Mr. Rodeo

A third-generation cowboy, Ruben Lamb has done more than his part to keep that heritage alive in Ocala/Marion County.

A formidable combination of the gift of gab, cowboy charm aplenty and a relentless work ethic makes Ruben Lamb a tough man to say no to on any given day. Lamb used those talents to sell the idea that became the reality of not one, but two Ocala-based professional rodeos. And just for fun, Lamb also convinced the Ocala City Council that an annual downtown cattle drive would be a good thing too.

Lamb was the driving force in establishing the Ocala Shrine Rodeo in 1983, the Southeastern Pro Rodeo in 1994 and the Downtown Ocala Cattle Drive and Cowboy Roundup in 2013. All three events are still going strong to this day.

Ask Lamb, 82, why he’s devoted so much of his life to these endeavors and he answers in his soft cowboy drawl, “I was born into the cowboy life. My grandfather and father were working cowboys. It’s in my blood.”

In fact, on Lamb’s handwritten birth certificate, his father Virgil’s profession is listed as cow puncher.

“My father worked for the Norris Cattle Company, which was one of the biggest cattle ranching operations in Florida for decades. When I was born, he and my mother were living in a cattle camp in the woods in Levy County. Cowboys and their families lived in small cracker houses close to cow pens, where the free-range cattle were brought in for doctoring,” shares Lamb. “When my mother, Marie, was ready to give birth to me, she was taken to my aunt’s house in between Chiefland and Rosewood while my father rode his horse to get the doctor.”

Once Lamb was born, it was back to the cow camp until the family soon moved to Oxford in Sumter County. His father continued doing cowboy work on ranch land that is now The Villages.

“I got my first horse when I was 3, while we lived in Oxford,” recalls Lamb. “She was a little gray mare. Our little cracker house sat in the middle of a cow pasture and I would ride her all around there.”

When he was 5, Lamb, his sister, Juanita, and mother moved to Ocala, settling into a one-bedroom house near what is now the Ocala Golf Club. 

“My father had a bad case of wanderlust, so he had left the family before we moved to Ocala,” says Lamb. “My mother would walk downtown to work while my sister and I went to school. It was a hard time. And during that time, my mother actually divorced my father and we didn’t expect to ever see him again.”

But, when Lamb was 14, his father returned and his parents remarried. And it was Lamb’s father who took him to his first rodeo at the Southeastern Livestock Pavilion.

“Of course, I had grown up on cattle ranches, but watching a rodeo was a whole different thing,” notes Lamb, whose sharp blue eyes light up at the memory. “It was so exciting, and I loved every minute of it.”

Little did Lamb know at the time how that first rodeo at the pavilion would play a role in his life’s path.

Twists Of Fate

After graduating from Ocala High School and a year of community college, Lamb enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1961.

“I served two years with the 82nd Airborne Division stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina,” he notes. “I came back to Ocala in 1963 with the intention of re-enlisting just as Vietnam was brewing. But love got in the way.”

Lamb walked into what was then the M&C Bank in downtown Ocala to inquire about a job in the bookkeeping department. He made eye contact across the room with a woman named Diana Ruff, who was a bookkeeper, and an immediate connection was made. Instead of re-enlisting, Lamb took the job.

“Diana would later tell me that when she saw me, she told her co-worker that I was the man she was gonna marry,” says Lamb with a chuckle. “I was smitten too, and although there was a rule against bank employees dating, we did. I’d leave her little notes on the windshield of her car; she still has some of them to this day.”

With their romance becoming more and more obvious to his boss, Lamb left at the end of his 90-day probationary period. He went to work for U.S. Concrete Pipe in the insurance/payroll department. He and Diana were married on April 4th, 1964.

“The job was a good steady one, but it was just too much sitting in a chair,” says Lamb. “I’d rather be sitting in a saddle. So, on weekends and vacations, I did cowboy work for A Bar B Ranch and that soon became my full-time job.”

A Bar B Ranch was a sprawling cattle operation that spanned both sides of U.S. Highway 27, where Ocala Palms and Publix are now.

“We did all the cattle work on horseback and with cow dogs,” says Lamb with a grin. “We would drive the cattle back and forth across Highway 27. Of course, then it was just a two-lane road.”

In 1977, while working for A Bar B Ranch, Lamb was involved with bringing the first Florida High School Rodeo Association rodeo to the Southeastern Livestock Pavilion (SELP). Two years later, and after 16 years with A Bar B Ranch, Lamb was offered a job managing the SELP in 1979.

“At the time, the SELP was independently managed by the Southeastern Livestock Association. Jimmy Glisson Sr. was the president,” explains Lamb. “I walked into the SELP office and there was a set of keys waiting for me. I picked up the keys and went to work. My job included everything from picking up the trash to coordinating events.”

But Lamb’s work ethic didn’t allow him to work just one job.

