SANGER, CA – Wilbur Plaugher, one of rodeo’s most unique characters and a ProRodeo Hall of Famer, passed away Jan. 2 in Sanger, Calif. He was 95.
Plaugher turned to rodeo to make more money as a young adult and that trail eventually led to his induction into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in 1990. It was a long road to that honor, as he excelled as both a contestant and clown. He also co-founded the Fellowship of Christian Cowboys.
“It’s been a great life, and I still have a great life,” he said in a May 9, 2016, issue of the ProRodeo Sports News. “Life on this Earth is short, and it all went by too quickly. I’ve just now gotten the hang of stuff, and I’d like to stick around another 30 years.”
Plaugher first made his name in rodeo in 1946 when he was crowned all-around champion at the prestigious Madison Square Garden rodeo in New York City. He finished fourth in the steer wrestling world standings that year and experienced a life-changing moment when he filled in as a bullfighter at a rodeo.
That led to him also becoming a rodeo clown, like his fellow bronc rider and friend Slim Pickens, who joined Plaugher in the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in 2005.
“Slim wanted to be a clown and I said, ‘Why do you want to do a stupid thing like that?’” Plaugher said with a laugh. “When I started doing the bullfighting just to help save the guys, they wanted me to be a clown, too.
“I put the makeup on and thought of some funny things to do. I couldn’t believe people were laughing at me. I guess that bug bit me right there. From then on, it was all I could think about. I did everything from playing Liberace to Michael Jackson, all of ’em. I had trained goats, chimpanzees, dogs, roosters, mules. I loved every bit of it.”
He did it so well that in 1982, at the age of 60, he was named PRCA Clown of the Year.
As a contestant, Plaugher finished second in the world standings in 1958 - $420 behind gold buckle winner Jim Bynum - despite going to fewer rodeos than his fellow bulldoggers.
“I could only work one rodeo a week, wherever I was clowning, while most of those guys were going to two or three a week,” Plaugher said. “I made money competing and I had a contract for being a clown; that’s how I got ahead.”
He was seventh in the world standings in 1953, fourth in ‘55, third in ‘57 and ninth in ‘59.
Plaugher was born March 13, 1922, in Lima, Ohio, but his family moved to California when he was 4.
With the money he earned at Madison Square Garden in 1946, Plaugher went back to California and bought a ranch.
“That rodeo lasted a month, and I made enough money at Madison Square Garden that year to come home and pay for over half of my 550-acre ranch,” he said in the PSN article. “Of course, land was a lot cheaper back then. Everything I’ve got today came from rodeo.”
Plaugher’s life intersected with many famous people. He worked for ProRodeo Hall of Famer Harry Rowell and for world champion roper Vern Castro. He enlisted in the Air Force during World War II and worked in the shipyards. On weekends, he’d wear his uniform and hitchhike to rodeos to compete.
He met television actor Fess Parker at a rodeo and became friends. He appeared with Parker, the star of Daniel Boone, in several episodes.