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30 years in the making: Mark Saal’s search for the perfect cowboy hat

By Mark Saal - | Jul 24, 2016

My heroes have always been cowboys. And cowgirls.

If I’ve had one regret over the last 30 years of covering various aspects of Ogden Pioneer Days for the Standard-Examiner, it’s this: In all that time, I never did get me a cowboy hat.

As a sportswriter, I covered the Ogden Pioneer Days Rodeo in the 1980s, back in the days of larger-than-life cowboys like Clint Johnson, Tuff Hedeman and Utah’s own Lewis Feild. To this day, they remain some of the most down-to-earth, soft-spoken and gracious professional athletes I’ve ever interviewed.

Later, as a feature writer, I wrote my share of Pioneer Day stories about all things western. And while I’ve never wanted to be a cowboy (too much work), I’ve always longed to look like one.

Frankly, I’m not attracted to the other end of the cowboy — the boots. Mostly because calf-high footwear just doesn’t look all that comfortable to me. But the hat, what’s not to like?

RELATED: Ogden Pioneer Days Rodeo’s mutton busting clown follows in father’s footsteps

So while I’ve wanted to buy a cowboy hat for the last 30 Pioneer Day celebrations, I’ve just never pulled the trigger. But on Friday, just in time for Pioneer Day, I finally crossed “Own a real cowboy hat” off my bucket list. And I owe it all to JaNae Barlow Francis.

If that name sounds familiar to you, it could be because JaNae is a veteran reporter with the Standard-Examiner and gets her name in the paper almost as much as Donald Trump. But it also could be because you’re a rodeo nerd, and you recognize JaNae Barlow as the winner of the 1987 Miss Rodeo Utah pageant.

That’s right, JaNae is genuine rodeo royalty. If anybody could get me a little “street cred” in pulling off the cowboy look, it’s JaNae. She agreed to accompany me to the Smith and Edwards western tack department to help me pick out my first cowboy hat.

RELATED: Miss Rodeo Ogden emerges from rodeo roots, personal challenges

Perhaps I should have questioned the sincerity of JaNae’s motives when the first hat she attempted to get me to try on was this huge bonnet-looking thing with a monstrous flat brim. It looked like what a cowboy might wear if he were playing the title role in the Broadway musical revival of “Hello, Dolly!” I explained that I was looking for more of a traditional cowboy hat.

So JaNae next pointed out one with the right shape, but it had a sort of gaudy black-and-gray checkerboard pattern that seemed like the kind of thing Lady Gaga would wear to a Manhattan hoedown.

“I’d like a hat,” I explained patiently, “that won’t get me beat up if I end up behind the chutes at a pro rodeo event.”

Clearly, JaNae was either missing the point entirely or deliberately trying to sabotage my chapeau-buying outing. But the helpful sales associate understood exactly what I wanted and brought over a sharp-looking off-white Stetson with a tan hatband. It was love at first sight.

After 30 long years, I finally had my very first cowboy hat.

Back in the office on Friday afternoon, sporting my new cowboy hat, co-workers started in on the inevitable ribbing.

“Howdy, pardner,” one clever editor said.

“Hey there, Tex!” called another.

I was starting to think maybe the hat was a mistake, so I decided to get a second opinion. I met up with JaNae again at Friday evening’s Ogden Pioneer Days Rodeo. She was sporting a fancy new hat of her own, a flashy little black and red number that went a long way toward explaining why she’d been steering me toward the likes of Dolly Levi and Lady Gaga.

Ever the helpful sort, JaNae immediately began asking folks what they thought of my new hat.

“This is Mark’s first time wearing a cowboy hat,” she’d blurt out to various cowboy dignitaries. “What do you think?”

The first response wasn’t exactly a glowing endorsement.

“It don’t look bad,” said one grizzled cowboy, obviously a tad uncomfortable with paying another man a compliment on his appearance. I may as well have asked him, “Do these Wranglers make me look fat?” 

After reviews from several other mildly irritated cowboys and cowgirls — including the current Miss Rodeo Ogden, Savanna Steed — JaNae introduced me and my hat to Dave Halverson, Ogden Pioneer Days Rodeo Director. If anybody knows cowboys and their attire, it’s Dave.

“It looks good,” he said, a little too enthusiastically. Again, I got that weird guys-complimenting-guys vibe.

But then Dave removed his Stetson to give me an up-close look. As it turns out, the head of the Pioneer Days Rodeo and I were wearing THE EXACT SAME HAT! If we’d been on the red carpet at the Oscars, and these were identical Vera Wang gowns, I suppose it could have been awkward. But me wearing the same hat as the highest ranking official at the rodeo? I’ll take it.

In fact, the only criticism I received all night was of the constructive kind, from one of the cowboys at the Mutton Bustin’ sign-up table.

“Now you just need to get you some boots,” he said, glancing down at my sensible New Balance walking shoes.

Cowboy boots?

Meh, maybe in another 30 years.

Contact Mark Saal at 801-625-4272, or msaal@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @Saalman. Like him on Facebook at facebook.com/SEMarkSaal.


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