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In the saddle 50 years, performer 'Cowboy Tom' reflects

SAN ANTONIO ­— Tom Glasgow apologizes for being out of practice, but he still manages a few roping tricks on the narrow porch of his mobile home off Vineland Street.

He spryly hops inside the spinning rope, then manipulates it the length of his wiry 5-foot, 7-inch frame. The trick goes well until the rope catches the lip of a chair and plops to the floor.

"I'm a little rusty," he says before starting again.

At 63, "Cowboy Tom" has a lifetime of roping tricks under his belt.

He worked the rodeo circuit for 12 years, appeared in a couple dozen TV commercials with other cowboys and wrangled horses on movie sets and for wealthy ranchers in southern California, where he grew up.

He still shoes horses, a skill he picked up in his 20s, and occasionally performs Wild West shows, doing roping and riding tricks and shooting out balloons at charity balls as well as at the annual San Antonio Rattlesnake Festival.

But after 50 years in the saddle there's a sense retirement is creeping up. He feels it in his bones, especially in the mornings. There's also a sense that he might be among the last generation of cowboy performers, which bothers him.

He's heartened by rodeo's enduring popularity but worries traditional cowboy performing — expert roping, riding, shooting and whip cracking — will fade as developers swallow up ranches and farms.

"You have people in cities and people in rural areas, and the people in cities just don't understand the rural areas," he says quietly. "It's a loss of a culture. It's changing. Everything is changing."

His home sits at the end of a sandy driveway shaded by oaks and pine trees. There's a horse pen out front with a gray 12-year-old gelding named Eager and stables in the backyard. Inside, a dozen or so framed pictures and news clippings hang on paneled walls: a lifetime around horses, ranches and rodeos.

Glasgow grins when asked about a few, like those of him astride a bucking bronco or chasing a calf. More pictures fill two scrapbooks on the kitchen table.

There's one of him wrestling a bear — a one-time job, he says, shaking his head at the absurdity of it. Another has him atop a massive white bull. Glasgow hangs on, his feet flying, as the animal lunges forward.

One bull almost killed him. He was competing in Norco, Calif., in 1978 at the start of rodeo season when he was thrown and kicked in the face, neck and chest, breaking his jaw, larynx, nose and breastbone.

Medics performed a tracheotomy to help him breathe. His tongue was split in half, filling his mouth with blood. Three months later, he was back riding broncs — but not bulls.

"After that I lost my desire to ride bulls," he said. "It's really a young man's sport."

For Glasgow, who dropped out of high school, performing has always been part of his life. Most of that time, it dovetailed with his love of horses, whether competing in rodeos or shoeing and tending to the animals at ranches and race tracks. That love remains his life's focus.

"I wanted to be a cowboy as a kid and that's what I did," he said.

For a few years he worked at Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park, Calif., "robbing stage coaches and holding up trains" for park visitors.

More pictures show him in a boxing ring, also in southern California, taking on "Hollywood Johnson." He fought three bouts, winning all, but gave up after realizing "as soon as I met a guy in better shape than me, I'd get my clock cleaned."

"I was always reinventing myself," he said.

As a teenager 50 years ago, he landed his first job as a groom at the A-Bar T Stables in Santa Ana, Calif. In 1990, he ended up in Florida, tending to horses and shoeing at Tampa Bay Downs.

He moved to Florida to be close to his brother after a bad breakup. He auditioned for a few acting gigs at the Disney-MGM Studios in Orlando but gave up after several rejections.

Reinventing himself again, he opted to create his own act — Cowboy Tom's Wild West Show — and tour the state.

He rode standing on horses and performed roping and shooting tricks. He also incorporated a Jack Russell terrier — as well as corny humor — into the act.

He'd wager his cowboy hat that the tiny dog could jump through a hoop above his head. Then he would lie down so the hoop, still over his head, sat 6 inches off the ground. The dog would run over, lift its leg, release a stream onto the hat and then scamper off.

"Nobody wanted the hat after that."

Glasgow grins at the memory.

The show ran for 20 years. He was a regular at the Florida State Fair in Tampa where he met Les McDowell, "the cowboy poet" and former radio personality, who became a close friend and led him down yet another path.

In 2010, after McDowell lost his job at Tampa country-western station WFUS-FM 103.5, he started a TV show set in the 1880s called Dry Creek. The 30-minute program runs on the Blue Highway network.

Needing cowboy actors, McDowell called on his longtime friend.

"Tom has a cowboy's heart," he said. "A lot of folks wear the hat, but Tom deserves it. He keeps the west alive. He's a true western-eer. He's the real deal."

The hope, McDowell said, is that the show, part Little House on the Prairie and part Lonesome Dove, attracts enough viewers to afford it a Hollywood-scale production budget.

"Our main objective is to bring back wholesome family entertainment that the family can watch," said McDowell, the show's writer and producer.

Dry Creek shoots year-round in Parrish on a set composed of mostly donated materials and costumes. Glasgow plays Cowboy Tom, a ranch foreman.

He tries to keep his days free in case he's needed on set. The crew is in post-production on its first hourlong episode titled "The Doll." McDowell is shopping it to networks in hopes of landing a 12- or 24-episode contract.

Glasgow wants to stay with the program. He still makes personal appearances as Cowboy Tom and gets calls for charity benefits and festivals — he'll be at the Rattlesnake Festival in October— but admits the job is getting tougher as he grows older.

"I can't trick rope as much as I could," he said. "I have to practice."

But even if cowboy performing gets too much, there's always his fallback: shoeing horses. He never tires of it.

"It's never been a job to me. I just love what I'm doing," he said. "They say that with old horses you have to keep them active or they'll die. I think it's the same with cowboys. You have to stay active, and that's why I stay active."

Contact Rich Shopes at rshopes@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6236. Follow @richshopes.

In the saddle 50 years, performer 'Cowboy Tom' reflects 07/10/14 [Last modified: Thursday, July 10, 2014 10:59am]

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