ESPN/PRORodeo.com – By Troy Schwindt – PRCA Writer
As a lifelong educator, Penny Conway felt compelled 14 years ago to go out and teach the nation’s youngsters about the sport of rodeo and Western culture. To date, the “Cowboy Up” program has reached hundreds of thousands of children.
“It actually started from a magazine that came into our classroom against the sport of rodeo,” said Conway, who at the time was teaching second grade in Payson, Ariz. “It was something from the Humane Society, and I thought it was a bunch of lies.
“I thought someone needed to get out and start educating about what is the truth. My dad (Milt Simon) went to the first National Finals Rodeo, my brother is Mark Simon and my nephew is Shain Sproul (both Wrangler NFR cowboys). I knew the sport, and I rodeoed myself. I felt like the kids didn’t have any clue what was really going on in the sport or about the cowboy culture.”
That defining moment prompted Conway to develop the “Cowboy Up” program. She and four other “Cowboy Up” instructors teach children from kindergarten through eighth grade about how the sport got started, the different rodeo events and the history and importance of the American flag. They learn about the traditional values in which the sport of rodeo was founded upon, such as honesty and integrity.
Hired primarily by rodeo committees, Conway’s program has reached hundreds of thousands of students across the country. This year alone, the “Cowboy Up” program has been in 18 states and has influenced 120,000 students.
Some of the biggest beneficiaries of Conway’s program have been the students of Tucson, Ariz., and the La Fiesta de los Vaqueros rodeo.
“She’s been here 11 years, and we were one of the first rodeos of any size to bring her program in,” said Gary Williams, the rodeo’s general manager. “We saw a great deal of potential there, not only in terms of doing something educationally for children, but doing it specifically from a very positive aspect with regard to rodeo.
“So many kids don’t know anything about our Western heritage or the sport of rodeo, and we thought this would be a good combination of positive education and a way to teach kids about rodeo and hopefully create a new generation of fans.”
We put boots, chaps and hats on kids, and this all becomes something that can help them understand the term ‘Cowboy Up.’ This helps give them the inner strength to deal with peer pressure.
— Penny Conway
The children, Williams said, love the program, which has greatly expanded over the years. It started as a one-day event and now takes place over three days during rodeo week in late February. The Tucson committee also brings Conway to the area a month in advance of the rodeo for two days of programs with children living in the fringe communities of Tucson.
“It’s become hugely popular,” Williams said. “I’d give it my whole-hearted recommendation. It’s something committees can do, and it’s something that doesn’t have to cost a lot. She can tailor the program to fit what the individual committees want.”
The local media also swarm to the feel-good story, which helps promote the sport.
When Conway or members of her teaching contingent arrive in town, they bring with them an assortment of props to get the message across.
“We put boots, chaps and hats on kids, and this all becomes something that can help them understand the term ‘Cowboy Up,'” Conway said. “This helps give them the inner strength to deal with peer pressure. We put their boots on and talk about them making their own path in life and not being pulled into things they know they shouldn’t be.”
Conway, who still resides in Payson with her husband, said the program has been a big hit, not only in rural committees, but in the inner cities as well.
“I was in the heart of Los Angeles in March, and it was just like Southwest Texas,” she said. “The kids really latch on to that American cowboy image because they really don’t know a lot about it. That’s kind of the hook.”
The success of Conway’s “Cowboy Up” program prompted her five years ago to develop a complementary program called “Code of the West.”
“We use highlight clips from the Wrangler NFR, from the different rodeo events,” Conway said. “We teach them how the scoring is done, what to watch at a rodeo. Then we go into our theme of Code of the West that teaches that a handshake means something, and we teach morals and ethics. We teach four character traits: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility and attitude.”
Looking back, Conway is proud of what’s been accomplished.
“I never dreamt that it would go where it went,” Conway said.