Ray Hunkins: Jack Finnery, Mayor of Slater, Wyoming legend and an Irishman
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By Ray Hunkins, columnist
It was a hot July 4, 1968 at the St. Onge Rodeo, SD Hadley Barrett, “the voice of the rodeo,” announced the next cowboy in the bulldogging event. As friends and family remember the story, the announcer’s tease went like this:
“We are honored to have as our next contender, the Mayor of Slater, this great metropolis in wonderful Wyoming. If you don’t know where Slater is, it’s just a stone’s throw north of another great city. from Wyoming, Chugwater [laughter]. You can get here from there, but you can’t get there from here [more laughter]. Slater is a bit smaller than Chugwater. It has a population of four [louder laughter]. It would be Jack, his wife, Louise, and their two boys, Matt and Dean. [the most laughter]. Ladies and gentlemen, hearty applause for the Mayor of Slater, Wyoming, the Honorable Jack Finnerty!
From that day on, Jack Finnerty would be known as “The Mayor of Slater”.
Jack has been my friend for over 50 years. For 35 of them, we were partners in the breeding business, doing business as Split Rock Land and Cattle Company. Split Rock had a country next to my Thunderhead Ranch. For a time, Split Rock also partnered with rancher-breeder Bob Shepherd and his son, Brooks, doing business as the Ashley Creek Cattle Company.
In those years, through thick and thin, whether we were marking, moving cattle, working cows, walking down the mountain in the cold and windy late fall, or even counting profits and losses at the end of the year, not a harsh word was exchanged between us. That’s not to say that on appropriate occasions, harsh words, even good old-fashioned swear words and swear words, weren’t spoken, even yelled, at the top of their lungs (especially Jack’s). After all, “Finnerty” is Irish, and with that come some legendary predilections.
Although Jack is a “son of Wyoming”, he is also a grandson of Ireland. His grandfather, Patrick Finnerty, was born in County Galway. He immigrated to the United States, ending up in a trading post in New Mexico and eventually Cheyenne. James Finnerty, Jack’s father, was born in Cheyenne and worked for the Union Pacific Railroad. James purchased a ranch, then known as M Bar, from Slater in 1943.
Jack’s mother (maiden name O’Leary) insisted that the family keep a home in Cheyenne so that Jack and his eight siblings could attend St. Mary’s Catholic School. Jack excelled in athletics there, especially football. He was a star running back.
During a match, according to his brother Dan, Jack suffered an open fracture. The bone was visible to the coach, but Jack didn’t talk about the pain. The coach said something prophetic that will be repeated many times in the years to come. “Jack, you’re a tough cowboy.”
To say Jack has an affinity for the Irish would be an understatement. In the late summer of 1987, two young men from the East Coast came knocking on the door. Jack’s wife, Louise, opened the door and asked what they wanted. One explained that he had inquired in Chugwater about where they could fill out their antelope permits and were told they should try Finnerty Ranch. Louise replied that it was ranch policy not to allow hunting.
Just then, Jack came from the back of the house and asked the men their names. One replied, “I’m Pat O’Toole from New Jersey and this is my cousin, Tim O’Mara. He’s from Massachusetts. Jack grinned and said to Louise, “These guys are Irish. They can hunt. It was the start of a friendship between Jack, rancher and Wyoming Cowboy Hall of Fame inductee, and Pat O’Toole, Marine, Vietnam combat vet and Carnegie Hero Award recipient, a friendship that has stood the test. time.
Although Jack attended school and lived in Cheyenne, he spent all his free time at the Platte County Ranch. In the early years, he was too small to help with the fences, so he was given the job of cowboy on horseback. That’s what he loved, working with cattle and horses. As a youth, he even competed in some of the area’s quarter horse races.
Finnerty Ranch, adjacent to the CB&Q mainline, summered yearling cattle for Butter Spur Cattle Feeders of Imperial Valley, California. Cattle were transported by rail.
Jack wasn’t interested in his father’s sheep or anything mechanical. As he grew and eventually took ownership of the ranch, his interests and preferences did not change. Under Jack’s leadership, the Finnerty Ranch raised Hereford cattle (later switching to Angus-cross) and quarter horses, but he never lost his love of competition or his natural athletic abilities. This combination assured him that he would find success on the rodeo circuit, and he did.
