Inducted in 1999
Deb Copenhaver is a 1999 Inductee to the Ellensburg Rodeo Hall of Fame in the National Competitor Category. A native Washingtonian, Deb twice earned the coveted World Championship in Saddle Broncs–in 1955 and 1956–and placed second in ’51, ’53, and ’54, third in ’52, and fourth in ’58. Copenhaver was a crowd favorite in Ellensburg, where he is remembered for his spectacular bronc rides on Snake, War Paint, and Miss Klammath.
Deb Copenhaver was born on January 21, 1925 in Wilbur, Washington. “I worked ranches all around here, got that background, and made it through the Depression,” he recounted in a recent Ketch Pen (National Cowboy Hall of Fame) interview with Doris Rogers. Inspired by his bronc rider cousin Tommy Kunz, Deb caught and rode wild horses near the Colville Indian Reservation and soon hit the rodeo road.
Deb’s first competition was at a Keller, Washington rodeo in 1939. After WWII service in the Navy Seabees, Deb competed in all of the big North American rodeos. He won the bronc riding twice or three times each at Cheyenne, Calgary, Denver, Ft. Worth, Houston, Kansas City, Salinas, and Madison Square Garden. “No cowboy who ever rode in the Garden forgot it,” Deb notes. “The competition and excitement were heady stuff.”
The decade of the 1950s was Deb Copenhaver’s heyday. To enhance his earnings by competing in more rodeos, Deb teamed up with Paul Templeton, and Bill Linderman and went airborne in Paul’s 180 Cessna: “We were all over the country for rodeo–Calgary, Elko, Omak, Kalispell, Butte. We did them all.”
It was during the 1950s–a period rodeo historians dub the ‘Golden Age of Rodeo’–that Deb went toe to toe with the renowned South Dakota roughstock rider, Casey Tibbs. “Casey Tibbs was a good friend, and for seven years, Casey and I dominated bronc riding,” Deb recounts. By the time they reached Ellensburg in 1954, Deb was narrowly leading Casey for the World title. They competed evenly in Ellensburg until Deb was bit by Snake, a rank Christensen Brothers bronc. George Prescott (ERHOF ’98) described Deb’s ride as “one of the finest competitions I have ever seen between horse and rider. Deb lost just before the horn–it would have been a monstrous score.”
Deb writes, “I feel that one of the greatest assets I have had to inspire my career as a bronc rider is the access to the many great strings of bucking horses” from great Northwest rodeo stock contractors like Moomaw-Bernard, Joe Kelsey, and the Christensen Brothers. Deb especially remembers “Zombie, Blue Blazes, Badger Mountain, Which Way, Sweet Current, John Doe, Devil’s Dream, Rubber Doll, Caribou, Les Kauffman, Export, Whiz Bang, Miss Redbluff, Satin’s Sister, Adam, Buck, Bill Bailey, and Mr. Gill. All of these great horses have been a big part of the great Ellensburg Rodeo. I’ve always said, ‘Show ’em good buckin’ horses and tough bronc riders and the people will come.”
Although he lost out to Tibbs in ’54, Deb Copenhaver won the World in ’55 and ’56. Deb won his ’56 Ellensburg go-round with a ride on War Paint, another Christensen Brothers Bucking Bronc of the Year; he rode Miss Klammath in yet another memorable Ellensburg performance. Deb made the last ride of his career in Pendleton in 1974.
Deb Copenhaver and his wife and family had a dream. “I rode often and fast,” Deb emphasizes. “I wanted acreage, it would be my future.” Deb Copenhaver achieved his dream, buying land near Creston, Washington, where he bred and raised quality quarter horses and operated Deb’s Cafe in town. During the heyday of Deb’s Cafe, Hank Thompson, Bonnie Guitar, and Earnest Tubb, and other counry music greats all played at “Deb’s”.
Deb and his wife Cheryl also raised their family in the wheat country of Creston. Deb’s daughter Debra is a former Miss Rodeo Washington and a respected bronze sculptor. His son Jeff was ’75 World Champion Calf Roper and founding pastor of the New Frontier Cowboy Church in Texas. Deb is proud of his boys Matt and Guy, who are in the construction business, and his daughter Kelly, who is a Florida businesswoman and mom to three.
Today, Deb and Cheryl Copenhaver keep busy with their quarter horses, and Deb teaches at a rodeo school in Idaho each Spring. Deb spends much of his time preaching the gospel. Each Fall, immediately after the Pendleton Roundup, cowboys gather at Deb’s ranch for an annual camp meeting-style religious revival. “People come in trailers and campers. They’re singing, preaching,” Deb says proudly.
On the basis of his consistent excellence in bronc riding, in Deb Copenhaver was inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City (1991), the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs (1992),
On the basis of his consistent excellence in bronc riding, Deb Copenhaver was inducted into the Inland Empire Sports Hall of Fame in Spokane (1974), Omak Stampede Hall of Fame (1978), National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City (1991), and Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs (1992).
Deb writes, “It is with much gratitude and pride that I accept this induction into the Ellensburg Rodeo Hall of Fame. I consider this a tremendous honor.”