Ken McPheron was best known in Baker City for starting its signature rodeo event in 1995, but the indelible memory for Shane Pierce is how Ken made his mom, Shirley, smile.
Ken was Shane’s stepfather, but such distinctions meant nothing for the blended family of five children that Ken and Shirley forged when they were married in 1992.
“They made each other’s world go around, and you could see it,” Shane said on Wednesday, July 21, the day after Ken died at age 82. “When you saw them together you could tell they were each other’s person.”
Shane worked with his mom and stepfather beginning with the inaugural bull riding competition at the Baker County Fairgrounds in Baker City in 1995, adding the bronc riding event in 1997, and continuing for almost another quarter century.
During that time the two-night event — broncs on Friday, bulls on Saturday, both coinciding with Miners Jubilee — became a popular draw for rodeo fans across the West.
The competitions also raised about $750,000 for a variety of local charities, Shane said, including the Coats for Kids program, the Baker Community Literacy Coalition and many others.
“Neither Ken nor my mom ever made a dime,” Shane said. “Thank you was enough, and that’s why he did it.”
Or, rather, why they did it.
Shane said Ken and Shirley were a team from the start.
“It couldn’t have happened without her,” he said of his mother, who lives in Baker City.
Although Ken made his first visit to Baker County when he was about 50, he was a horseman almost his entire life.
He was born in Greeley, Colorado, the youngest of six children, and his father was a cattle buyer, Shane said.
As a boy, Ken spent many days at the Denver stockyards with his dad — probably, without knowing it, seeing some Baker County ranchers who also attended the big annual stock show there, Shane said.
When Ken was a teenager his family moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado, and he started competing in a variety of rodeo events, including bareback riding, bull riding and saddle bronc.
He was talented enough to win a rodeo scholarship to Colorado State University, Shane said.
Ken’s goal was to become a veterinarian.
But after being drafted into the U.S. Army in the early 1960s and serving in Vietnam, Ken’s career path veered in multiple directions.
He worked as the cowboy boss for a couple of dude ranches in Wyoming, guiding guests on rides and hunting and fishing trips in the Teton National Forest, Shane said.
Some of the cowboys he supervised later became corporate executives, but their ties to Ken were such that they attended most of the bronc and bull riding events in Baker City, Shane said.
“He built bonds with people that are spectacular,” Shane said.
Ken’s skills in the saddle also brought him work connected to Hollywood. In the late 1970s he managed a Southern California ranch where he helped teach actors such as Dean Martin and Mel Tillis how to sit a horse without looking as though they had never been in a saddle.
Around that time Ken also became acquainted with Darrell Winfield, the original “Marlboro Man” featured in TV ads for the cigarette brand.
That led to Ken being one of a group of six cowboys who worked on Marlboro ads for about a decade, Shane said.
And it was that job which is responsible, in no small way, for so much that came later — Ken and Shirley’s fortuitous meeting, and the bull and bronc riding competitions among them.
What happened is that in 1989, Ken traveled to the Bar C Bar ranch, in the Sumpter Valley north of Phillips Reservoir, for a photo shoot for Marlboro.
During that visit he met Shirley.
And from that moment, Shane said, Ken’s future was forever linked to Baker County.
Shane, who had just graduated from high school when his mother met Ken, said he recognized immediately the strength of the couple’s bond.
But the connection wasn’t limited to just Ken and Shirley.
Shane said their children from previous marriages — Shirley’s two sons, Shane and Wayne, and her daughter, Lisa, and Ken’s two daughters, Kimm and Rayne — also became a family “from day one.”
Shane said Ken remained friendly with his first wife, Lana, his high school sweetheart.
“I think that’s a rare commodity,” Shane said. “Ken brought people together.”
A few years later, Ken had an idea to bring a lot of people together.
He saw a way not only to resurrect the rather moribund rodeo arena at the fairgrounds in Baker City, but also to invigorate the local economy.
“He had the right connections in the rodeo industry to bring an event to Baker that could be successful,” Shane said. “He had a vision that it would work.”
The first two years, 1995 and 1996, Saturday’s bull riding competition was followed by pig mud wrestling on Sunday.
But after People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals objected, Ken and Shirley replaced that event with a bronc riding competition on Friday evening.
This was something of a gamble at the time because bronc riding events weren’t as common as they are now, said Ken Helgerson, who lives near Baker City and has been friends with Ken and Shirley for more than 20 years.
But Ken was able to bring in some of the top broncs, and bronc riders, in the country to a small town that wasn’t on the main rodeo circuit.
“It’s one of the highlight bronc riding events in the nation,” Helgerson said.
Helgerson, the retired Baker County roadmaster, became acquainted with Ken and Shirley through his artwork.
Helgerson drew a picture of a bull, using a photograph from the Baker City bull riding event as inspiration.
Randy Daugherty of Baker City gave the drawing as a gift to Ken.
That led to a conversation, which soon became a lasting friendship.
“We became good friends,” Helgerson said. “Ken was a mentor of mine.”
Helgerson, who later became a member of the board of directors for the bull and bronc riding events, said he learned much from Ken, including the importance of striving to do your best at whatever task you take on.
“He demanded perfection,” Helgerson said. “He wanted everything just so, and the event had to run a certain way. He wasn’t afraid of a challenge by any means. I learned from Ken that I wanted to do absolutely the best as I could.”
That emphasis included the official posters that Helgerson drew for more than two decades for the Baker City rodeo events.
But Helgerson said he cherishes even more a portrait of Ken that he drew, and that Shirley still has.
Over the years, Helgerson said, his family became “very close” with Ken and Shirley, sharing birthdays, weddings and other special occasions.
Helgerson said he had a final visit with Ken in his hospital room last week.
That was just a few days before the bull and bronc riding events, now part of the Challenge of Champions tour of rodeo competitions across the West, returned to the fairgrounds after a one-year hiatus in 2020 due to the pandemic.
“We did talk about the event, and what it meant,” Helgerson said. “In my mind, what he accomplished was amazing.”
He said Ken was also a “very, very talented” sheet rock contractor.
Ken was named Baker County Man of the Year for 2003.
Yet for all that he accomplished both in his professional life, and as the promoter of events that have contributed much to the Baker County’s economy and its philanthropic efforts, Ken’s greatest legacy, from Shane’s perspective, is decidedly personal.
“Ken and I had disagreements — but we could have them and still have a civil conversation,” Shane said. “He taught me those things I needed to be a successful adult. He didn’t have to. But he did.”