By the time he was a teenager, Neal Gay knew he wanted to be a cowboy. Today, he has built a legacy of rodeo stars through his family and his livestock.
A Louis L’Amour book rests on the table beside Neal Gay’s chair. Chances are he’s read it before, but the author’s adventurous tales of the West are often worth a second look. The thing is, a novel could be written about Neal’s life. A person doesn’t get to be 95 years old without having plenty of his own tales to tell, especially if he’s a rodeo cowboy. But Neal Gay is no ordinary cowboy. A legend in the world of rodeo—with awards to prove it—he has overseen the development of one of the world’s most recognizable rodeos, and raised three sons who have had success both in the chutes and behind them. His wife, Kay, is a force of her own, known for her “palomino parade” of horses and colorfully dressed riders who carry the flags and serve as pivots in the grand entry.
At the family’s Rafter G Ranch in Terrell, Texas, Neal is still known to ride occasionally. He also might be found on the lawnmower, keeping Kay’s yard “like she likes it.” Time can be harsh on a cowboy who’s lived through some admittedly rough years. But it also mellows a person, causing him to reflect and remember.
“We’ve had a great, great life,” he says. “The good Lord knew what he was doing whenever he planned all this for us.”
A Dallas Cowboy
Born in 1926, Neal Gay grew up in East Dallas, near Fair Park—the home of the State Fair of Texas. An only child, he moved with his mother, Elsie, a few times, but they stayed in Dallas. After attending Adamson High School, he decided that he’d had enough formal education.
“I think I was about 14,” he says, “when I quit school.”
His mother, who had divorced Neal’s father, remarried by the time he was a teenager. Neal’s stepfather, Malond Gay—a semi-pro boxer who worked as a mechanic—proved to be a solid paternal influence in his life.
“He and my mother raised me and took care of me in my teen years,” he says.
Neal joined the Coast Guard when he was 17, and was sent out on a destroyer escort. He was soon transferred to the U.S. Navy, but after serving about a year was injured while shipboard. He returned home, moving back in with his mother and stepfather.
“When I got back I had my name changed to my stepdad’s name, because I thought he was the greatest guy ever,” Neal says. “He had a garage and fixed cars for these young guys that didn’t have any money. A guy named Tex Lewis got to be a regular there, and he was just starting out as a rodeo cowboy. We really didn’t know what that was at the time, but I was always wanting to do something dangerous. I had ridden horses growing up because I had some relatives who had some. But I hadn’t really been a cowboy.”
With the influence and encouragement of Lewis, Neal went to a few rodeos and started riding bulls. He soon graduated to bareback horses and then saddle broncs, and he also bulldogged.
“They had a Saturday-night rodeo at Pleasant Mound [near Dallas], run by a fellow named Jim Roy. I got to be a regular there, and really learned how to ride there,” he says. “I learned how to be a cowboy and I really liked it.”
Although he had several jobs, including that of an office manager, Neal preferred the rodeo life.
“I had that cowboy in me then, I guess,” he says.
His restless spirit led him to a rodeo in 1945 in Atoka, Oklahoma, where he won the bull riding. That was a turning point in his life.
“I went up to get my check and the two judges were sitting there, handing out checks. I walked up and said, ‘I’m Neal Gay, and I won the bull riding.’ One of the judges looked up and said, ‘You don’t have an RCA card, do you?’ And I said, ‘No, what’s that?’”
Neal quickly found out that the judge was referring to a membership card for the Rodeo Cowboys Association, founded in 1936. He paid his $10 RCA fee and went home with a check for about $300. He stayed on the road after that.
“I got to where I could win something at nearly every rodeo I went to,” he remembers. “But I finally got smart enough to quit riding bulls!”
At the time, Neal was having plenty of fun, too, and admits that he drank too much on occasion. His luck ran out at a rodeo in Liberty, Texas, where there was a dance next to the rodeo grounds.
“I was up in the bulldogging in the slack after the rodeo,” he says. “I bulldogged my steer, and then walked over to the dance. As I got there, a bunch of people came out of the dance hall door out onto the grounds. There were two guys fighting, and they were really duking it out. This policeman went up behind them and jerked his pistol out and cocked it, and he was fixin’ to shoot one of them boys. He said, ‘I told ya’ll to stop,’ and when he did, I just reached and grabbed him. When I did he stuck that pistol right in my stomach and shot me.”
