The subject of this profile, Donovan Ketzler, is like one of those romantic adventurer figures from a Jack London or Rudyard Kipling yarn. I believe you will find his adventures as a cavalryman and recreational horseman will enchant you as much as they did me. The Omaha, Neb.-based boot manufacturing company he headed for years, Dehner, earned a national and international reputation for the superior craftsmanship of its fine boots. Its customers have included heads of state and celebrities of all kinds. The story originally appeared in the New Horizons.
Last of the Rough Riders
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
Sitting astride his pale gelding, Snowdrift, Donovan Ketzler is the very embodiment of the gallant, weatherworn horse soldier of frontiers past. He looks the part too with his leathery skin, cropped mustache, squinting eyes, gnarled hands, erect posture and stern but jaunty deportment. Then there’s the way he uses a nudge of the boot, a tug of the reins and a brush of the riding crop to expertly guide his mount.
The rough rider image he projects is no facade, either. The 74-year-old retired president of the Dehner Co., Omaha’s renowned manufacturer of hand-made custom boots, is, in fact, an ex-cavalryman. During World War II he served in the U.S. Army’s Cavalry Replacement Training Center at Fort Riley, Kansas, instructing troops in the 1st Cavalry Division and participating in combined horse and mechanized maneuvers on the Great Plains. He later mule-packed with Chiang Kai-sheck’s Chinese troops fighting the Japanese in Burma and mainland China.
This consummate horseman and inveterate adventurer is the last of a dying breed of men with any link to the rugged cavalry troopers who roamed the American West. Although his own cavalry days are long behind him, riding is still a large part of his life.
He rides for sport and pleasure today in the hills and river valleys north of Omaha. He boards his horse at a stable just inside Washington County, near Neale Woods. “I know Ponca Hills like the back of my hand,” he says. “We ride from there clear down to the river.” For him, there’s nothing grander than being atop a fine animal with the sun at his back, a jump looming ahead and a fox on the run.
“I tell you, when you’re on horseback and you get behind a pack of hounds that’s in full cry, you’re just hell bent for leather,” he says in his rough-hewn voice. “The old adrenalin’s going, you’re flying fences, going cross-country, down ditches, up hills, and there ain’t nothin’ nicer.”
As much as he likes the thrill of the chase, he enjoys watching animals at work amid nature’s splendor.
“It’s fun working with a horse and seeing success. And I love to watch that pack of hounds circling and trying to pick up a scent. One will pick it up and the rest of ‘em will come over to honor it and when two or three of ‘em honor it, why they’ll take off and follow the scent, then they’ll lose it and have to find it again. To watch those animals working is tremendous,” he says.
Son Jeff Ketzler, who succeeded him as Dehner president in 1991, says his father likes his outdoor recreation wild and woolly. “That’s his favorite thing. He likes to tread where no man has tread before. He always likes it a little bit rougher than I do.”
A frequent riding companion of Ketzler’s is Vicki Krecek, vice president of communications with the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce. She admires his desire to make riding a lively group affair.
“One Saturday he went down by the Missouri River and spent all day making this one trail with all these little jumps, so that it became a real fun, challenging course to ride,” she says. “He’d really thought it out and done it beautifully. He got such a kick out of doing that. I thought it was so neat that somebody would take the time just so we could have some more fun.”
Equestrians feel you can tell a lot about a person by how he/she handles a horse. While Ketzler insists he’s nothing special — “I get on the horse, I look like hell, and at the end of the day I get off the horse” — others disagree. Krecek says: “He’s an excellent rider. He rides with a real assurance. And he’s also really compassionate about the horse, even though he’s very much in control. He won’t tolerate bad behavior on the part of the horse, but he has a very gentle hand. He’s very conscientious of the land too. We never set foot on anybody’s planted field.”
Krecek also echoes others in describing his bold, macho side. “He’s definitely a hard charger and he’s definitely very fearless,” she says. “I can’t believe some of the things he’s done. Once, we were in a hunter’s pace and his horse refused a fence and kind of reared around, and Van fell off and hit his head. I said, ‘Are you okay?’ ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Well, hurry up, get on,’ I said, because we had another half-hour to ride at a pretty fast pace. Later on, he said he thought he was having a heart attack because he couldn’t breathe very well.
“I couldn’t believe he would think he was having a heart attack and wouldn’t tell me to stop. It turned out he had a couple broken ribs, yet he rode that extra half hour. When he says he’s hurting…he’s really hurting.”
In a lifetime with horses Ketzler’s taken his share of spills and suffered a medical dictionary full of sprains, strains, tears and broken bones.
“He gets himself hurt in the most spectacular ways,” Jeff says. “When I was a kid he was brought home in an ambulance after a horse he was trying to shoe kicked him in the head, and to this day he has a horseshoe scar on his forehead. Another time Dad tried to drag my horse Gizmo into a trailer. He had wrapped the lead shank around his hand, and when Gizmo took off, Dad took off with him. He always tells the story how he was in a helluva foot race for about 75 feet, but then that lead shank came undone and he fell behind very quickly. He tore his hamstring and rotator cuff, and busted this and that.”
