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Dorothy Wilhelm: Taking a moment to remember while the cowboy goes home

Fred Oldfield was never without his Stetson hat. He wore it when he painted, he wore it when he had breakfast with friends at a local cafe.

When he celebrated his 90th birthday, then-Gov. Christine Gregoire declared “Fred Oldfield Day in Washington,” where the entire Senate rose to give the great painter of the West a standing ovation for his contributions to the region and humanity.

A whole busload of Fred’s friends went to Olympia for the ceremony, and Fred, who always remembered that a cowboy must be polite, reverently removed his Stetson before entering the hallowed halls of the Legislature. He carried the hat in front of him in two hands.

When the friends were gathered in the balcony, they couldn’t spot him in the crowd below. They kept saying to one another, “Where’s Fred?” “Which one is he?” From so far away he looked very small. Suddenly one of the senators yelled “Fred Oldfield, is that you?” Fred came forward hesitantly, still holding his hat before him.

“For Gawd’s sake,” she screamed, “Put your hat on. It doesn’t look like you without it. Put your hat on and don’t ever take it off again.”

He followed her instructions. As far as we know, he never took it off again. At least I never knew anyone who saw him without it.

Born on the Yakama Indian Reservation, one of nine children, Fred got used early to a life in the saddle.

“We used to travel around in a wagon, looking for jobs,” Fred recalled, “To me it was fun at 15 or 16 years old, running after rabbits, fishing wherever I wanted. I had to pick up cow chips for the fire.”

As a young man, Fred became a cowboy. “Wintertime we could get $10 a month for feeding cattle. With board and room, that wasn’t bad money.”

Cowboying is dirty and lonely and hot except for the winters, when it’s dirty and lonely and cold. When the cold got too severe, they’d literally set the prairie afire. There was no wood so “we’d pack the tumbleweeds down, set fire to them, and lay down on it quick as soon as the fire went down just a little.” With luck, the cowboy could get about two hours sleep on the warm ground before he had to do it all again.

I met Fred when he acted as the model at a portrait painting workshop.

By the end of the class I had created a portrait that looked as if it had been painted with a bit of peanut butter bread using a palette of mud puddle hues. I was near tears by the time the model eased out of his chair, moving with the distinctive gait of a man who has spent his life on horseback. He stopped to gaze at my painting. It didn’t exactly look like him. It didn’t exactly look like anyone.

But Fred Oldfield smiled kindly and said a few humorous words. Instantly, we were friends for life.

Fred had that gift, shared by all his huge family starting with daughter Joella, of welcoming everyone as if you were the one person on Earth he’d been longing to see. After awhile you’d begin to believe that you might possess the qualities he seemed to see. We were looking forward to his 99th birthday in just a few days, when the news came that Fred was gone.

Oldfield painted the West he loved. He particularly delighted in the stories of Native Americans. His favorite painting, “Prisoners of Wounded Knee,” shows a captive but undefeated people struggling in the snow. This painting and many others are displayed at the Oldfield Western Heritage Center at the Washington State Fair Event Center in Puyallup.

Closest to Fred’s heart were the classes he taught at the center where students came to learn art and the history of the Old West from their beloved Cowboy Fred. The center is dedicated to continuing this work.

On Feb. 24, as his friend Kris Jenott put it, the old cowboy saddled up for his last ride. I believe that somewhere Fred Oldfield is easy in the saddle again, his Stetson firmly in place, with his blanket roll, fishing pole, and of course his paints. He rides on his way to meet up again with his wife, Alice, and his son, Jerry. And calling back as he always did, “See you on down the trail, folks.”

Dorothy Wilhelm is a professional speaker and writer. Follow Dorothy’s blog at itsnevertoolate.com. Contact her at P.O. Box 881, DuPont WA, 98327. Phone 800-548-9264, email Dorothy@itsnevertoolate. com.

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