Five days later, Neal Gay woke up in the small hospital in Liberty. The doctor who was taking care of him told him not to move.
“He says, ‘Son, let me tell you something: I don’t know why you’re still here, but you pretty near didn’t make it, and you’ve still got a pretty good ways to go.’”
The bullet had gone through one of Neal’s bowels, and a section had to be removed.
“I’m lying there and I thought to myself, ‘If I die, what’s going to happen to me?’ I made an arrangement right there in my mind with God,” Neal says. “I said, ‘If you’ll let me live, I won’t ever take another drink.’ That was the 22nd day of October, 1949. And I have never taken another drink of alcohol. I think that’s probably the most important thing that happened to me in my life. I was awfully reckless—I’ll say wild and wooly. I lived dangerously for several years.
“That’s not to say I haven’t made some mistakes since then. But [at that time] I hadn’t ever really become conscious of the things you need to be conscious of if you want to live in this world. When you’re that close to death you have a different feeling.”
Neal was hospitalized for about two months, and then spent time recuperating at a friend’s house in nearby Beaumont. After that, he says, “I began to take a little better care of myself and my life.”
Meeting His Match
Neal returned to rodeoing, and also married and had two sons, Pete and Donnie. Their mother, Evelyn, died of leukemia when the boys were just toddlers. A year later, Kay came into his life.
“We both went to the same church,” she says. “We kind of had a whirlwind romance.”
Their first date was at the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo, where Neal was competing. After dating for about four months, they married in 1956. Neal was 12 years her senior, and a single father. Kay, just 18 when they wed, was equal to the challenge. The couple had a son, Jim, in 1962.
At the time, Neal was in the used-car business.
“I really had a good business,” he says.
“But it wasn’t rodeo,” Kay points out. “He wasn’t satisfied with it.”
The remedy to that dissatisfaction turned out to be nearby, at an amateur rodeo in the Dallas suburb of Mesquite.
“They had an amateur rodeo in Mesquite, and I went over there and saw the property, and the idea of a professional rodeo was born in my brain right then,” Neal says. “It was just a Saturday-night rodeo. It was not a professional rodeo.”
Kay remembers it as “just a shambles.”
“It was a poor man’s rodeo,” she says. “But Neal said the property had some background with rodeo, and that was worth something.”
Although the property was for sale, financing proved to be a challenge. Neal’s friend Jim Shoulders, by then a successful all-around competitor, soon became his business ally.
“I talked to him and told him what I had in mind, because he was the only guy I knew who had more than $10,” Neal says. “Then he, Jack Buschbom and I went to a rodeo in San Francisco. When we headed back to Texas, it was late in the fall. We were talking and I brought up the Mesquite property. Jim said, ‘Why don’t you just buy it?’ I said, ‘Because I don’t have the money.’ He asked how much it would take, and I said it was going to take about $10,000 to start.”
On the way home, the trio stopped in Las Vegas. While Shoulders and Buschbom did some gambling, Neal stayed in the car and took a nap. When they got back on the road, Shoulders asked him again how much it would take to start the rodeo. And then he handed Neal a check for $10,000.
“He said, ‘Get started.’ A week or two later I had bought the property,” Neal says.
Neal and Kay soon started producing a professional rodeo each Friday and Saturday night. They had one truck and trailer, and had bought enough bulls, broncs, steers and calves to run the rodeo. They built an arena in 1958, and as the Mesquite Championship Rodeo’s success grew, they covered the grandstands and eventually covered the entire arena.
“When he started Mesquite it wasn’t covered, and they had a lot of days when it rained,” Jim Gay says. “We have some pictures where people were waist-deep in mud. But I’ll always remember that we never had a rodeo rained out.”
The rodeo wasn’t easily accessible—only two roads from Dallas led to it—but cowboys and crowds seemed to find it. Then, in 1969, the construction of Interstate 635 brought a highway almost straight to the arena. Also known as LBJ Freeway, the new highway eventually stretched from Interstate 35 in Dallas east all the way to the south of Mesquite.
“It was great,” Kay says. “Neal put up a billboard right on the freeway, and a few years later we got our own exit sign [on the highway].”
Neal says the highway made all the difference to the rodeo.