THE GOOD OL’ BOYS VS. THE RODEO GIRLS

Reneé Winter, Fay Kohler, and Roz Campisi turned a sleepy little rodeo into a splashy society bash. So who edged the Walt Garrison All-Star Rodeo off the social calendar?

In the beginning, the men didn’t know what to make of them. Fay Kohler and Reneé Winter-pretty, blonde, highfalutin society girls-had agreed to chair the 1988 Walt Garrison Rodeo. The annual benefit for the Multiple Sclerosis Society had a loyal, if limited, fol lowing. Fay-and-Reneé-and that’s how they came to he known: “Fay-and-Reneé,” never just “Fay,” never just “Reneé”–were brought on to raise the Rodeo’s profile outside cowboy circles. As co-chairs, they were charged with turning the sleepy little rodeo into the kind of splashy society event that would attract the city’s elite, a group with a great and long tradition of paying huge amounts of money in the name of (in no particular order): Supporting a good cause. And having a really good time.

The big-league nonprofits have always understood the axiom of spending money to raise money, but the Dallas-based North Texas Chapter of the National M.S. Society was slow to catch on. Even in the mid-’80s, the M.S. Society maintained a bake-sale approach to fund-raising, bringing in a scant $75,000 a year on its bachelor bid, another S150,000 or so on its bike ride, around $200.000 on Walt’s annual rodeo. The organization sorely lacked an “It” event, the kind of must-attend that gives a cause cachet. The American Cancer Society had Cattle Baron’s Ball; the Leukemia Society had the annual St. Valentine’s Day Luncheon and Style Show; breast cancer had the Susan G. Komen National Awards Luncheon. The Multiple Sclerosis Society, meanwhile, relied on a mix of vanilla, highly undistinguishable events to raise money.

It was Chuck Howley’s idea to stage a rodeo. After a family friend had been diagnosed with M.S., he persuaded his formerCowboys team-male. Walt Garrison, a true cowboy, not only to co-host the event but to add his name to it. The first Walt Garrison Rodeo was held at Fair Park on a Sunday afternoon in the spring of 1977. Ray Price sang; Walt and Chuck donated autographed footballs for the auction. That first Rodeo drew a crowd of Skoal-dipping, truck-driving cowboys who didn’t necessarily know about multiple sclerosis (in those days, the disease was always confused with the better-known muscular dystrophy) but knew plenty about calf-roping and bull-riding and didn’t mind paying a couple of bucks for a ticket.

The Walt Garrison Rodeo was a good ol’ boy’s good time that aspired to nothing more than repeating its success each year. It was Walt and Chuck’s little rodeo. And it defied change.

Until 1984. the year Roz Campisi showed up at M.S. headquarters.



AT THE TIME, ROZ WAS MARRIED TO RESTAURATEUR CORKY Campisi, the third-generation Campisi who ran the family restaurant on Mockingbird. Like a lot of Cowboys. Walt Garrison was a regular at Campisi’s Egyptian Restaurant, his autographed picture plastered on the wall, alongside other Cowboys who’d claimed the restaurant as their regular hangout.

Tall and striking, with long black hair and an easy smile. Roz walked into the M.S. offices looking to become a volunteer. Her sister-in-law, Regina, had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and Roz and her mother-in-law, Marie Campisi, wanted to help raise money. Neither of them knew much about rodeos, but they knew Walt.

Although the Rodeo was Walt and Chuck’s baby, conceived as a boys-only club that didn’t particularly welcome women, the well-connected Campisis were not the kind of people you turn away. Roz and Marie were promptly assigned to the Rodeo committee. Within a few years, Roz had transformed the Rodeo auction from a couple of football helmets going to the highest bidder to dinners-for-two and gift certificates donated by Dallas restaurants and retailers. The auction eventually became so successful, it split off into the Yellow Rose Gala in 1986, with Dee Wynne, who also suffered from M.S., at the helm.

When Carolyn Rice arrived at the M.S. Society as executive director that year, she saw Walt’s rodeo as the little fund-raiser with lots of potential. Rice, the former executive director of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation in Houston, knew the difficulty of raising money for any of the small, so-called “orphan” diseases. Multiple sclerosis was devastating to the more than 300.000 afflicted with the disease that attacks the nervous system, but it was, especially then, obscure-especially when compared to the 8.2 million Americans who have a history of cancer and the 58 million who have some type of cardiovascular disease. Rice’s experience on the Houston charity circuit showed her what could happen when you introduce the well-to-do to the inside of a rodeo arena. If the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo could raise $5 million for its beneficiaries, why couldn’t the Walt Garrison Rodeo do the same for the Dallas chapter of the M.S. Society?

For starters, nobody was interested in upsetting the Rodeo’s celebrity namesake, and Wall liked his rodeo just the way it was. The men who dominated the M.S. Society’s local board of directors were conflicted. They obviously liked the idea of turning the modest little rodeo into a big money-maker for M.S., but did it really need to become something il wasn’t (i.e., another Dallas social event) to do so? Carolyn Rice thought it did.

