Inducted in 2003
When respected rodeo announcer Phil Gardenhire died in an Oklahoma automobile accident on April 14, 1999, the shock reverberated throughout the professional rodeo world. The shock came to Ellensburg, where Gardenhire had served as announcer since 1985. “It was a big, big loss for all of us,” Ellensburg Rodeo Hall of Fame and Rodeo Board Director Joel Smith noted recently. “Phil was a very important part of the growth and direction our rodeo, and we miss him.”
Born in Poteau, in the northeastern corner of Oklahoma, on September 29, 1952, Phillip Duane Gardenhire spent his youth in California and Oklahoma. He graduated from Poteau’s Howe High School in 1970 and served in the United States Army from 1970-1973. Phil married his wife Kay Deere in 1971, and their son Tyler was born in 1985. Phil Gardenhire studied at Northeastern Oklahoma State University in Tahlequah and worked as a radio disc jockey before beginning his life on the rodeo road.
Gardenhire had been introduced to rodeo through his bullriding brother, a job working as a horse groom, and his own stint as a bronc rider in International Professional Rodeo Association (IPRA) contests. Seeking a career in rodeo, Phil tapped the public speaking and promotional skills he had learned as a country music disc jockey. Asked to announce a rodeo near his hometown in Heavener, Oklahoma, Gardenhire’s aptitude for the rodeo announcer’s game was readily apparent. In 1984, he joined the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association as an announcer; one year later he came to Ellensburg and, simultaneously, was asked to announce the National Finals Rodeo. It was a promising start for a “rookie” announcer.
In a ProRodeo Sports News interview, Winston Bruce, World Champion bronc rider and stock contractor well known to Ellensburg fans, remembered Phil Gardenhire “dedicated his life to the [rodeo] business…He was very particular about language and he knew how to handle the clowns. Many times today we all get busy and overlook the details. Not Phil. He was always first class and he always did his homework. He liked for everything to go well.”
Early in his career, Gardenhire re-introduced the “mounted announcer” persona to professional rodeo, working astride his handsome paint horse (in Ellensburg, however, Gardenhire always announced from high atop arena in the announcer’s booth, in accordance with a long-standing tradition). Gardenhire also pioneered the practice of interviewing cowboys during the show, seated astride his horse with microphone in hand. “Phil could read an audience and was able to communicate with them very well,” Bruce recalled.
Phil Gardenhire announced the Ellensburg Rodeo from 1985 to 1998, the second longest stint in the “crow’s nest” in Ellensburg Rodeo history. “Phil Gardenhire was all class, a man of great dignity, style, professionalism,” recalls Joel Smith. “Phil was very innovative and brought great energy to our arena and its rodeo fans. Phil started traditions again in Ellensburg.”
Those traditions had been waning after the 1972 retirement of legedary Ellensburg Rodeo announcer George Prescott, a 1997 Ellensburg Rodeo Hall of Fame inductee. In the 1970s and early ‘80s, Prescott was followed by a number of announcers, none of whom quite filled his shoes. Rodeo Board member Alan Faltus was instrumental in hiring Gardenhire in 1985, at the very beginning of Gardenhire’s PRCA career; Faltus considered Gardenhire a potential standout in the rodeo profession and he was right. In retrospect, it is now clear Gardenhire brought stability and professionalism to the Ellensburg Rodeo, at last filling the void created after Prescott’s tenure.
Alongside his Ellensburg duties, Phil Gardenhire announced a host of prime North American rodeo venues from 1984-1999. He announced the National Finals Rodeo in 1985, 1987-89, and 1993. And he announced the Dodge National Circuit Finals Rodeo, National High School Rodeo Finals, Professional Women’s Rodeo Association Finals, and PRCA rodeos in Dodge City, Fort Smith, and Colorado Springs, the Pendleton Roundup, and the Calgary Stampede.
Phil Gardenhire was also a community volunteer, devoted family man, and a devout Christian. He was a deacon and lay minister for his Baptist church and a PRCA rodeo minister. When Gardenhire’s life ended unexpectedly in 1999, 500 mourners attended his Heavener, Oklahoma funeral and memorial service.
Phil Gardenhire’s wife Kay and son Tyler, and Kay’s sister said it was real hard to talk about Phil so soon after his death,” says Smith. “But the Hall of Fame and the Ellensburg Rodeo wanted the Gardenhire family to know how highly we regarded Phil and his work in Ellensburg.”