Monday, August 20, 2007

"Colen Sweeten Remembered" By: Wayne Nelson

Just inside the lobby of the Convention Center in Elko back in 1991, there was a bulletin board where, if you had extra tickets to one of the many wonderful events put on by the Folklife Center, you could get your money back by advertising them there. I desperately wanted to see the night show in the main auditorium which had long since been sold out, and was scanning the board for the fifth or sixth time that Saturday morning. Just as I was about to give up, a man in advancing years approached and pinned up an extra ticket to the night show. I immediately reached for my wallet and snagged that ticket, feeling like I’d just won the Lotto! I thanked him profusely and we introduced ourselves. His firm, lingering handshake was full of warmth. As we chatted, I looked into a friendly face composed of features that bespoke strength, wisdom, determination and the ruggedness needed to carve out a living in our harsh, but beautiful, West. Most notable of all was the pair of honest, unassuming eyes, framed by a pair of horn rimmed glasses, which embellished an already owlish appearance, shaded by a pair of bristling, bushy eyebrows. A wide, thinlipped mouth that seemed always ready to break into a quick and friendly smile, then return to more serious subjects. High cheekbones and a strong chin above a sinewy, corded neck.

Except for the plain western cut business suit, you’d think he’d just stepped off a tractor in a hayfield or a well trained cow horse.

He had that extra ticket because his wife, Ruth, was needed at home. The seats were numbered with the tickets so we sat together and enjoyed the show, which featured a Mexican horse trainer who taught his mounts to dance out on the stage on two legs! Colen whispered to me how intently the horses watched their trainer, how important it was to keep the attention of an animal to perform such feats.

After the show we talked further, traded tapes, and when he found out that I, too, was an Idahoan, he suggested joining Cowboy Poets of Idaho. I did, and it made one of the most rewarding changes in my life.

Colen knew horses. He grew up at a time when all the work was done by them. He was a small boy in the Curlew Valley in the 1920’s when a J.C. Penney store first opened up in Malad. Colen needed shoes, so a rare trip to town was in order. There was a big selection of colors available and when the clerk asked the tiny boy which ones he liked best, he replied, “The sorrel pair!”
The clerk burst out laughing and it embarrassed Colen, who at that tender age, knew no other way to describe colors. They were better looking than the blacks or bays or palominos, or even the buckskins!

Growing up on a ranch that his father had homesteaded in the Curlew Valley nurtured the youngster to early manhood. He was called to serve his country in World War Two as a radar operator. He returned afterwards to farming and livestock. Never idle with his body or his mind, he continued his education when and where he could. A number of part time jobs kept him occupied, and were the subject of many funny and fascinating stories. One in particular was when he and his brother, George delivered rural kids to school in a dilapidated old bus that was made before the fuel pump was developed. The gas was all gravity fed from the higher than engine fuel tank. To keep the engine from stalling out when they came to those steep South Idaho hills, one would drive while the other sat on the fender, pouring gas into the carburetor!

Colen wrote poetry for and about cow people. His first book of Cowboy Poetry ( that I have ) was first published in 1980, five years before the first groundbreaking Elko Gathering, for which he was present. He was one of the few cowboy poets to be featured on the Johnny Carson Show, and has shared the stage with Baxter Black, Waddy Mitchell, Wally McRea, and often Michael Martin Murphy, who displayed his fondness for Colen by writing the forward in “Hoofprints and Heartbeats”, which Colen published in 1996.

History was a subject that Colen studied with great zeal. He burned much midnight oil poring over old documents which he came across often in his 21 years as the Oneida County Clerk, finding time to write several books and articles of historical nature, mostly about the Curlew Valley and the country around Holbrook, his boyhood home.

Patriotism ran deep in Colen Sweeten. He lamented to me on the phone one day about returning an American Flag to the store when he found it was made in China. He gave many presentations on patriotic stories to a wide variety of audiences.

