By Ray Hunkins, columnist
It was a hot Fourth of July in 1968 at the rodeo in St. Onge, S.D. Hadley Barrett, “the voice of rodeo,” announced the next cowboy up in the bulldogging event. As friends and family remember the story, the announcer’s tease went something like this:
“We are honored to have as our next contestant, the mayor of Slater, that great metropolis in wonderful Wyoming. If you don’t know where Slater is, it’s just a stone’s throw north of another big Wyoming city, Chugwater [laughter]. You can get here from there, but you can’t get there from here [more laughter]. Slater is a little smaller than Chugwater. It has a population of four [louder laughter]. That would be Jack, his wife, Louise, and their two boys, Matt and Dean [the most laughter]. Ladies and gentlemen, give a big round of applause for the mayor of Slater, Wyoming, the Honorable Jack Finnerty!”
From that day on, Jack Finnerty would be known as “the mayor of Slater.”
Jack has been my friend for more than 50 years. For 35 of those, we were partners in the livestock world, doing business as Split Rock Land and Cattle Company. Split Rock owned some country next to my Thunderhead Ranch. For a time, Split Rock also partnered with farmer-feeder Bob Shepherd and his son, Brooks, doing business as the Ashley Creek Cattle Company.
During those years, through thick and thin, whether we were branding, moving cattle, working cows, trailing down the mountain in the cold and wind of late fall, or even counting profits and losses at the end of the year, not a harsh word was exchanged between us. That’s not to say that on appropriate occasions harsh words, even some good old-fashioned cursing and cussing, weren’t uttered, even hollered, at the top of our lungs (especially Jack’s). After all, “Finnerty” is Irish, and with that come certain fabled predilections.
Though Jack may be a “son of Wyoming,” he is also a grandson of Ireland. His grandfather, Patrick Finnerty, was born in County Galway. He immigrated to the United States, ending up at a trading post in New Mexico and eventually Cheyenne. James Finnerty, Jack’s father, was born in Cheyenne and worked for the Union Pacific Railroad. James purchased a ranch, then known as the M Bar, in Slater in 1943.
Jack’s mother (maiden name O’Leary) insisted that the family keep a house in Cheyenne so Jack and his eight brothers and sisters could attend St. Mary’s Catholic School. Jack excelled in athletics there, especially football. He was a star running back.
During one game, according to his brother Dan, Jack suffered a compound fracture. The bone was visible to the coach, but Jack was silent about the pain. The coach said something prophetic that would be repeated many times in the years to come. “Jack, you’re one tough cowboy.”
To say that Jack has an affinity for Irishmen would be an understatement. In late summer 1987, two young men from the East Coast came knocking. Jack’s wife, Louise, opened the door and asked what they wanted. One explained that he had inquired in Chugwater about where they might fill their antelope permits and had been told they should try the Finnerty ranch. Louise responded that it was ranch policy not to allow hunting.
About then Jack came from the back of the house and asked the men for their names. One responded: “I’m Pat O’Toole from New Jersey and this is my cousin, Tim O’Mara. He’s from Massachusetts.” Jack broke into a big grin and told Louise: “These lads are Irish. They get to hunt.” That was the start of a friendship between Jack, rancher and Wyoming Cowboy Hall of Fame inductee, and Pat O’Toole, Marine, Vietnam combat vet and Carnegie Hero Award recipient, a friendship that has endured the test of time.
Though Jack attended school and lived in Cheyenne, he spent all his spare time at the ranch in Platte County. In the early years he was too small to help with the fences, so he was given the job of cowboying on horseback. That’s what he loved, working with cattle and horses. As a youngster he even jockeyed at some of the quarter horse races around the region.
The Finnerty ranch, adjacent to the CB&Q main line, summered yearling cattle for Butter Spur Cattle Feeders of Imperial Valley, Calif. The cattle were moved in and out by rail.
Jack was not interested in his dad’s sheep or in anything mechanical. As he grew older and eventually acceded to ownership of the ranch, his interests and preferences did not change. Under Jack’s management the Finnerty ranch raised Hereford cattle (later switching to Angus-cross) and quarter horses, but he never lost his love of competition or his natural athletic ability. That combination assured that he would find success on the rodeo circuit, and he did.
Jack started his rodeo career as a youngster at Cheyenne Frontier Days, riding calves and earning a silver dollar for every successful ride. As he grew into manhood, he competed at rodeos across the West in multiple events—calf roping, bareback bronc riding, bull riding, team roping and steer wrestling.
