Inducted in 2014
Bill McKay, longtime Ellensburg Rodeo chute boss, was raised on a wheat ranch near Wilbur, Washington. He graduated from Wilbur High School in 1951 and attended Eastern Washington College of Education (now EWU), interrupting his studies to serve with the U. S. Army 38th Infantry in Korea. When Bill returned, he enrolled at Washington State College (now WSU), where he studied Education and competed in intercollegiate rodeo with his friend and fellow student Ken MacRae. Bill McKay was a steer wrestler, wild cow mugger, and roper; he joined the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association after college and competed for most of his life.
Bill married Janice Echols in 1957, graduated from WSC in 1958, and for the next five years worked as a public school teacher and coach in Creston, Palouse and Moses Lake.
The McKay family—including children Mark, Mike, and Julie—moved to Ellensburg in 1963 and worked their Reecer Creek ranch in the 1960s and 70s. In 1974, Bill was honored as Kittitas County “Cattleman of the Year.”
Bill’s old college friend Dr. Ken MacRae had also moved to Ellensburg and joined the Ellensburg Rodeo Board. Appointed Arena Director in 1971, Ken turned to Bill McKay to serve as his chute boss. “He was the first person I asked to help when I was elected Arena Director,” MacRae recalls. “He was very dedicated and did an outstanding job all those years.” Bill McKay was preceded in service by chute boss “Heavy” McArthur.
A good chute boss helps keep a rodeo running in a smooth, professional manner, and McKay was one of the best in the business.
His job was difficult, as he coordinated the placement of dangerous bucking broncs and bulls and made sure the cowboys were safely mounted and ready to ride.
Marie Smith, who served on the committee that selected McKay for the 2003 Maynard Linder ‘Spirit of the Rodeo’ Award, described the Chute boss’s job succinctly: “The Chute boss is the man down in that area of the arena called ‘Purgatory Seating.’ He coordinates which bucking bronc or bull lines up with which chute and which cowboy will be getting on which animal, and in which order left or right of the middle they will come busting out. He coordinates with the announcer, stock contractor, judges, arena director, and the cowboys, and deals with the extensive rituals cowboys go through while mounting those animals down in the Danger Zone.”
Bill McKay knew how to keep the show moving, and in this he was helped by stock contractors like Ellensburg Rodeo Hall of Fame Inductee Harry Vold. Regarding the cowboys’ “extensive rituals,” McKay recalled, “When Harry Vold rode up to the chute and told a cowboy who was fidgeting with his rigging to get on and ride there was no delay—he had everyone’s respect.” The cowboys showed Bill McKay the same respect.
Although the McKay family left their Reecer Creek ranch to live on Janice’s family’s wheat ranch near Hooper, Ken MacRae notes, “Bill still came back every Labor Day weekend to take over the chutes.” Bill was a member of the LaCrosse Grain Growers Association, Whitman County and Washington State Wheat Growers Associations, and the LaCrosse School District Board.
“Some say Bill decided to turn over his job not long after he was ‘freight-trained’ by a big bull,” Marie Smith states. Ken MacRae remembers that day: “Bill was standing right by chutes and saw the bull coming too late to climb up the gate. He was bruised, but not seriously injured, and he continued to work the rest of the rodeo.”
Bill McKay served the Ellensburg Rodeo for 25 years. When he stepped down, Coy Huffman took over the big job of filling Bill McKay’s cowboy boots.
“Bill McKay was a true friend and diligent Ellensburg Rodeo volunteer,” Ken MacRae states. “He took great pride in being an important part of the Ellensburg Rodeo.” Bill McKay died in 2004, one year after he was awarded the Maynard Linder Spirit of the Rodeo Award.