When you’re hosting an event, you could be no more fortunate than to have Russ Duncan show up in the old brown van. He’ll be equipped to take charge and may even have the tools loaded up in the truck in case it’s needed.
Using the experience he gained while growing up on a farm near Archie, Mo., Duncan once again will man the chutes at the 2011 MGRA Show Me State Rodeo.
In his years of involvement with the rodeo, Duncan has been not only an avid volunteer, but also a participant in some of the non-horse events, such as Wild Drag, Goat Dressing, Steer Decorating and more. In addition to his involvement with the Missouri Gay Rodeo Association (MGRA), he’s been a president and a member of the KC Pioneers, a leather/Levi social group of men and women in Kansas City, since 1978.
I first worked with Duncan many years ago when the Pioneers volunteered to be the route monitors at several of the PrideRide bicycle fundraisers. Duncan and his other Pioneer volunteers chose key locations along the route to help with directions, hand out water or food, and look for anyone needing assistance.
The bicyclists loved knowing that all they had to do was look for a KC Pioneer with the familiar leather vest to know that they were on the right route and that help was available if needed. And Duncan and his van helped rescue a stranded bicyclist on at least one occasion.
Duncan, 72, made a career of more than 40 years at Hallmark Cards Inc. before retiring in 1997.
“I was going to college at a drafting college, and the dean kept telling me, ‘Go to Hallmark, they’ll hire you. They like country boys,’” Duncan said with a laugh. “But I never did use my drafting degree. I realized I had a future at Hallmark, so I just stayed.”
He said he started out working as an office boy and in the mailroom. “At one point I knew everybody at Hallmark,” he said.
Then he worked in layout and in other aspects of the printing process for the card manufacturer. His Hallmark career took a four-year hiatus when he was drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War. He was stationed in Berlin.
“Actually, I was first drafted for the Navy and I was in the Navy for about a day,” he said with a laugh. “And they said, ‘Oh, we have our quota. You’re going back to the Army.’”
Duncan said he came out as a gay man when he was 31. He has had two partners in his adult life -- Bob, for 12 years, and another man to remain unnamed.
“He was from Tulsa, Okla., and at one point was a professional basketball player, a real tall, good-looking dude. But he had one problem. He was an alcoholic. After a while he had to go.”
Our interview took place in Duncan’s charming house in Kansas City, where he has lived for more than 40 years. It’s a treasure trove of memorabilia, including some of his teddy bears that he showed me, which are part of the “Carry the Bear” Pioneer initiation. New members must carry the bears with them to events as they raise pledges.
Duncan said that much of his involvement with the Pioneers and other groups in Kansas City took a significant turn in the 1980s when AIDS was devastating so many in the gay community.
He struggled for words to describe the emotions of that difficult period. “Oh God, Michael [Burnes> and I used to talk about… it got to the point where you became immune to it. You realized that you couldn’t grieve that often and that soon, there were so many. So you just developed your own way. I would go out in the middle of the woods and just scream, spend a couple of hours there thinking about their lives and then I’d come back home and say, ‘Ah, I feel better now.’”
Duncan said he got involved with the rodeo around the same time he got involved with the Pioneers.
“The thing that I liked about the rodeo,” he said, “was that the men and women worked and got along together, where, like the leather clubs, that was strictly taboo -- no women, no women. I was kind of a strange bird anyway, because most of my friends when I first came out were women. I remember my first partner said, ‘Don’t you know any guys?’And I said no.”
Duncan said the event in which he won most of his awards was Wild Drag. To win belt buckles, he said, you have to go to the international rodeo.
“There were two or three years in a row I qualified to go to the nationals, but for some reason I chose not to go. I don’t know why. I chose to work,” he said with a laugh. “You had to make a decision whether you wanted to work or do that.”
“I guess growing up as a child working rodeos, being around them, helping, I cannot go to a rodeo and watch in the bleachers. I have to leave and go out there and do something,” he said. “So then I decided I better be down there behind the chutes.”
The oldest son of six children, he said that while growing up on the family farm, they worked with all kinds of horses, including the large Belgian work horses. His father used them to pull the plows in lowland areas of the farm where tractors wouldn’t work.
“You couldn’t do it like the horse,” he said.
Duncan has traveled to other regional rodeos for many years. When he was at Hallmark, he worked four long-hour days, which gave him three-day weekends that he could use to travel to regional rodeos. For some, he said, financial considerations or getting time off make it difficult to participate.
“That’s the problem,” he said. “When you volunteer to work the chutes, you have to basically pay your own way, and your own room and all that, and then you’re working.”
Much of his other work for the rodeo has included setting up, especially at the Wyandotte County fairgrounds years ago