“I worked at SELP on Friday through Monday and had a route for Bryant Exterminating on Tuesday through Thursday. I also mixed in cowboy day work. I’d get a call from ranches like the Baldwin Ranch to come in for day work,” recalls Lamb, adding with a shrug. “For the greater part of my life, I worked several jobs at a time, seven days a week, to earn money for my family.”

Indeed, Lamb would work 16 years for SELP and 25 years for Bryant Exterminating.

Rodeo Time

The same year that Lamb went to work for SELP, he also joined the Ocala Shrine Club and soon he had a unique fundraising idea for the charitable organization.

“At the time, the main fundraising done by the Shrine Club was for members to stand on street corners with buckets to collect donations,” he says. “Having seen the success of the high school rodeos at the SELP, I had the idea of a rodeo fundraiser for the Shrine Club. Many of my fellow members were skeptical, but I went ahead with the idea.”

Of course, the Shrine Club had no money to finance a rodeo, but that didn’t deter Lamb.

“I approached Shrine Club member George McQuay, the president of First Florida National Bank,” he recalls. “I told George that I needed to open a checking account for the rodeo but didn’t have any money. But if the bank would be a ticket sponsor for $200, its name would be on the tickets. He agreed and put $200 in our rodeo checking account. Then I got Green Printing as another sponsor to print the tickets for free.”

Lamb then signed up six $500 sponsors who would have their business banners displayed above the bucking chutes. He sold ads in that first rodeo program. The programs sold for $1 and adult tickets cost $5.

In addition to raising seed money, Lamb contacted stock contractors and vendors, and got the rodeo sanctioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association. He was hands-on, setting up the arena leading up to the rodeo.

“We had that first Ocala Shrine Rodeo on Labor Day weekend in 1983,” says Lamb. “From our rodeo proceeds, we were able to donate $30,000 to the Florida Shriners Hospital for Children in Tampa. By the time of our 18th rodeo, we had donated $1 million.”

For most people, establishing one rodeo would be enough, but Lamb is not most people.

“I just thought that it would be good for Ocala to have another rodeo in the spring now that the rodeo community was aware of us,” notes Lamb. “Once more, I started with no seed money but reached out to friends in the community, who responded. And Troy Weekley, who then operated Five Star Rodeo Company, agreed to underwrite the rodeo.”

Once again, Lamb worked his rodeo magic and, in March 1994, the Southeastern Pro Rodeo made its successful debut.

“I was so pleased that we were able to bring a second pro rodeo to Ocala,” says Lamb modestly. “Sometimes, I still can’t believe it really happened.”

Lest you think that Lamb then rested on his laurels, think again. While being the event organizer for both the Ocala Shrine Rodeo and the SE Pro Rodeo, Lamb also took a field representative position with Dodge Ram’s Rodeo Division in 1996. For 16 years, he drove around the southeast to rodeos sponsored by Dodge Ram.

After 35 years, Lamb passed the Ocala Shrine Rodeo on to the younger generation and now focuses on the SE Pro Rodeo. The Downtown Cattle Drive and Cowboy Roundup is now run by the city of Ocala.

In between all his jobs and establishing rodeos, he and Diana raised a family: sons Ruben Jr., who goes by Randall, which is both his father’s and his middle name; Justin and De De. There are also four grandchildren: Ava (18), Mason (16), Brody (13) and Bryson (9).

Courtesy of Southeastern Pro Rodeo Inc.

Still In The Arena

Today, Southeastern Pro Rodeo Inc. is headquartered in Lamb’s home, which is conveniently only two miles from the SELP. Lamb is the corporation president, with Justin, De De and Bret Mills on the board. Justin, who has a degree in business/marketing, helps coordinate the rodeo with his father. De De is in charge of advance ticket sales, Mason is part of the rodeo set-up crew and Ava handles the ticket booth at the rodeo.

Not surprisingly, western-themed framed posters and prints hang on the office walls. There are also certificates of appreciation and various plaques awarded to Lamb. Several years ago, Diana had a painting of her husband commissioned. Always modest, Lamb hung it behind the office door. But on full display is a black and white framed picture of Diana sitting on the back of a gray brahman steer with Lamb holding the lead rope.

A room-length desk that Lamb shares with Justin spans one side of the room. Two SE Pro Rodeo posters hang on the wall above Lamb’s section of the desk. A self-taught, self-described doodler, Lamb drew the longhorn skull featured in the SE Pro Rodeo’s logo designed by Justin.

“There’s not a day that I don’t think about rodeo,” says Lamb, who recently donated his last cowpony, a paint mare named Patches, to the Heart of Florida Youth Ranch. “Once a rodeo finishes, we’re already working on next year’s rodeo.”

On March 15-16, 2024, the SE Pro Rodeo will celebrate its 31st annual event.

“I wake up every morning feeling blessed,” says Lamb. “I am so fortunate to have my wonderful family and friends and to have been able to live a cowboy life.” OS

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