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Legendary Rodeo Champion Jim Shoulders, 79

Jim Shoulders in action in San Angelo, Tex., in his prime in 1954. He was a world champion riding bulls as well as broncos.
Jim Shoulders in action in San Angelo, Tex., in his prime in 1954. He was a world champion riding bulls as well as broncos. (By Devere Helfrich Courtesy Of Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Via Associated Press)

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Although he didn't know a sewing machine from a rowing machine, Mr. Shoulders also helped test Wrangler's 13MWZ Cowboy Cut jeans, one of the most popular styles in the manufacturer's history. It took 13 tries before Mr. Shoulders approved the design: flat rivets that won't scratch a saddle, boot-cut leg openings, front pockets deep enough for gloves, back pockets reinforced to be tool-proof, and a high rise in the back so that a man wouldn't have to sit on his billfold and his shirttail would not flap out. And a zipper to get in and out of the pants quickly; no button flies.

So emblematic have the jeans become that experienced western horsemen tell novices to "sit so the tips of your W's rest on the saddle."

Mr. Shoulders was born May 13, 1928, in Tulsa. He entered his first rodeo at age 14.

"It was the Fourth of July, and I'd been working the wheat harvest for 25 cents an hour," he told interviewers years later. "I thought $18 for one day's work was pretty good. I knew I was rich and would never see another poor day."

In his first full year as a pro, he made $7,000. The most money he ever won in a single year in rodeo was $50,000, which at the time was more than Mickey Mantle earned. But baseball turned to television, which drove earnings higher, and rodeo did not.

"I always felt like I didn't win enough. In 1947, my wife, Sharon, and I had just got married and I decided to enter the rodeo at the Madison Square Garden and we would call it a honeymoon," Mr. Shoulders told the Oklahoman.

In 1949, at age 21, he won the first of his world titles, and those winnings bought him a 400-acre ranch in Henryetta, where he raised livestock after his 25 years on the rodeo circuit ended in 1970. He also ran a rodeo company of his own and had an active endorsement career for Wrangler, Miller and Justin Boots.

He also owned the legendarily "unridable" bucking bull Tornado, which bested 200 consecutive riders over a 14-year span. Finally, in the 1967 National Finals, 46-year-old Oklahoman Warren G. "Freckles" Brown broke the bull's string. W.K. "Kip" Stratton, who wrote "Chasing the Rodeo" (2005), was a 12-year-old witness.

"From Jim Shoulders's perspective as the owner of the animal, it would have been in his interest to keep the streak going," Stratton said in an interview yesterday. "But Jim Shoulders was the first person down on the arena floor to congratulate Freckles. That in a nutshell tells you everything you need to know about him."

Survivors, in addition to his wife, include four children, Jamie Doak of Bixby, Okla., Marvin P. Shoulders of Henryetta, Jana Shoulders of Tulsa and Marcie Shoulders of Tonkawa, Okla.; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.


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