Local legend and cowboy icon, Don Proffit, died on Feb. 23, at St. Mark’s Hospital in Salt Lake City, from a heart worn out from packing over 100 years of living into just 78 years.
Don (Donny, Rowdy, or the Red Roan) is survived by his wife, Claudia; his brother, Larry Proffit and sister-in-law and good friend, Pat Proffit; his sister, Lola Baldwin and brother-in-law and high school buddy, Mel Baldwin; Deanne Richins, his beloved baby sister; and his 100-year-old mother-in-law, Lola Hamilton.
He is also survived by his six kids and their spouses: Clint and Veronica Proffit, Nonie Proffit and Cora Courage, Cody and Marty Linford, Kim Proffit and Jill Adams, Liberty and David Day, Tiko and Morgan Heaps; and his much-loved grandkids whom he was so tickled by: Landon, Tietjen, Makinnen and Kaislyn Heaps; Degory, Eliza and Hight Day; Colter, Jackson, Kaycee, Eli and Flint Linford; Dustin Kruckenberg, Donny Bay, Jhett, Sorrell Lee, and Roany Proffit, Souf (Isaac) Proffit and Bianca Lester.
He is also survived by his favorite remaining go-to mounts: Shiloh, Moriah and Reba.
He is preceded in death by his mother and father, Dorothy and Hight Proffit; his father-in-law, John Hamilton; and his favorite and family-legend horses and dogs: Skipper, Brownie Chug, Cripple Creek, Rebel, Susie, Poco King Prom, Abbie, Calamity, Jello, Tramp, Jude, Rip, Bear, Pickles, Luke, Pan, Belle, Putt, Gruff and Jonesy.
Don’s funeral services and celebration of life will be held at 11 a.m. on Saturday, March 2, at the Evanston South Stake Center. Viewings will be held at the same location the evening before (March 1), beginning at 6 p.m., and prior to the funeral on Saturday, at 10 a.m.
Though we all knew he was mortal, his death came as a surprise and a shock to us, largely because his presence was powerful and constant; he seemed to us larger than life, “10-foot tall and bullet-proof;” a force of nature. He was a living legend. But now, the stories, the adventures — that big, big personality — can move into the true place of legend. Don, one of the last true cowboys (or buckaroos, as he would have preferred to have been called), was a trailblazer. Those of us who knew and loved him got to be along for the ride. His story is pretty much a series of death-defying adventures, up until this last one that he couldn’t quite duck.
“Wow, Dad, what an adventure.”
Don always knew he would be a cowboy it seems, judging from scenes from his youth: choosing to ride a horse while his brother rode a bike, and making sure to brand his stick horses with a car cigarette lighter. Though the little ranch south of Evanston on the Bear River got him started on that path, the cowboy life he’s lived was largely self-taught. He was a self-made man.
Cowboyin’ ended up taking him far out and away from the place he called home, and he probably couldn’t have guessed the adventures and the richness that it would bring.
He grew up on the ranch, learning hard work and frugality at an early age in that hard-scrabble sort of existence. His mom and dad, Hight and Dorothy Proffit, also taught and epitomized autonomy and a can-do attitude, as well as a strong sense of community involvement and love for neighbors, which continued to be a part of Don’s life. He loved meeting people, and he had a way of making them feel special and recognized. “A stranger is a friend you haven’t met yet” seemed to be a guiding theme for his life.
After riding horses to school to some of the one-room school houses around Hilliard, he went to Evanston High, then on to college at the University of Wyoming, where he graduated with a degree in teaching vocational agriculture. He adventured across the world to New Zealand, where he served a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and got to see a lot of the world on his way home.
He married Claudia Ellin Hamilton Dec. 26, 1963, claiming that having an anniversary so close to Christmas ensured that he never got in trouble for forgetting it.
As a young man, newly married, Don ventured to Nevada, living on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation to teach vocational ag. There, his understanding of and interest in the buckaroo way came into being. One day while he was out practicing roping in his yard, an Indian gentleman happened by and watched for a while. Finally, he commented, “You rope like shit. Come to my house, I’ll teach you to rope.” With that his education of a different way of working cattle and utilizing horses started. It focuses on true and more gentle horsemanship, skillful working with cattle and fine horses and tack.
Coming back to this part of Wyoming to work for Deseret Land and Livestock, Broken Circle Cattle Company, and finally to own and run his own cattle, he brought this knowledge with him, sharing this style of ranching and cowboying with neighbors and friends. Each year it has been tradition to invite surrounding ranchers and friends to his branding where roping and riding are practiced by young and old alike.
He liked to see things done right, and insisted that those who worked with him, particularly his kids, learn to handle the horses and cattle just so. This was accomplished at times with some enthusiastic “coaching.” (The idea was that it is more than just getting the job done, it is the manner in which the job is done. He often tried to explain this by asking, “Can you feel that?”) Good horses, good cattle, and good help, especially when it was his family — his wife, son and five daughters — were a major source of joy in his life.
A friend of one of his daughters once came to visit, to see the iconic picture of a cowboy that Don is. Don was asked what he does for fun. “My vocation is my recreation,” was his answer.
Having good, incredible times, as well as difficult and trying times along the way, he has traveled all over the western United States with his herd of, what he calls “gypsy cattle,” trying to find pasture and places to winter. These travels took him from the wide-open desert basins of Nevada, to Antelope Island in the middle of the Great Salt Lake and brought him in contact with a lot of amazing and unforgettable people, whose acquaintances and friendships he prized above all.
At times the difficult moments, which include flying hay to cows trapped on Antelope Island with a WWII bomber, praying for rain so the cows would have something to drink in Opal, dragging mired-down cows out of the sticky mud near Rock Springs, and countless days of being too cold, too hot, too wet and too tired may have seemed to make the cost of this life too high.
A cousin from back East who came to visit agreed with that sentiment after a day or two of following Don around, exclaiming, “The price of beef is too low!” Despite all of this, though, this life held so many joys for him, had a realness to it, and this life was the life he loved.
His family were privileged to be able to join in it with him, including Claudia his wife, whom he first saw at a 4-H activity when she flew by him riding a horse bareback, and ripped off his hat, hooting like a wild thing (so he said).
He got to live the life of his choosing. He loved and lived wholeheartedly, rich and full. People were drawn to him because he was the real deal.
He liked to sum up his sentiments about the wild, fun, trying and soul-filling cowboy life in the conclusion of a poem that he loved by Gary McMahon:
Lord, I’d like to thank you for this cowboying day.
I’ve had me some fun a earnin’ my pay.
And I’d like to think I keep meat on the table
For a country that needs to stay fit and able
It’s a good life you gave me, these horses and cattle,
And I just want to say thanks for my day in the saddle.