,000.

The transition from Simms to Sylvester also had to overcome the retirement of several other longtime staffers, including former Douglas County extension agent Charles Kirk who served as livestock manager at NWSS. Sy Taillon, who announced the rodeo at the NWSS for 33 consecutive years also retired during that time.

Sylvester’s parents took him to the NWSS rodeo as a young child and he said he remembers Taillon, who was dubbed rodeo’s Walter Cronkite, announcing the rodeo, which was at the Stadium Arena at the time.

“I remember his wonderful voice,” he said. “He would say, ‘ladies and gentlemen, we hope you enjoy the sound system here tonight, sponsored by Daniels and Fisher Tower. With the grandest view of all of Denver, go to the top of Daniels and Fisher Tower, the tallest building in downtown Denver where you get an unobstructed view of all downtown,’” he said.

When he was seeking a new announcer, a friend of Sylvester’s recommended a rodeo announcer he had heard at a rodeo in Arizona. He said the young man was entertaining and sounded like a television game show host. The young announcer was Bob Tallman.

Sylvester attended a meeting of the organizers of the top PRCA rodeos in San Francisco during the Cow Palace. He met Tallman there, and it was Tallman who took Sylvester to the airport to fly back to Denver. That meeting was where he agreed to announce Denver, which he did for many years. As the show grew to 16 days, the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo also grew. The two began to overlap and Tallman chose Fort Worth. That opened the door for another rodeo announcer, the late Hadley Barrett.

Barrett, who hailed from North Platte, Neb., had a band and when Sylvester was at Colorado State University, Barrett’s band would accompany vocal acts like Leroy Van Dyke and Faron Young who played at the university. The two were first acquainted there and went on to have a long working relationship at NWSS.

Casey Tibbs remains top of mind as one of the most memorable rodeo contestants Sylvester became acquainted with during his tenure with NWSS. Purple remains Sylvester’s favorite color, a nod to Tibbs. Sylvester counts Larry Mahan and the late Jim Shoulders among his friends today.

Sylvester, Shoulders, and Mahan. Photo by Roni Bell Sylvester

Sylvester met his wife, Roni Bell, in the 1990s at the NWSS. The late Baxter Black suggested she interview Sylvester and did so enthusiastically enough that they credit Black with their initial meeting and match.

“I tell people she took me out, hit me with a rock, and the rest is history,” he said. “She would say there’s a little truth to that.”

He’s quick to admit that his career was successful in large part due to his friends and staff who, he said, made him look good. He’ll travel to Oklahoma City with Roni at his side to accept the award.

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