“I was very much aware of how successful the Houston Rodeo had been,” says Rice. “I talked with the general manager of that event and asked for guidance when we were trying to develop the Walt Garrison Rodeo. When I asked him what contributed to the success of the Houston Rodeo, he said the most critical element was the entertainment.” And not just any entertainer. For the 1987 Rodeo, Rice’s first year on the job, Lee Greenwood had already been booked. “He was a nice guy and the price was right, but he didn’t draw acrowd,” she says.

Rice asked marketing specialist Fran Cashen, one of a handful of women who sat on the M.S. board, to come up with a marketing plan to raise the Rodeo’s profile. Key to Cashen’s strategy: Naming a chairman who travels in the right circles.

She thought of Fay Kohler, remembering how she mingled with Dallas star Patrick Duffy at the Rodeo the year before. Pretty, energetic, and well-connected, Kohler had all the right credentials. She agreed to chair the 1988 Rodeo on die condition that her friend, Reneé Winter, would be the co-chair.

Fay-and-Reneé signed on as chairs of the 12th annual Walt Garrison Rodeo, never realizing they’d be so good at it, raising more than $200,000 their first year, that they’d quickly become as indelibly linked to die rodeo as Walt himself.



FAY-AND-RENE WERE ALREADY RODEO-GOING GIRLS. FAY HAD grown up on her parents ’ ranch in Sunnyvale; Reneé. who grew up in Mesquite, counted cowboy Don Gay and his family as friends. What had always been a part of their lives now sounded like the makings of a great party theme.

As it turns out, they were right.

The Rodeo had already moved from Fair Park to the brand-new $ 10 million Mesquite Arena by the time Fay-and-Reneé began what would be their nine-year run as Rodeo chairs. Looking for ways to take better advantage of the facilities, they wooed sponsors with high-priced Sky Box suites and the promise of corporate banners hanging inside the arena. They hosted VIP receptions for platinum sponsors. They secured underwriting for everything from beer and barbecue to entertainment. Most important, they had an uncanny knack for generating buzz.

In the months leading up to the Rodeo, they built momentum with a string of pre-parties at Belle Starr, Stampede, or Sipango, for no other reason than to “toast the honorary chair of the upcoming Walt Garrison Rodeo” or “announce the entertainer for the upcoming Walt Garrison Rodeo.” They courted the society press with as much fervor as they did the corporate sponsors, and the society columns, in turn, reported the comings and goings of the chairs, Fay-and-Reneé, and their perennial co-chair Roz.

They approached the Rodeo as if it were a business, organizing subcommittees, detailing job descriptions, composing timelines. Rice stayed behind the scenes, rooting out potential sponsors and patrons and then pointing Fay-and-Reneé and Roz in the right direction. They’d charm people like Caroline Rose Hunt into being the Rodeo’s honorary chair and sponsors like Delta Airlines and Nissan into underwriting air fare and SUVs. The four of them made a formidable team. As Rice says, “It wasn’t just an event. It had become a business unto itself because of die work il took to make it successful.”

By 1993. the Rodeo Girls had turned the Sunday afternoon rodeo Wall and Chuck held for their buddies once a year into the trumped-up Walt Garrison All-Star Rodeo-a weekend-long affair that included a ball (dress code; “Cowboy Chic”), outdoor barbecue. Brooks & Dunn and George Strait in concert, and a two-day rodeo. The social set turned out in their best faux Western to mix with real cowboys (Larry Mahan, Ty Murray), quasi cowboys (Ben Johnson. Buck Taylor), and professional Cowboys (TroyAikman, Jay Novacek), not to mention the parade of celebrities (Tommy Lee Jones, Barry Corbin, Linda Blair) who were somehow persuaded to attend the glitzy rodeo in Dallas, Texas.

The Rodeo was “It”.

More authentic than Cattle Baron’s, more glamorous than the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo. You didn’t have to be a socialite, and you certainly didn’t have to be a cowboy, to like the Walt Garrison All-Star Rodeo. In 1993, the year the “rodeo” peaked, 13,000-plus turned out for the weekend-long extravaganza, which grossed $638,000.

But even then, there were rumblings at M.S. headquarters. Volunteers assigned to the M.S. Society’s less glittery events-the read-a-thon, walk-a-thon, bike ride-complained that Carolyn Rice was devoting too much of her time to the Rodeo. A couple of especially vocal chapter board members complained that the event had become too expensive to produce and even though 76.7 percent of the proceeds, on average, were going directly to MS (well within the 70 to 80 percent optimal range), they questioned whether enough money was going back to the charity itself. To further complicate matters, Walt thought the event had become too social.

The M.S. staff, always a little intimidated by Walt, regularly used Fay-and-Reneé as a conduit to the celebrity namesake of their biggest fund-raiser. He’d complain about all the pre-parties he was asked to attend, word would get back to Fay-and-Reneé, and they’d persuade him to make an appearance.

“He’s a cowboy,” Fay says now. “We had to explain why we needed so many parties-for the p.r. and the media. He finally understood we were all trying to raise money for the same thing.” Which is how they managed to get him to show up for the Rodeo Ball each year, take to the stage, and deliver a limerick before-with a little coaching from Fay-and-Reneé-thanking the sponsors and making a hasty retreat.

