When a cowboy needs to be saved, when children need encouragement to read or when a crowd needs a laugh, only one man can deliver in the unique way that J.W. Winklepleck does. Winklepleck earned his …
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When a cowboy needs to be saved, when children need encouragement to read or when a crowd needs a laugh, only one man can deliver in the unique way that J.W. Winklepleck does. Winklepleck earned his last name at birth, not from rodeo clowning as some have assumed. J.W. doesn’t stand for John Wayne, like he wished it did, but for James Wayne — his parents wanted to put J.W. on the birth certificate to balance out the long last name, but the state of Colorado wouldn’t allow it.
Rodeo clown Winklepleck, a father of three and husband to Elizabeth Stampede’s A/V tech, got his start at his family’s ranch. When he wasn’t tending to the bucking bulls and horses, he would assist in the arena and competed professionally. His father rode and competed as a rodeo cowboy, and Winklepleck hopped onto a bareback “bronc” just like his dad. One day, during a lull in the action, Winklepleck’s dad told him to go out there and entertain the crown since he acted like a clown all of his life anyway.
He traces pieces of his current costume back to his first day. For Halloween earlier that year, Winklepleck had dressed as The Riddler, a villain from the Batman comics, and still had the flashy costume. He painted question marks on his face, and still wears them proudly. The baggies he now wears are oversized Wrangler jeans cutoffs, held up with suspenders, and underneath are wild patterned tights.
But with all of the silliness and jokes, Winklepleck is a hardened cowboy, risking his life in the arena each time he goes out. He calls his barrel (padded inside and out) that sits in the middle of the arena “an island of safety” for him, other bullfighters and cowboys to either dive into or jump behind.
“It can get pretty exciting in my barrel. There’s been some bulls that have taken me from one end of the arena to the other,” Winklepleck said. “It’s a dangerous sport, but it’s an adrenaline-rush type of deal. That’s part of why you like doing it.”
The 42-year-old clown, who lives just north of Strasburg, said the Elizabeth Stampede is one of his favorite rodeos because it’s the most fun, but also because he once spotted a woman hanging advertising banners for her insurance company.
“Back then she was like, `I have nothing to do with dating rodeo cowboys.’ And I said, `Well maybe you haven’t met the right one,’” Winklepleck remembers of meeting the woman he was bound to marry.
He performs at about 40 to 50 rodeos each year, and even though his wife, Brenda, works sound and music at rodeos, their schedules often send them in two different directions. Their daughters are grown, and their son, whom Winklepleck calls his sidekick in the arena, just graduated from college and applied to the Colorado State Patrol Training Academy.
When they’re not at the rodeo, Winklepeck manages his residential construction company, and Brenda runs an insurance agency. Their family has owned Lucky Strike Lanes, an eight-lane bowling alley, for nearly 30 years. They also own a cattle ranch.
Winklepleck finds inspiration for his acts by drumming up old memories of rodeo clown greats and by putting a creative spin on pop culture, like having a horse pull him on a snowboard or the curling routine he started doing after watching the winter Olympics. Most of his attention, when he’s not being chased down by a bull, goes to the kids in the audience.
“I guess you could say it’s a PG version of late-night comedy,” he said.
For kids with special needs, he helps put on a rodeo with stick horses and a pretend rope prior to the real event, and he also rallies area kids to read in a program that gives free Elizabeth Stampede tickets to those who reach their goal.
He remembers during one rodeo a young girl riding a sheep during a mutton bustin’ event. She bonked heads with her woolly steed and looked up with a bloody nose. Winklepleck untied the bandanna he wore on his “baggies” and told her to keep it.
“She made it a point to come back the next day with a brand new bandanna and signed it, and this is coming from the cutest little girl you’d ever seen,” Winklepleck said. And he continued to wear the bandanna proudly tied where the last one had been.
Winklepleck has worked alongside pickup man Dwain Gilbert in the arena for close to 20 years, calling him, “A cowboy with a capital C.”
“He’s good with the crowd and he’s a really good person. He cares for people, you know, and he’s been the father figure to kids through school. He’s more well-rounded than a rodeo bum in the arena,” Gilbert said. “He’s a quick-witted, funny guy.”
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