Jake Copass | Credit: Courtesy

My students and I had the privilege of interviewing Jake Copass on the campus of Dunn Middle School as part of our oral history project decades ago. In his ever-present Stetson hat and western boots, Jake looked like a Hollywood version of a cowboy, and he had played the role in movies and commercials — but he was the real thing. He began working as a wrangler at the Alisal Guest Ranch in Solvang in 1946, but in addition to his ranch skills, he made quite a name for himself as a cowboy poet. He had a kind heart and a great smile, and he possessed the integrity and grace of a man doing what he was meant to do. He died on June 8, 2006, after a brief bout with leukemia.

Determination tempered with kindness and respect seemed to be key characteristics in Jake’s approach to life. The following words are directly excerpted from his conversation with the kids. He spoke with a wonderful Texas twang:

“I been a cowboy all my life. I was a farm boy, and I grew up in a ranching area, kinda like the Santa Ynez Valley used to be. But you never know when you’re young what’s gonna happen. I always loved horses and cattle, and bein’ in a ranchin’ area give me exposure to people other than my family. My brother-in-law worked at this big ranch, and they had this little colt that had lost its mother when it was born, but they didn’t have time to raise it. My brother-in-law asked me if I would be interested in raisin’ that little colt for him, and so naturally I was. About two years later, a guy come by and offered me $85 for it. No one had heard of a horse bringin’ that much money, so I sold him, no questions asked. Well, my brother-in-law couldn’t wait to tell the people at the ranch how much I got for the colt! So little things can sometimes turn into big things. This colt was responsible for me gettin’ a job at this ranch. They said, ‘If he can sell a bum colt for $85, he can come here and work with some good horses.’ It’s funny how things in life just come around. When they show up at your front door, you gotta recognize them.

“I was in the cattle business for about 40 years. I shod horses, made saddles, and did whatever I had to do to make money to get into the cattle business. And if I had to do it all over, I’d probably do the same thing. It’s a lot of work, and there’s NO money in the cattle business … but it goes back to doin’ what you wanna do.

“The poetry thing kinda changed my whole life. Cowboys had all done poetry at one time or another. When you was there at the ranch, you weren’t gonna go anywhere, and you had to make your own fun. Most of your fun was takin’ pranks on somebody, and maybe once a month or so you’d get to go into town. So a lotta guys would set around the bunkhouse in the evening and play dominoes, or cards, and some would jest doodle or make pictures, or do leatherwork on their own saddles. But a lot of folks would tell stories or make up poems. You can write things with a pencil that you might not say otherwise.

“We got a lotta turmoil in the world today, everybody fightin’ everybody else over one thing or another. It’ll be up to you kids to run the country one of these days — all these other people, they done it — and they never gonna make it any better. We gotta rely on you guys to make it better. So if I do nothin’ else today, maybe I can make you understand that you can do anything that you want to if you make up your mind.

“When I was young, I wanted to be a cowboy. And it’s up to you to make up your mind what you want to do when you grow up, but if you get kinda deviated off this way and off that way, don’t worry about it. They got all kinds of school systems that tells people what they should or shouldn’t do and a lot of people tellin’ you what to do that don’t know any better than you do. It’s up to you to set your own destiny, let your heart be your guide, and do what you wanna do. It don’t make any difference what anybody else thinks as long as you do it and show respect to your fellow man.

“And that’s the bottom line, as far as I’m concerned. You don’t run over anybody to do what you wanna do, but when you set your target to go someplace, don’t let anybody make you change your direction. If you do something you don’t really have your heart in, you’re not gonna be very good at it. So do what you wanna do and do the best you know how without runnin’ over anybody else, and people will respect you.

“I chose to be a cowboy, and I’ve tried to be a good one.”


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