Tony Vagneur: The footsteps before me

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

Born in 1920, he might have had what you’d call an idyllic childhood, but it was tough. He had to ride a horse to the one-room Woody Creek school each day, 4 miles round trip, and there were no snow days back then. The big knuckle on his right thumb was much larger than the one on the left, the result of his horse rearing over on him when a bear ran out in front of them. The saddle horn landed on his thumb, making a mess out of it.

He wouldn’t trade those days for anything, he said.

He was a boy with above-average intellectual capabilities and his mother sent him to Grand Junction to live with her sister’s family, ensuring a better education than what she thought the Aspen schools could provide. In the summers, he’d come back and work the family ranch, spending countless days up in the high country taking care of their cattle herd. He would tie his small violin (in a specially padded case) to the top of the pack and would often entertain Mother Nature’s creatures around the campfire at night.

Going to Grand Junction High School was a stroke of good fortune, it would appear. Not only did he get the expanded educational opportunities his mother desired, he was a running back for the Grand Junction Tigers football team in 1936, the year they went undefeated (13-0) and won their first state championship, beating their opponents by a combined score of 506–0. When they played Salida, excited fans filled 17 railroad passenger cars for the trip down. In a physical exam for football, it was noted that he had a slight “heart murmur.” Nothing to worry about, the doctor said, although in the end, it would eventually kill him.

Riding high from his success in high school, he hit the University of Colorado with a full-ride, four-year academic scholarship and entered the college of electrical engineering. The football team was interested, but he spent his athletic energy in the boxing ring, taking as well as he gave. He had a few stories.

The fall of his junior year, his beloved mother, at 47, succumbed to cancer, leaving behind not only him but his three sisters who ranged in age from a couple of teenagers to a 12-year-old. It got ugly fast. His dad fell into a deep depression, winter was coming, and someone needed to take over management of the ranch. Did he see it coming or did he think it was just a temporary setback? We’ll never know, but he went home to help out.

His mother’s long illness and the hospitalization of his dad, coupled with lousy cattle prices that year and the expense of keeping the ranch going had depleted the bank account by late winter. In response to a letter seeking advice, his dad wrote back from the Denver sanatorium, laying out the scenario: No one would loan money on the land, it wasn’t worthy collateral on a bank loan, but he said, “Maybe you could borrow a little on a couple of the tractors to get us through ’til spring.” This was the state of Pitkin County ranch real estate in 1941.

There’s a tired, old cliche that may be worthy of this situation: “It’s always darkest before the dawn.” It became clear he wasn’t going back to college any time soon, what with three younger sisters to keep organized, and his dad, who would be home soon, was going to need a little reintroduction into a new domain, a world without his wife who had been a true partner in his life.

So, he began staking out his own ground in the world of ranching and soon found that it was to his liking. After the late winter of running short on funds, he and his dad put together a plan of production, a management of the ranch that would prevent that from happening again. They increased the size of the cattle herd, instituted strict crop rotation, upgraded the machinery and enjoyed some tremendously successful years.

One of his cousins, one whose family he lived with in Grand Junction, would later be groomed to become the next president of General Electric, but there didn’t seem to be any sense of missing out on a career that might have paralleled that of his cousin. He married the beautiful, musically talented daughter of a neighboring rancher, started a family, built a new house and settled in for the duration.

He was the kind of man who might have been my best friend, the kind who would try to keep me out of trouble and who would give me support when it looked like I needed it. And all these years later, I guess he really was. He was my dad.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at