Thursday, June 27, 2013

Meeting the Marlboro Man

It was one of those spur-of-the-moment, I-can’t- believe-I-did-that types of decisions when I look back on it. I had occasion to visit Oklahoma City on business several times during the early nineties and one of those visits included a tour of the Cowboy Hall of Fame, now called The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. Fascinated, of course, by all things cowboy my entire life, I felt a connection, so I joined the organization.

My membership included a subscription to their magazine, Persimmon Hill (that’s the name of the site where the building that houses the museum stands). I eagerly devoured the magazine every month.
I don’t recall how much later it was, but I received an invitation to attend their annual Western Heritage Awards banquet. I also don’t remember how much the tickets were, but they were more than I was used to paying to for a night out on the town. Not exorbitant, but not a paltry sum. So I put the invitation aside. There was, after all, travel costs and the time to consider.

Then business called me to Oklahoma City again. I am not making that up. It really did. The trip was necessary. Really. It just so happened that I had to be in Oke City (that’s what Okies call it) on the night of the banquet. The coincidence was just too much—and I had already stopped believing in coincidences, anyway. I felt as if I was being called to attend this banquet. I made reservations without a minute to spare.
Jan and I felt right at home in the sea of black ties and boots, black hats, and friendly, welcoming down-home folks during the reception. When it was time for the banquet to begin, we were ushered to a front table only a few feet from the stage. We felt fortunate, but had no idea just how fortunate we were (and uninformed).

I don’t recall everyone who sat at our table, but a humble man to my left looked very familiar. He certainly looked very comfortable in his cowboy hat. I knew that I should know him but was reluctant to ask.  A classic, handsome, chiseled-face cowboy, that I guessed to be in his early sixties. He introduced himself as Bob Norris, a rancher from Colorado. 

Someone else at the table had to add that he was the original Marlboro man (there is a lot of confusion as to who was the original guy in print ads, but Bob is the cowboy who first appeared in TV commercials). An ad agency rented use privileges for part of Bob’s T-Cross ranch to shoot cigarette commercials back in the sixties. They brought along a model to be the Marlboro man.

But as Bob rode out horseback to offer assistance and expertise, the contrast between the model and Bob became so obvious that they fired the model and hired Bob. He was under contract to Marlboro for twelve years, but he told us that his conscious about the links between smoking and cancer led him to finally give up the gig that made his face famous.  

I was certainly impressed enough that he was the owner of a large ranch in Colorado (130,000 acres) and was the Marlboro man, but Bob also failed to mention that he was the grand-nephew of a guy named Gates who owned a little oil operation called Spindletop that later became Texaco.

I found out much later that Bob was chairman of the stockholders’ committee that locked horns with corporate raider Carl Icahn that led to a three billion dollar settlement with Pennzoil. He also has his own charitable foundation. What we still don’t know is why Jan and I were at the table with him and his wife. I expect there was a last minute cancellation by someone else.  

In his eighties now (and still looks in his sixties), Bob spends his winters in Arizona, but still does a little cowboy work on the T-Cross during the other seasons.

But Bob was just the first person we met. Wait till you hear who else was at our table and at the banquet. I still marvel that we had such an opportunity and that we chose (or had chosen for us) such a propitious date to attend.

Texas Scribes  Here is another installment on reading from Go Down Looking at KETR.

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