Sometimes dreams manifest themselves in funny ways.
You dream of being an astronaut, but end up working as an air-traffic controller.
You have visions of playing center field for the New York Yankees, only to end up in the press box, writing about them.
Or, like so many young boys, you put on some tiny boots and some tiny spurs and a tiny hat and call yourself a cowboy, like Jose Calderon.
He even went on to ride bulls, though he never quite made it to the grand stage, the pro circuit. His time came and went like a tumbleweed passing through a town. But the dream never quite went away. It only shifted forms.
And now, as the recently named chairman of the Board of Directors for the Fiesta de los Vaqueros Tucson Rodeo Committee, he’s found his calling.
“Other than my kids being born, this is the biggest thing that’s happened to me in my life,” Calderon said over lunch this week. “To me, I hit what I missed about my own rodeo career. I didn’t get to compete, but this is living out the dream.”
So much of current rodeo royalty has lasso lineage that goes back decades, but Calderon stumbled into the sport almost blindly.
He was born and raised in Tucson – “I’ll never leave,” he says, “I’m a Tucsonan for life,” – but his parents and siblings had no real passion for the sport or lifestyle. Around his time at Santa Rita High School in the early ’80s, he started hanging out with some buddies who ranched and rode, and he meandered to a couple jackpot rodeos. He’d always been intrigued by the cowboy lifestyle, so in his early 20s, he caught on as a ranch hand.
He loved the people, the outdoors, the work. Calderon hopped on a bull for the first time and felt the thrill. He started working the Southwestern Rodeo Association circuit and had aspirations of earning his professional tour card, but real life interrupted. He wanted kids, a family, and, quite frankly, “I knew I wasn’t going to get to the pro level.”
And, “Let’s face it,” he said, “I had more hospital bills than winnings. That’s when I knew I had to get out now.”
But the passion lingered. In 2006, after attending the rodeo for decades, he finally mustered up the courage to inquire about volunteering for the committee. He spoke with committee member Jack Pennington, who handed him a card and told him to show up in August.
“I went there that first day all dressed up, nice boots, nice hat, and there we were with shovels and rakes,” Calderon said.
He started as a volunteer, moved up to associate a year later and then became a member of the Board of Directors in 2008. From there, he served as an executive committee member and as vice chair before taking on this role.
“He is so excited about this opportunity that sometimes we have to bring him back down to earth,” Tucson Rodeo General Manager Gary Williams said.
“He’s got a lot of good ideas and as much passion for what we do as anyone we’ve ever seen.”
“I knew what I wanted, so my drive was strong,” Calderon added. “I told myself I knew one day I wanted to run this place.”
And he will, spending more time with the rodeo over the next three years — the chairman position is a three-year term — than he will in his own work.
His younger brother, Ron Calderon, isn’t surprised.
“He’s always been an outdoorsy kind of person hunting and fishing — and he got into bull riding,” said Ron, who watched Jose ride a bull once, get hung up by the horns and never watched again.
“But I think his true passion is just being around other people, and I think he loves to volunteer. Rodeo is a really nice community, and it’s easy for him to pour himself into it. It was natural for him.”
It’s nice to imagine the rodeo popping up once a year out of thin air, requiring nothing more than a booth with some popcorn and beer and a rank bull with snot shooting out of its nose.
But as Calderon attests, this is no quick-fix operation.
“I’ll be at the rodeo grounds 250 times a year,” he said. “When a rodeo ends, we’re right back in the saddle getting ready for next year.
“Actually, when a rodeo is going on, we’re already thinking about next year. Contractors, personnel, announcers, sponsors — it’s a huge, huge operation, it really is.”
General Manager Williams said that every facet of the rodeo — from ticket sales to parking to concessions to budgets and more — has a group of volunteers that organizes and handles that one responsibility. The financial report for the rodeo is 79 pages long.
You can just imagine the kind of dedication and teamwork it takes to pull off the thing, and for the volunteers, it comes down to preserving not only a sport but a community and a way of life.
“The men and women we have, they all could be doing something else with their lives,” Williams said. “They could be volunteering with other really worthwhile organizations in Tucson.
“But it seems like once they get hooked, there’s no going back. You could probably say the same for any volunteers for any rodeo in the United States — they realize they’re not just representing themselves, they’re representing a tradition that goes back 92 years. In this day and age, how many people can say that?”
For Calderon, he sees his time spent with the rodeo as upholding a legacy.
He is a passionate man. He was recently married to a woman named Pam — “I call her Pamcakes,” he adds — and he wrote a song for her and sang it at their wedding. If he’s in, he’s in all the way.
It’s no different with the rodeo.
“I know the responsibility and the respect I have for this,” he said.
“I don’t feel a weight on my shoulders because our committee is that good; I don’t have that pressure. But It’s a 365-day thing for me. Every day I wake up, I think about the rodeo. Every night I go to sleep thinking about the rodeo. It just doesn’t stop.”