I’ve known a lot of funny people in my life. Rodney Nelson was probably the funniest. A cowboy rancher from down in the Heart River Valley west of Mandan, Rodney succumbed to cancer yesterday. He was just 71 years old. Now 24 hour later, wherever he is, he’s making an audience laugh.
You might remember Rodney as a cowboy poet. He was a good one. He became one of the stars of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada. And more importantly for North Dakotans, he was a regular at the Dakota Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Medora every Memorial Day weekend.
Rodney was a true North Dakota icon. I remember how proud all of North Dakota was when Rodney got invited to appear on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson during North Dakota’s Centennial year of 1989. Johnny’s other guest that night was Bob Hope. They were equally funny, as I recall.
Rodney got to say one of his poems, and I think he wrote one just for the show. I don’t have a copy of it, but I can remember the last two lines. When he was younger, if you would look at him for a while, you could see Rodney bore a striking resemblance to Roy Rogers. Rodney sat and talked with Johnny for a bit that night and talked about his home state’s efforts to change its name from North Dakota to just Dakota, and then he took the stage with his big tan cowboy hat pulled down a bit over his eyes, and as he got to the end of the poem, he tipped that hat back and said “Do I look a lot like Roy Rogers, or does Roy look a lot like me?”
Johnny let out a big laugh and the crowd clapped enthusiastically. Rodney did his home state of North Dakota, or Dakota, proud.
Rodney and Teri’s ranch was down near Almont, a few miles south of Interstate 94. Sometime during the late 20th century, I think it was during Ed Schafer’s terms as Governor, the state’s Highway Department built a couple new rest areas on I-94 not far from where Rodney got on the freeway on infrequent trips to town. They were pretty nice rest areas, about as nice as any ever built here, and Rodney thought they were a bit overblown. He called them “Million-Dollar Biffys.”
He wrote about them once in his regular column in the Farm and Ranch Guide. He wasn’t a big fan of government extravagance. He did a nice little rant when he heard the state was going to spend $5 million on a new governor’s residence.
Rodney first got cancer in his eye back in 2014, and it was treated successfully at Mayo Clinic. But the cancer scare seemed to make him old. A bad heart problem a couple years later sent him to the ER, got him a helicopter ride, and finally a pacemaker to keep him going. Best news about that, he said, was the doctor told him not to lift anything that weighed more than four pounds. “But he never said anything about riding broncs,” Rodney wrote in one of his columns.
Rodney had a soft side, too, and he wrote a wonderful children’s book, Wilbur’s Christmas Gift, available in most North Dakota bookstores and from most online booksellers. It makes a nice Christmas present for grandkids.
I regret that as we both became older and spent more time at home, our paths didn’t cross very often. But Rodney was a good friend. To a LOT of people. We’ll all miss him. When the cancer came back earlier this year, he faced it head-on. But it got the best of him this week. Best wishes to Teri and Annika and Lafe. Our prayers are with you.
I’m going to share some video clips and stories here and just shut up and let Rodney talk. He was way more interesting than me.
Here’s a poem he said at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering about a cowboy who ran out of snuff in a blizzard.
This one’s about his long-suffering wife, Teri.
Here’s a story in one of his weekly columns about growing old. “My toenails seem to grow farther and farther away from my eyes and my hands.”
We’re sad to see Old Rodney go, but any time you’re feeling low, just Google him. You’ll find plenty of things to make you smile.