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Penny Smythe: the spirit of rodeo

Penny Smythe, rodeo chairman and 1st vice-president of the Cloverdale Rodeo and Exhibition Association. - File
Penny Smythe, rodeo chairman and 1st vice-president of the Cloverdale Rodeo and Exhibition Association.
— image credit: File

As we speak, two of Penny Smythe’s grandkids are practicing for this year’s mutton-bustin’ event in typical Cloverdale fashion – on the dog.

This year’s Cloverdale Rodeo isn’t the first time Smythe’s own grandchildren have been in the mutton-bustin’ event, held during rodeo performances in the Stetson Bowl. Her eldest grandson, now eight, competed when he was four; his brother the following year. This year, it’s her granddaughter, 4, and three-year-old grandson.

“I tell them to cuddle down, hang on and have fun. It’s over so quick.”

That’s good advice, coming from the Rodeo Chairperson, a position Smythe’s held for nine years. In all, she’s been a rodeo volunteer for 30 years, 16 of them on the board overseeing the event.

It’s an enormous commitment, involving dozens of meetings throughout the year, 12 to 14-hour days in the weeks leading up to the rodeo, and travel.

Each November, she visits the Canadian Rodeo Finals to scope out new talent and secure event sponsors – no doubt drawing on the skills she’s honed at her day job in sales with Hershey Canada.

For 11 years, she also sat on the board of the Surrey Association for the Mentally Handicapped.

These days she loves spending time with her grandchildren. She enjoys her rodeo family, too.

In addition to working with community and board members, her role brings her into contact with representatives from rodeos across North America.

“It’s really a tight-knit family, I would say.”

She’s helped shape the ongoing evolution of Canada’s second-largest community rodeo, which has never lost touch with its small town roots while drawing North America’s top rodeo champs.

“As the contestants are becoming more professional athletes, it’s becoming more of a big business.”

Even the world’s largest rodeo, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, is taking notes.

In 2008, responding to pressure from animal rights activists, the Cloverdale Rodeo switched to an invitation-only format. It was a difficult decision, because it meant losing status as a sanctioned rodeo.

Cloverdale Rodeo contestants don’t the earn points they need to compete on the seasonal rodeo circuit – but they do vie for one of the richest payouts in Canada.

It must feel like sweet vindication to invite the Canadian and world champs and have them RSVP four years running.

“We are very fortunate that they are very eager to come,” Smythe says, recalling the “extreme challenge” to change the rodeo’s format.

“We stepped up to the plate in coming up with an invitational format,” she says.

The format firmly in place, it’s gratifying to see much bigger wheels in the industry take notice.

When two Cloverdale Rodeo association reps – general manager Dave Melenchuk and administrator Jamie Rogers – went to the Houston rodeo in March, “How’s the format change?” was the question on everyone’s lips.

Folks liked what they heard; Houston’s 20-day rodeo will conclude competition next year with a format modeled on Cloverdale’s.

“They’re following our format. That’s huge,” Smythe says. “It’s huge for the city of Surrey and for downtown Cloverdale.”

Smythe is also really excited about celebrating the 65th anniversary of the Cloverale Rodeo, founded in 1945 by the late Jack Shannon and Clarke Greenaway.

During the 65th Cloverdale Rodeo and 122nd Country Fair, that proud history will be honored in a display at the newly-opened Cloverdale Recreation Centre next to the rodeo fairgrounds, alongside an exhibit recognizing the Surrey RCMP’s 60th anniversary.

The rec centre is also the location for the Surrey Arts Council’s Art Zone and the  Kids Can Rodeo, a Surrey Food Bank fundraiser involving creative displays of cans from various community teams.

But she’s saved the biggest surprise for last. Working their connections with senator Gerry St. Germain, the Cloverdale Rodeo and Exhibition Association has lined up an armed forces salute for this year’s rodeo. A Canadian military flypast from CFB Comox will roar overhead Monday, May 23 at 2 p.m.

“Those kind of things, you work on them for a whole year, and finally you get the okay that they’re going to happen, and it makes it very rewarding,” Smythe says.

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