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Still Joking Around

5/3/2005

Lecile Harris deserves a break. Not the kind where he would ride off into the sunset, but rather one where he's still involved in his craft, yet can enjoy his perch on the catbird seat.

He has earned it.

On this day, his break means he is occupying the passenger's seat in the family truck as his son, Matt, drives the two from their home in Collierville, Tenn., to perform at the Angelina County Benefit Rodeo in Lufkin, Texas. Certainly Lecile has taught his barrelman son a thing or two about rodeo, fighting a bull, working a barrel and putting the crowd on its ear with a unique brand of comedy crafted from hours of watching old Laurel and Hardy tapes.

The elder Harris, now 68, isn't just hanging around. He still walks the walk and talks the talk. And he's not even thinking about life after rodeo.

That's because he enjoys it too much. And, frankly, it's hard for him to imagine existing without something so interwoven into his life. All but 18 of his years have been spent around rodeo arenas across the United States and Canada, entertaining fans of all ages. That's 50 years. Back to the Eisenhower administration, drive-ins and muscle cars.

And Lecile is still going strong.

"I'm doing what I want to do," Harris said. "I'm working the rodeos I want to work, the ones I enjoy. And when I get to where I'm not enjoying it and I can't get a little golf in on the side, then I'll quit. But for now, there's no time frame. My future is taken care of."

Back in 1955, Harris, a gifted athlete with a 6-foot-4, 200-pound frame, had earned a football scholarship at the University of Tennessee-Martin. He also started riding bulls, a career that lasted about three rodeos until a door opened to the rest of his life.

The bullfighter didn't show.

"They say his car broke down, and a guy asked me if I was interested," Harris said. "I said I would help that day. I knew I wouldn't make a living at it. I was big for a bullfighter."

Harris still found a way. For 36 years, he was one of the best. But as he got older, his feet and reflexes slowed. He couldn't escape the way he used to. This became a stark reality, at the age of 52, when he was picked up by a bull and taken through the fence at the Reno (Nev.) Rodeo in 1989.

As he recovered from the multitude of injuries — a broken pelvis in two places, torn up right knee and ankle, a number of broken ribs and a severe concussion — he pondered his next move. Retirement? No way. Rodeo without bullfighting was the answer.

So he returned to life as a clown when he made his return in October 1989. It was hardly the life he remembered when he broke into the business that required one to wear a number of hats in order to merely survive.

"Back when I started, you had to fight bulls and do comedy, or you didn't work," Harris said. "I learned comedy early and that came in handy later. When I became too old to fight bulls, I went into comedy full time."

He said he actually benefited from being laid up for several months. He spent the down time watching vintage Laurel and Hardy tapes, cultivating several ideas from their comedy into routines, some of which he still performs today.

"I was drawing up comedy acts while I was laid up," Harris said. "I got an idea from one of their movies for a car act. It's called the Wrangler roadster, and it's one of my favorite acts."

By 1992, Harris earned honors as PRCA Clown of the Year. He won it again in 1994 and 1996. Despite his age, his act and ability to keep a crowd in stitches keeps him in high demand; he'll work 125 performances in 2005.

"This is what I'm supposed to do," Harris said. "Fortunately, I'm 68 years old, and I'm still going."

Except now, he's not alone. He's quick to give credit to Matt, not only for making the marathon drive from Tennessee to Texas, but also for making a darn good teammate.

"About 20 years ago, he started traveling with me," Harris said. "Comedy and a barrel. That's a pretty good team. I've worked that into my act. He's actually helped elongate my career in the business. It helps, especially when he's driving and I'm sitting back."

But don't start talking about passing the torch just yet. He may be sitting back, but he's far from done.