But after the 1993 Rodeo. Walt had had enough. Uncomfortable loaning his name to an event he couldn’t (wouldn’t) fully participate in. he took his name off the Rodeo, and former Cowboy Randy White became his stand-in.

“Walt had a conflict with Carolyn making the Rodeo a bigger and bigger event,” says Reneé. “I remember the first year of the ball, we had a private, sit-down dinner beforehand with Tanya Tucker singing. Walt thought that was very snobbish and exclusive. He was a country boy and didn’t understand that when you get big-name entertainment, the event grows. He wanted it to stay small.”

The vocal minority on the board led by Kirk Dooley echoed Walt’s sentiments; What had the girls done to the M.S. Rodeo?

They had, in short, turned it into an enormous cash cow for the North Texas Chapter of the National M.S. Society, only to have me local board of directors carelessly send it to slaughter.



KIRK DOOLEY, BEST KNOWN FOR PUBLISHING HOMESICK TEXAN, a newsletter for out-of-towners, became involved in the M.S. Society in the ’ 80s when he was asked to publish the Rodeo program. Within a few years, he was chairing the walk-a-thon. Soon, he was a board member, and, by 1995, he had ascended to chairman. Somewhere along the way he developed what would become a festering problem with the amount of time and money that went toward producing the Rodeo. His campaign against Rice centered on his belief that the M.S. Society’s other events could, with a littie attention, become more successful. Rather than looking for a way to preserve what had become the M.S. Society’s “It” event, Dooley managed to make the Rodeo just another night on the charity circuit by convincing the board that Carolyn Rice needed to go.

At issue: the escalating price of entertainment.

Carolyn Rice believed big-name entertainment was critical to the success of the Rodeo, that the Dallas social set might pay $5,000 for a Sky Box suite at a rodeo benefiting a good cause once, but they certainly wouldn’t return year after year-unless they also got to see George Strait or Reba McEntire or the Judds in concert. “If you didn’t have the right entertainment, then you were not going to make any money on the event,” says Rice, who was able to secure underwriting from Resistol. Southwestern Bell Mobile Systems, Crown Royal, and U.S. Tobacco, among others, even as booking fees escalated from $25,000 to $125,000. “It was a constant balancing act to make sure we got affordable but popular talent to sell out the place.”

Kirk Dooley believed you didn’t need big-name entertainment when you had a rodeo sanctioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association at a facility like the Mesquite Arena. “Fay-and-Reneé took the Rodeo to another level,” says Dooley. “It became a perceived competitor to Cattle Baron’s Ball, but at some point the tail started wagging die dog. Originally it was a rodeo that had music. Somehow, it became a concert that happened to have a rodeo beforehand.”

The debate went from informal to heated when Dooley became chairman of the M.S. board in 1996-the year the Rodeo marked its 20th anniversary, the year Walt returned, and the year Fay-and-Reneé. after years of threatening, chaired their last Rodeo.

Days after the 1996 Rodeo. Dooley called an emergency meeting of the board’s officers and drew up a list of grievances against Rice. The board gave her a month to address those changes, but before the month was out, Dooley fired her. Rice, “not at all prepared for Kirk Dooley’s actions,” was stunned. Rice loyalists (Rodeo volunteers and board members) promptly walked out in a shake-up that left the M.S. office void of anyone who knew anything about putting on a rodeo.

“The men decided it was time for Carolyn to go,” says Reneé, among the board members who left after Rice was fired. “A lot of the women said, ’Where is this coming from?* When Kirk came on the board, that’s when things started shaking up. He thought mere was too much emphasis on the Rodeo and not enough on the other events.”

“It was the board versus Carolyn, and she lost that battle,” Dooley says simply. “The M.S. Society needed to raise more money, and it could not under her.”

Only after it was too late did the board realize the Walt Garrison All-Star Rodeo wasn’t the same without Walt Garrison. It wasn’t the same without Fay-and-Reneé. And it wasn’t the same without Carolyn Rice. The 1997 and 1998 rodeos were disasters, hitting a 10-year low.

“We had a well-oiled machine,” says Rice, now president of the South Texas chapter of the Arthritis Foundation in Houston. “I guess they prefer the organization be known for its programs rather than for a big event.”

Indeed, in a telling gesture, the board voted to cancel the 1999 Rodeo altogether, then hastily rescheduled it for Oct. 3. As of late March, the board had yet to name a chair or book entertainment for an event that Fay-and-Reneé say requires a full year of preparation.

Meanwhile. Carolyn Rice has been replaced by Ted Beechler. a former oilman. As for the next chairwomen, the next Fay-and-Reneé, Dooley answers with a question: “Who says it has to be women?”

It’s his belief that the Rodeo should, ideally, be chaired by one or two men who sit on the board.

Men who, in other words, could return the Rodeo to its humble beginnings. A good ol’ boy’s good time.

Newsletter

Keep me up to date on the latest happenings and all that D Magazine has to offer.

Comments