Bill Sniffin: We Will Miss Randy Wagner And Willie LeClair; And Farewell To College Seniors Who Survived COVID Conditions

Columnist Bill Sniffin writes: “There were many visions to be had by the folks in Willie LeClair’s sweat lodge that night. I know I sure had a few.”

Bill Sniffin

May 20, 20236 min read

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(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Occasionally, it is appropriate to write about a number of subjects.

This column is dedicated to a white man and an Indian man. It also is a tribute to the graduates of the two four-year institutions of higher learning in Wyoming.

Plus, we have a small follow-up to that tragedy some months ago in Wheatland.

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(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Randy Wagner Was A Big, Big Man 

Randy Wagner was a giant in Wyoming tourism, photography, and most especially, Frontier Days and the Oregon Trail.

Randy, 89, of Cheyenne, died this past week after over seven decades of service to Wyoming

 A native of our hometown, Randy stopped by our Lander newspaper some 50 years ago to introduce himself. First impression was that he was very well informed about Wyoming and secondly, holy-moly, was this guy tall or what? He stood about 6'7, at least, and was legendary growing up in Lander around the basketball court. He was always there taking photos but not as a player, which left coaches on both sides of the court drooling.

His longtime hometown of Cheyenne will give him plenty of tributes for his great work with Frontier Days and for his work on the Wyoming Travel Commission and the Wyoming Recreation Commission.

We shared a love of the Oregon Trail and that was where my favorite memories are of him. He loved to ride the trail on his motorcycle.

One of his best pals was the late Jimmy Smail, who was a champion motorcycle dirt bike rider. Those two and others probably rode 1,000,000 miles of the trail back and forth across the country. In 2012, Randy retired his favorite bike with 105,000 miles on it.

Randy was one of the greatest Wyoming photographers ever – maybe the best. And his work was done with color film transparences, long before digital cameras came out.   

One memorable photo showed up of Devils Overlook at Big Horn Canyon near Lovell from an angle which was impossible for a normal person to get.I asked him how he shot it. He stood atop a step ladder on top of the state’s Chevy Suburban, held his camera high, and got this amazing shot of an amazing place. Only a guy of his height could have pulled it off.

He was a primary photographer of my first coffee table book “The Seven Natural Wonders of Wyoming.” The book was vastly improved by the inclusion of his photos. He was a great loyal friend and will be missed.

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(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Willie LeClair Was A Wonder

The famous Wind River Reservation elder Willie LeClair died last week. What a wonderful, smart, funny, genuine, and legitimate man.

In recent years he had been doing a prison ministry spending quality time with Native American prisoners. For that alone, there is a special place in heaven for him.

About 25 years ago, I joined a sweat lodge ceremony that he was conducting at his home east of Riverton. U. S. Sen. Mike Enzi was also there that night.

It involved sitting tightly together in the dark as the temperatures rose and rose, somewhat like a sauna. Super-heated rocks were doused with water to create steam, heat, and humidity. Willie would chat and chant and invoke “grandfather,” his word for the almighty.

There were many visions among the folks in that sweat lodge that night. I sure had a few. It was a transformative and memorable experience. Sorry that we never got the chance to do it again.

Willie was also active in the Lander One Shot Antelope Hunt. He was an expert in so many ways of the American Indian, including sign language. He was a national expert in that form of communication. We will miss Willie, a good friend and a great man.

Follow-up On Triplets

Patsy Parkin of Wheatland suffered the loss of two of her three triplet sons earlier this year. I devoted a column to that tragic car accident and her loss. 

Patsy is an excellent writer and historian. She recently posted this on Facebook about talking about the accident with her granddaughter Adalynn.

“Adalynn picked a fluffy dandelion for each of us. ‘Now, Grandma, you have to close your eyes and make a wish, then blow real hard.’ We did.

“She said, ‘You aren’t supposed to tell, but I wished my uncles could come back.’

“I had wished the same thing,” Patsy concluded.

What a heart-wrenching story.

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(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

UW College Graduation

 Nancy and I may have been the only people in Wyoming to attend both college graduations this month of the state’s only four-year institutions of higher learning.

 Our grandson Wolf Johnson was one of what appeared to be about 4,000 graduates from the University of Wyoming in Laramie. Our family was honored that he was picked to be the student speaker for his afternoon session. 

 He reminded his fellow students of how important over these past four years it was to “show up.” He recalled their troubles with COVID and remote learning and how they missed out on all the normal fun things about being a student in their early college years.

 But now here they all are and the future is bright for them.

UW put on a wonderful graduation event. The logistics to hold three different ceremonies over the course of the day at the Arena Auditorium must have been daunting. They did it well.

Lander’s Mandy Fabel was commencement speaker. She talked about education and life being a marathon, which was appropriate since she had to do it three times. She heads up Leadership Wyoming.

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(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Wyoming Catholic College

After the events in Laramie, we drove home to Lander on a dark, windy, and rainy night.

On the following Monday we attended the graduation at Wyoming Catholic College which featured 25 seniors. (Note: I am on the board of WCC.)

The excitement of that graduation was equal to the pride of all the parents at the Laramie event, although it was 1/164ths the size.

Speakers at it included the Archbishop from Denver who also talked about what a disruption the COVID pandemic was. This class had suffered almost a 40 percent decline in students over its four years because of all the interruptions. 

Graduations are fun. They are times to celebrate successes and times to cheer on young people as they head off into the next chapters of their lives.

Bill Sniffin can be reached at:

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Bill Sniffin

Wyoming Life Columnist

Columnist, author, and journalist Bill Sniffin writes about Wyoming life on Cowboy State Daily -- the state's most-read news publication.