‘A true legend,’ rodeo cowboy and clown Wilbur Plaugher lived large

Wilbur Plaugher at his Sanger ranch office in 2012.
Wilbur Plaugher at his Sanger ranch office in 2012. Fresno Bee Staff Photo

Rodeo champion and clown Wilbur Plaugher never considered himself retired. A month ago, the 95-year-old cowboy was still riding horseback on his large cattle ranch in the foothills outside Sanger.

“The secret to a long life is to stay busy,” Plaugher told the Bee in 2012. “I have no intention of retiring. If I ever can’t get on a horse, I’ll get on a step ladder. Once I’m on a horse, I’m at home.”

Wilbur Plaugher at his ranch along the Kings River in 2006. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

Mr. Plaugher died Tuesday from surgery complications while recovering in a Clovis nursing home.

His long list of awards includes being inducted into around a dozen rodeo halls of fame throughout a career that started in the 1940s, along with the Fresno County Athletic Hall of Fame.

He really embodies the spirit of the old West and the cowboy pioneering spirit.

Shelly Cotter


“I just feel like he’s the last of his kind – a true legend of this Valley,” daughter Shelly Cotter says. “He walked taller than other men. He was compared to John Wayne all his life. He was in every sense a true cowboy, rancher.”

Like Wayne, Plaugher was also an actor. He starred in the Disney film “Run, Appaloosa, Run,” along with regularly appearing in the television show, “Daniel Boone.”

As a rodeo cowboy, he competed in bull riding, steer wrestling, and saddle and bareback riding. He was the all-around champion of the month-long Madison Square Garden rodeo in 1946.

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As a bullfighter and rodeo clown, his performances were fun and action-packed. Towering at 6-foot-4, he could leap over charging bulls, and his skits included animals such as monkeys and ducks.

“He worked just as hard at entertaining people as he did out on his ranch,” friend and colleague Mark Thompson says, “and really loved people and loved to make people laugh.”

He had a tremendous sense of humor.

Mark Thompson

His wife of 69 years, Ruth Plaugher, recalls a constant gentleman.

“He never fought or argued with anyone through all of our marriage years,” Ruth Plaugher says. “He absolutely would not respond – only in kindness. That’s the kind of heart he had.”

Wilbur Plaugher at his Sanger ranch in 2012. GARY KAZANJIAN Fresno Bee Staff Photo

Mr. Plaugher co-founded the Fellowship of Christian Cowboys in 1971 and led cowboy church services.

Daughter Zoe Ann Pope says her father’s ministry was about getting as many people their “passport to heaven” as possible.

He was a regular at the Clovis Rodeo and was named its grand marshal in 2006.

“I’ve had a wonderful life,” Plaugher told the Bee in 2012, “and everything I’ve done has been fun.”

Carmen George: 559-441-6386, @CarmenGeorge

Wilbur Plaugher

Born: March 13, 1922

Died: Jan. 2, 2018

Residence: Sanger

Occupation: Rodeo cowboy, clown and rancher; Fellowship of Christian Cowboys co-founder

Survivors: Wife Ruth Plaugher; children Randall Plaugher, Zoe Ann Pope, Shelly Cotter and Wesley Plaugher; nine grandchildren; and 19 great-grandchildren.

Services: Celebration of life service, 10 a.m. Jan. 12 at Peoples Church, 7172 N. Cedar Ave. Fresno, followed by burial service at historic Academy Cemetery, 10880 Mendocino Ave., Clovis.