Colen was deeply spiritual. He worshipped, taught, preached, counseled and led his fellow parishioners with a rock solid faith in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Colen loved kids. His face always lit up when they were around. They were always the first ones he talked to in a roomful of people. To illustrate I’ll give an excerpt from his book, “Father and Son” Copyright 1980:

“The other night as I was about to retire, I walked into the bedroom where my small son was undressing. As he tugged at his shoe, he looked up and said, ‘Next time we sleep out in the mountains, Dad, I am going to sleep in the old sleeping bag and let you try the new one. It sure is neat!’

This unexpected outburst set me back a little. I started to speak, then something stopped me. I just looked at him. I think I was about to say something like this:
‘Oh, no, that old sleeping bag was good enough for me in the war, it was good enough for Scout Master, and it was just fine for elk hunting trips into the wilds. I like it. You keep the new one.’

I looked down at the 8-year old boy pulling at his shoelace. At that moment he looked so unselfish and so satisfied that it finally struck me that this was a great moment for him.
It could be a great opportunity for me, also. I put my hand on his head and gently ruffled his hair.
‘Thanks,’ I said, ‘I’d like that very much. It was nice of you to think of it.”

Colen H. Sweeten rode across the “Great Divide” August 15, 2007. He led a long life filled with love for God’s creatures, his fellow man, and the wide open spaces that we all write, recite and sing about. He leaves a legacy that we can only strive to fill. His words and the hoofbeats of his many ponies will echo forever in the Curlew Valley and in our hearts.

Wayne Nelson August 19, 2007


Donna Hatton said...

Goodbye Until Tomorrow

We met at the first Cedar City Cowboy Poetry Rodeo. He was laconic, laid
back, kind, gentle, fatherly, I fell in love with him and learned from him. To
say that he will be missed cannot express the empty place I feel in my soul
tonight. He was a remarkable person, tenderhearted, with a surprising wit and
forever a gentleman. I am grateful for the time we spent together in Cedar
City this March and for the precious time shared in a patriotic session at the
Cedar City Cowboy Poetry Gathering. He spoke of his love for his beloved
country and shed tears for the men and women who have given their lives to protect
her. He was a man of honor, conscience, devotion to his creator, his church,
his family and he leaves us with a legacy to be passed to the generations.
Tonight I am remembering a great man, my friend, Colen Sweeten. Tom and I send
our respects to his family and to his many friends. Sincerely, Donna Hatton

Smoke Wade said...

Ride Well, Colen Sweeten

1919 - 2007

Upon returning from a recent trip to California, I was saddened to find my "Inbox" loaded with emails telling of the passing and of the funeral of Cowboy Poet and friend, Colen Sweeten Jr.

It would be easy to give testimony to his abilities and accomplishments as a cowboy poet, for he set the standard for achievement in cowboy poetry. It could easily be said that Colen raised the bar for all aspiring cowboy poets. Yet, it is something else that I will miss.

I will miss the way that Colen Sweeten shared life with others. A casual "hello" could turn into an hour of exchanged conversation. Whether it was on the bench in front of Houston's Trails End Restaurant in Kanab, UT, or standing on a frozen street corner in Elko, NV, Colen would take the time to share life. to swap yarns about cows, horses and people. He would take the time to make others feel good with words of encouragement and acknowledgment of their accomplishments. It is this sharing of friendship that I will miss now that Colen is off riding another range.

Perhaps most, I will cherish the book he gave me, Father & Son by Colen H. Sweeten Jr. We had briefly shared thoughts and feelings on the loss of a child. Like magic, Colen produced the book of poetry and photos and asked me to take it. Once again he had shared life in the special way that only Colen could do.

My condolences and heart felt sympathy go out to Colen's loved ones during their time of loss and sorrow. His passing will shake the very roots of Cowboy Poetry, and from those roots perhaps something that Colen taught us will grow.

Ride well, Colen Sweeten - ride well.

Smoke Wade