In 1969, Jack was named Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association’s (PRCA) Wyoming All-Around Cowboy. As he got older, he kept right on competing. In 1986 he won the bulldogging event in Amarillo, Texas, in the finals of the National Old-Timers Rodeo Association, predecessor to the National Senior Pro Rodeo Association. At age 54 he entered the bull riding at the Grant County Fair and Rodeo in Hyannis in the Nebraska Sandhills. Jack was still “one tough cowboy.”
He led the National Senior Pro Rodeo Association as president in 1985-1986 and was inducted into its Hall of Fame in 1997. In 2019, at age 80, he was inducted into the Wyoming Cowboy Hall of Fame.
Though the mayor of Slater is best known for his rodeo prowess, he isn’t one dimensional. Jack always actively sought ways to serve others. He has mentored and coached young cowboys, and for many years he’s served on the board of the Wyoming High School Rodeo Association.
In 1979 Jack was elected to the Wheatland REA board of directors and still serves in that capacity. A fellow board member, Bob Brockman, is quoted as saying this about Jack’s service: “Jack always displays his love and passion for the members of our cooperative, his fellow board members, the employees of our co-op, and the principles of the cooperative. His wisdom and guidance are cherished by all those he serves.”
For his work on behalf of the Wyoming REA, Jack was recognized in 2018 with the Sen. Craig Thomas Cooperative Service Award. In 1988, Jack was elected to the board of directors of Tri-State Generation & Transmission Association, a group of 45 not-for-profit electric cooperatives and public power districts in four states: Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado and New Mexico. Today, Jack is Tri-State’s longest serving board member.
Jack’s penchant for service hasn’t been limited to boards. He has always gone out of his way to help people, whether coaching and mentoring aspiring rodeo competitors or helping neighbors and elderly friends. His son Matt says, “Dad never turns down a chance to help” and adds that his father would often have the boys join him, loading and hauling their horses to neighbors who needed extra hands. “We spent many evenings and weekends gathering cattle for people because it was the right thing to do.”
Jack took a course at Colorado State University’s vet school to learn how to perform C-sections on cows. He felt it was necessary in a pinch to be able to perform that procedure. But his CSU education was not a secret and Matt remembers, “During calving season there were some late nights in bad weather going to neighbors to do C-sections.”
Jack has always had a special place in his heart for folks who are “a little long in the tooth.” Here are two examples: Not far from our Thunderhead Ranch, on the south side of Lee Mountain, an old-timer named Skeeter had a cabin. It was less than a quarter mile from our shipping corrals to his cabin. Skeeter’s wife and daughter cooked for our crew working cows in the fall. One year, Skeeter got to worrying about the state of his cabin’s roof as winter approached. He casually mentioned his concern to Jack. Without telling Skeeter or mentioning it to me, Jack took his sons up to Skeeter’s cabin and installed a completely new roof.
The late Earl Blevins of Wheatland, Wyo., invented and manufactured the famous Blevins stirrup buckle. Before he did, all stirrup leather was fastened with leather laces. Earl was a famous cowboy in rodeo circles and was inducted into the Hall of Fame at Oklahoma City’s National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. In his later years in Wheatland, Earl was pretty much disabled and housebound. Jack brightened Earl’s declining years by packing him up and driving him to Las Vegas for the PRCA National Finals Rodeo.
Random acts of kindness have been a staple in Jack’s life. His friend John Ware says, “I have never seen Jack too busy or too tired to help a friend.”
Matt adds, “Dad taught me there’s nothing more important than good friends and family.” A few years ago, Matt wrote this poem for his dad:
My cowboy days are almost done,
The life was great but not always fun.
Snow-covered hills, wide blue sky,
A lot of beauty has graced these eyes.
Arena dust or pasture rain,
The life I lived was worth the pain.
The work was tough I’ll tell you, Pard
It’s kept my mind sharp and body hard.
I thank the Lord for what I’ve had,
Slater’s been my home since I was a lad.
So, lift your glass and give a cheer, ’cause
Someone once said, “You can’t get there from here.”
At 82, Jack and I have now graduated to old-timers status. Through it all, we have remained good friends. It is an honor to write about someone I have come to admire, a son of the Cowboy State who has achieved “legendary” status in Wyoming and beyond. What a privilege to have ridden part of life’s trail with Jack Finnerty. ###
This article first appeared in the Winter 2021-2022 edition of RANGE “The Cowboy Spirit On America’s Outback” magazine and is reprinted here with permission.