On Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, after a long life well-lived, Kenton “Kent” Earl Fillingham, loving husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, entered the rodeo in the sky at the age of 89 due to COVID complications.
Kent was born on May 20, 1931, in Huntington Park, California.
He had a passion for rodeo and horses from a young age. It all started when he would sneak under the fence and into his hometown rodeo as a kid. He idolized rodeo cowboys and chose to become one at 13 years old. He sold a paint mare that he broke for $87, bought a bus ticket to Cheyenne, Wyoming, and left home behind.
Kent landed a ranching job in Laramie and entered his first rodeo at age 14. He didn’t have a bull rope, so he used a lead rope. He managed to “ride the sucker” and was hooked. He stayed around Wyoming for a couple more years ranching and breaking colts before moving to Arizona to pursue his rodeo dreams.
Kent went on to compete in bull riding, saddle bronc, bareback, and steer wrestling. In 1947, he entered his first RCA rodeo in Albuquerque after buying his card for $10. Unfortunately, his initial professional debut was short-lived; he broke his leg on his first professional ride. But as soon as he could, he was on the road again, traveling to Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio, San Francisco, and everywhere in between up into the later part of the 1950s.
Perhaps Kent’s most notable rodeo accolade came in 1954 at Madison Square Garden when he became the World Champion wild horse race rider, standing beside fellow rodeo greats: Casey Tibbs, Gene Pruitt, and Jim Shoulders. But as with most cowboys, Kent realized it would be quite challenging to raise a family on a rodeo dime.
After marrying Dorothy (his loving wife of 60 years) on May 21, 1960, and learning a family was coming, he hung up the spurs — at least for a while. This was a decision that Kent would never regret. He spent cherished time with their five children: Dan, Mark, Judy, Jay, and Will.
After retiring from rodeo, Kent spent time working as a trucker and performing various other jobs for a few years. In the 1960s, he was hired to help build the Yellowtail Dam and moved his family to Hardin, Montana.
He developed an interest in civil engineering and moved to Portland to attend college. After college, he moved his family back to Montana, where he would work at various mines and road construction projects utilizing his civil engineering knowledge.
He ran a small operation of registered long-horned cattle on the side. After retiring from mining, he started his Big Sky Clicket Die Company, where he designed dies for clickers to cut out leather saddle and tack parts. In the late 1980s, Kent again developed the rodeo itch. Only this time, in the calf and team roping.
Kent dusted off the spurs in 1989 and loaded up Dorothy in his pickup, and headed across the country competing in the National Senior Pro Rodeo Association. Equipped with a pickup, a camper, and a loaded bumper pull horse trailer, the two would travel the country. When they were not on the road, they called Arizona home.
Never one to sit still, Kent started a business making hand-braided rodeo tack that he would sell on the road. In 1996, Kent and Dorothy decided to venture to De Leon, Texas, which immediately became their home.
In Texas, Kent spent his days turning cutting horses into calf horses. Kent always had an unmatched connection with horses and the ability to get everything possible out of one. Of all the horses, Baby Doll was the closest to his heart. Not one for mares, Kent lucked into her when a friend left her tied to his fence as a 3-year-old. Baby Doll was a full sister to former horse of the year “Pearl.”
Kent and Baby Doll formed an inseparable bond and he went on to compete on her for 15 straight years and, in his words, “won everything that an old man could win in Texas.” We have the buckles as proof! Legend has it that the duo tied an 8-second calf when Kent was pushing 80.
Aside from Baby Doll, Kent trained countless championship quality horses that are still on the PRCA trail today. Including two, Tuffy and Ghost, that he took great pride in watching his grandson, Jesse Medearis, compete on.
Demonstrating his grit and cowboy mentality, Kent was still stepping off calf horses at 86 years old. Unfortunately, a calf stopped in front of him causing his horse to roll on him, and severely broke his leg. While on the verge of losing his leg, Kent decided he’d buy two 3-year-old cutting horses to train. Sure enough, a few months later, he was saddling his horse with a prosthetic leg.
At 89 years old, Kent finally had to make the switch back to team roping and enjoyed roping the Heel-O-Matic with his good friend, Jim LaFrance, and Jim’s grandchildren.
Kent was able to spend his last few years with his family and friends in Billings, Montana. Kind, compassionate, determined, loving, hard-working, caring, tough, and gritty are all words to remember Kent Fillingham by. He left a legacy in and out of the arena that his family and friends will never forget.
Kent was preceded in death by his parents, Stratton Fillingham and Helen Fillingham; his brothers, Don and Bob; and his son, Mark Fillingham.
He is survived by his wife, Dorothy; brother, Larry Fillingham; his children, Dan (Peggy) Fillingham, Judy (Jim) Parker, Jay (Lori) Fillingham, and Will (Juniece) Fillingham; and his many grandchildren, and great-grandchildren whom he dearly loved spending time with, and you could count on a lesson or two on riding a horse.
He was loved by all who knew him and he will be greatly missed. Heaven has gained a kind soul and one of the last of his kind!
To leave condolences for the family, please visit www.cfgbillings.com
Posted online on November 06, 2020