University of Calgary

Tricks of the trade

UToday HomeJune 27, 2012

CowpokesDespite being raised by a father who threw flaming bayonets at his mother, and learning to perform rope tricks in front of an audience from the age of four, it was the University of Calgary’s Don Ray who found himself getting roped out of retirement as a performer by a colleague – just in time for the President’s Stampede BBQ on June 27.

The former variety show rope spinner turned African politics professor – whose experience with Apartheid in Africa as a young performer led to his interest in the subject as a scholar – received a message from Donna Livingstone, director of the University of Calgary Press, letting him know his tricks would be required at the Taylor Family Digital Library Quadrangle.

Livingstone’s trick roping roots don’t run as deeply as Ray’s, but their common interest unites them this week as the university celebrates the Stampede’s Centennial.

“I blame Donna. I blame the University of Calgary Press,” Ray says with a playful laugh as he discusses how he was talked into performing at the BBQ. “Donna sent me an email saying I’ve volunteered us …

“So I said, OK, yeah, sure, that’s a great idea. That’ll be a lot of fun.”

Fun for both the ropers and those who get to watch them show off their skills.

Inspired while preparing for her 1996 book Cowboy Spirit: Guy Weadick and the Calgary Stampede, Livingstone learned the tricks of the trade from retired calf roper and former Stampede Grandstand show performer Lou Palmer.

Ray’s path was different. He travelled the globe as Billy the Kid, with his dad Buffalo Bill and mom Annie Oakley thrilling audiences with their knife and axe throwing, sharpshooting, and rope spinning. In Canada they were also known as the Del Rios, a ‘Mexican’ family performing in fairs across the country.

They hit the Coca Cola and Grandstand stages at the Stampede in the 1960s and Ray continued to perform while earning his Honours BA at the University of Calgary before heading to London, England to earn a master’s in African studies in the early ’70s. Adding a PhD at the University of Toronto, teaching brought him back to Calgary when a spot in the political science department opened up.

He would bring out his rope on occasion – as a popular end-of-year treat for his students in the classroom, or when the opportunity arose during his research in Africa to teach the future president of Ghana to spin a rope at 3 a.m. while surrounded by bodyguards.

“I know he was a fighter pilot, so he’d have good eye-hand coordination, which is really key, but I was taking a gamble that he would be able to spin it,” Ray laughs. “I was very pleased he was able to spin it. Otherwise, who knows?”

There’s no such pressure for Wednesday’s performance.