Jack began his rodeo career as a youngster at the Cheyenne Frontier Days, riding calves and earning a silver dollar for each successful ride. As he grew manly, he competed in rodeos across the West in multiple events – calf roping, bareback riding, bull riding, team roping, and steer wrestling.
In 1969 Jack was named the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association (PRCA) Wyoming All-Around Cowboy. As he got older, he continued to compete. In 1986, he won the bulldogging event in Amarillo, Texas at the National Old-Timers Rodeo Association Finals, the predecessor to the National Senior Pro Rodeo Association. At age 54, he entered bull riding at the Grant County Fair and Rodeo in Hyannis in the Nebraska Sandhills. Jack was still “a tough cowboy”.
He led the National Senior Pro Rodeo Association as president in 1985-86 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1997. In 2019, at age 80, he was inducted into the Wyoming Cowboy Hall of Fame.
Although the mayor of Slater is best known for his rodeo prowess, he is not one-dimensional. Jack has always actively sought ways to serve others. He mentored and trained young cowboys and for many years served on the board of the Wyoming High School Rodeo Association.
In 1979 Jack was elected to the Board of Wheatland REA and still holds that position. Another board member, Bob Brockman, reportedly said this about Jack’s service: “Jack always shows his love and passion for the members of our co-op, his fellow board members, the employees of our cooperative and the principles of the cooperative. His wisdom and guidance are cherished by all he serves.
For his work on behalf of the Wyoming REA, Jack was recognized in 2018 with the Senator Craig Thomas Cooperative Service Award. In 1988, Jack was elected to the board of directors of the Tri-State Generation & Transmission Association, a group of 45 nonprofit electric cooperatives and public energy districts in four states: Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado and New Mexico. Today, Jack is Tri-State’s longest-serving board member.
Jack’s penchant for service wasn’t limited to boards. He always went out of his way to help people, whether it was coaching and guiding aspiring rodeo competitors or helping out elderly neighbors and friends. His son Matt says: ‘Dad never turns down an opportunity to help’ and adds that his father would often ask the boys to join him, loading and transporting their horses to neighbors who needed extra hands. “We spent many evenings and weekends herding cattle for people because it was the right thing to do.”
Jack took a course at Colorado State University Veterinary School to learn how to perform C-sections on cows. He felt it was necessary in a pinch to be able to perform this procedure. But his upbringing at CSU was no secret, and Matt recalls, “During calving season, there were late nights in bad weather at the neighbors to do c-sections.”
Jack has always had a special place in his heart for people who are “a little long between the teeth”. Here are two examples: Not far from our Thunderhead Ranch, on the south side of Lee Mountain, an elder named Skeeter had a cabin. It was less than a quarter mile from our shipping corrals to his cabin. Skeeter’s wife and daughter cooked for our cow shift in the fall. One year, Skeeter began to worry about the condition of the roof of his cabin as winter approached. He casually mentioned his concern to Jack. Without telling Skeeter or telling me, Jack took his sons to Skeeter’s cabin and put up a brand new roof.
The late Earl Blevins of Wheatland, Wyoming invented and made the famous Blevins stirrup buckle. Before him, all leather stirrups were tied with leather laces. Earl was a famous cowboy in rodeo circles and was inducted into the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. In his final years at Wheatland, Earl was pretty much disabled and housebound. Jack brightened up Earl’s declining years by packing him up and driving him to Las Vegas for the PRCA National Finals Rodeo.
Random acts of kindness have been a staple of Jack’s life. His friend John Ware said, “I have never seen Jack too busy or too tired to help a friend.
Matt adds, “Dad taught me that there’s nothing more important than good friends and good family.” A few years ago, Matt wrote this poem for his father:
My cowboy days are almost over,
Life was good but not always fun.
Snowy hills, big blue sky,
Much beauty graced those eyes.
Arena dust or pasture rain,
The life I lived was worth it.
Work was hard, I’ll tell you, Pard
It kept my mind sharp and my body hard.
I thank the Lord for what I have had,
Slater has been my home since I was a kid.
So raise your glass and clap, ’cause
Someone once said, “You can’t get there from here.
At 82, Jack and I have now achieved alumni status. Through it all, we remained good friends. It’s an honor to write about someone I look up to, a son of Cowboy State who achieved “legendary” status in Wyoming and beyond. What a privilege to have walked part of life’s journey with Jack Finnerty. ###
This article first appeared in the Winter 2021-2022 issue of RANGE magazine “The Cowboy Spirit On America’s Outback” and is reproduced here with permission.
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