PHILIPSBURG — He’s the man of steel, and he’s put up plenty of it at the Phillipsburg rodeo grounds throughout the years.
Cliff Van Kooten has been associated with the rodeo, either on the committee, as chairman or as a volunteer, since 1982.
After graduating from high school in 1960, the Long Island native spent three years in the military before coming back home to marry his wife, Helen, in 1964. The couple moved to Phillipsburg. He went to welding school and worked for the International Harvester dealer in Phillipsburg while he welded on the side.
In 1967, he started his own business, and two years later, he bought the location where Cliff’s Welding is situated, on the west side of Phillipsburg.
In 1982, a Phillipsburg businessman stopped by his shop, offering his rodeo share in the Rodeo Association for $100 to Van Kooten. But Van Kooten couldn’t afford it. “At the time, I didn’t have the money, so he said he’d keep it till I had enough. It wasn’t long, and I had the $100.”
A year later, he was voted on the committee, and from then on, he started rebuilding parts of the rodeo grounds.
First to be rebuilt was the above-the-chute seats. Along with help from Danzy Price and the committee, the old wooden stands were torn down and new steel ones built. Next, the stands on the southeast side were redone, then the northeast side (also known as the rowdy section). After that, Van Kooten started on the west side, with the northwest, the west, and the southwest stands. He often donated his labor, working evenings and weekends, along with Price and other committee members. Price constructed the arena fence, and he and Van Kooten often helped each other out.
Van Kooten served as chairman of the committee for four years (1986-1990). In 1997, he no longer was a committee member.
But he didn’t quit working. He volunteered as the concessions organizer, ordering the food for the concessions stands and lining up the volunteer help.
A year and a half ago, he had heart surgery, which slowed him down. He still orders the concessions supplies but gave up the job of getting volunteer help.
Van Kooten, in 1989, designed and built a self-unloading double-wide hay bale trailer, called Pride of the Prairie. He improved on the design throughout the years, and the trailer, with its ability to haul double the load, is popular across the nation and is sold by dealers from the coast to coast and border to border.
He spent countless hours, a lot of it during the evenings, at the rodeo grounds, building. But Van Kooten enjoyed all of it. He loved working with the committee, and he loved the construction part of it. “I have so much pride out there (at the rodeo grounds), I don’t know if I’ll ever sell my (rodeo) share. I took pride in what I did, and I wanted it to be good.”
One thing he especially appreciates is that people are always willing to help out. When he brings concessions supplies to the rodeo grounds, he rarely has to unload them himself. “Every time I get out there with a load of groceries, there’s always people to help unload.”
Van Kooten left a memento, high above the arena, on the corner of the big west grandstands: a sign that reads “The Man of Steel – Cliff’s Welding.” It’s a tribute to one of the many loyal volunteers who has made the Phillipsburg Rodeo possible, through his hard work and faithfulness.
Kansas Biggest Rodeo is Aug. 2 to 4 and begins at 8 p.m. each day. Tickets are still available and range in price from $15 to $18 for adults and $11 to $14 for children ages 3 to12. They can be purchased at Heritage Insurance, 685 Third in Phillipsburg, and over the phone (785) 543-2448. They also can be purchased at the gate, until they are sold out.
For more information, visit www.KansasBiggestRodeo.com.