Rodeo clown shares serious advice at SHS

Rodeo clown and bullfighter Lecile Harris speaks at Starkville High School Thursday night. Harris has performed on the rodeo circuit for 63 years. (Photo by Charlie Benton, SDN)

Staff Writer

A cowboy legend visited Starkville High School Thursday to speak with the school’s Future Farmers of America (FFA) students, alumni and parents.

Veteran rodeo clown and bullfighter Lecile Harris made a stop at SHS to discuss his life and career. Harris is 81 years old and has been on the rodeo circuit for 63 years. He has appeared in films, worked rodeos across the country, been on the cast of country-and-western variety show “Hee-Haw,” and spent 20 years as part of singer Loretta Lynn’s rodeo company.

Additionally, he recorded as a drummer at Sun Studios in Memphis 1n the 1950s and 1960s, leaving music when his rodeo career began to take off.

Harris was born in the back of a grocery store in Lake Cormorant, where his parents had migrated to from Alabama. He said his name was supposed to be “Cecil,” but was processed as “Lecile” due to an error on his birth certificate.

“When you’re raised with a name like that, it’s a girl’s name to begin with, so I learned to fight in like the first or second grade,” Harris said. “I’ve been fighting ever since.”

He said his rodeo career began in high school when he and a friend decided to visit a nearby rodeo to try to meet girls. He saw the $5 entry fee for bull riding and decided to give it a try.

“I didn’t have a rope,” Harris said. “I didn’t have spurs. I didn’t have anything. They were willing to give me all of that, because they knew they were going to get my $5. They let me have a rope, spurs, the whole nine yards, opened the gate and he just threw me out, tore my shirt off of me, made me mad.”

He decided to come back the next weekend, and was soon asked to serve as a bullfighter when one of the usual bullfighters didn’t show up. In rodeo, a bullfighter protects cowboys from the bull after they have been bucked off. The role is similar to a rodeo clown, but without the entertainment component.

“I had been watching that bullfighter for three weeks, and I liked what he did, and it just looked to me like it was a lot of good football moves, a lot of straight arm, a lot of turning, I could run a pattern good.” Harris said. “I was really, really slow, but I could run a pattern good.”

He started his bullfighting career that day, with the promise of getting his bull riding entry fee back. As he continued to both fight and ride bulls, he was offered double his pay to add a comedy act.

“Altogether, I’ve been in it 63 years, fought bulls 36 of those years and can tell that every morning when I get up,” Harris said. ”It takes a little more to get up every day. I’ll be 82 in November. I’m still working rodeos, in fact I’m on my way to one now in Lauderdale, but I’m just doing the comedy. I’m not fighting bulls, but I’m still coaching bullfighters. I have seminars in Las Vegas and Kansas City. I have one in Colorado Springs and one in Denver. I’m still in the arena. I’m just smart enough that I’ve got a lot of young bullfighters around me.”

Harris, a former FFA member, emphasized the importance of his time in the organization to his success.

“I’ve had a really good career, but it all started because I was interested in agriculture,” Harris said. “I was interested in animal husbandry. People now think if you’re in the FFA you’ve got to grow cotton, you’ve got to grow corn, you’ve got to do this. You’ve got to do that, and that is great if that’s what you want to do, because I know dudes that are growing cotton now are doing well and corn even and chicken farmers, my God, they are rolling, but it’s all agriculture, and I’m still in a related business. Animals are what makes our living.”

Starkville High School agriculture teacher and FFA sponsor Randy Carlisle said he hoped students and others who attended Harris’ presentation would realize there were unconventional careers within the agricultural realm.

“I think he has a great message for you, because he took the unconventional path to not find a job, but he found a career that he fell in love with and is still successful,” Carlisle said. “Not many people in here can raise their hand and say they’re still following their career at 82 years old.”