Ask what’s the most outlandish thing his father’s done, and Jeff pauses, laughs and says, “He’s done so many spectacular things it’s hard to narrow it down to just one. He’s trained in the cavalry way…you’ve got to be up front, doing it all…and no type of terrain or obstacle will keep you from getting to your objective, and that’s always the way he has been. Always forward, always going, always full blast.”
Then there are the times, entirely apart from horses, Ketzler’s heeded his fanciful, slightly mischievous nature. Like his penchant for dropping everything in the middle of the day to go gallivanting half-way around the world. He’s been known to drag his wife Bette along on military hops out of Offutt — with little or no advance notice — to destinations like Hawaii.
The ever-spontaneous Ketzler once surprised her with the news that in two hours they were leaving that afternoon for Great Britain. “I called her from the office at 2 and said, ‘I’m picking you up at 3 and at 4 we’re going to be gone,” Ketzler recalls. “Pack what you think you need. If it’s too much, we’ll throw it away. If it’s not enough, we’ll buy it. And it was the best trip we ever had.”
Jeff says his mother, who’s gotten used to such unpredictability, sometimes endures more than she bargains for. Like the time his father swept her away to Australia. Sounds romantic and exotic, right? Except they traveled in the tail section of a C-5 Hercules military transport. “Mom, of course, didn’t like it very much, but Dad had an absolute blast. He loved every minute of it.”
Ketzler is a restless sort whose rash sense of adventure and wanderlust causes him to fidget if he’s forced to sit very long. He’s always itching for action. “If there’s something happening, you can be sure he’s always right in it,” Jeff says. “He cannot sit down. He never stands still. He’s always the first one out during a tornado warning, looking around.”
Donovan Ketzler himself likes telling the story of how as a brash teen smitten with Bette, he took her riding in the bluffs overlooking the Missouri River. While already an accomplished rider used to the steep terrain, she was quite green. “We ran these horses to the edge of the cliff and dropped about 40 feet,” he says. “She was just hangin’ on by the horse’s neck. She hasn’t been riding since.”
Her swearing off riding the last 60 years didn’t get in the way of their love for each other, as the couple recently celebrated their 51st wedding anniversary. Neither did she stand in the way of their four children riding.
“She’s as knowledgeable about horses as any woman I know,” Ketzler says, “even if it’s mostly from the ground.”
One thing Bette did disapprove of was her husband’s habit of taking the kids riding on the Sabbath. “We never got to church because we were always out fox hunting on Sunday mornings,” Jeff says. “Dad has always been a spiritual man, but never much of a churchgoing man. He always felt going over a snowy field early on a Sunday morning put him a lot closer to God than he could ever get in any church pew.”
Indeed, whether camping at Custer State Park, riding in Ponca Hills or watching cranes in the Sand Hills, the great outdoors is Donovan Ketzler’s sanctuary and temple. “I tell you, you get out in the woods and it’s like going to church,” he says. “You’re really pretty close to your god out there. You’ve got a good horse under you that you trust and really you just get back down to the basics and forget all about your frustrations.”
Even to this day he searches for new riding epiphanies. Recently returned from a week-long horseback tour of County Sligo on the west coast of Ireland, he was still beaming with childlike glee over the experience. “There were three of us that went. They gave us two saddlebags, a horse and a map apiece and we took off, stopping at bed and breakfasts about 20 kilometers apart. We were in the saddle about 6 1/2 hours a day,” he says. “We started in a little village called Grange on the Atlantic Ocean. Then we rode down the coast along Sligo Bay. Then we went inland and up to the mountainous areas, then into a wooded area and around a lake called Gill. We came out on the other side of Sligo Bay.”
The demanding horseman found the trek up to his rigid standards.
“The horses were good, the equipment was fantastic, and the trails and the maps were just exceptional. We lived out of those saddlebags. I liken it to reliving my youth in the cavalry — going out with the horses in the field. I was in seventh heaven. We had a helluva good time. Absolutely spectacular.”
Upon reaching the last stop, Ketzler and his riding partners were met by their spouses and together they toured, by more conventional means, western Ireland, staying on the Shannon side.
The party took several side trips, including a visit to the site of the Dehner factory Ketzler built and operated briefly in the mid-’70s in the village of Knocklong. The plant now houses a packaging company. During Dehner’s brief foray in Ireland, which was foiled by steep labor costs, Ketzler, wife Bette and their sons Jeff and Jon lived there at various times.
Donovan and Bette were most enchanted by the Irish huntsman’s apartment they resided in, located in the stables of a centuries-old manor house belonging to a local dairy farmer. Ketzler felt at home because the farmer was also the area master of hounds and kept horses on either side of the couple’s apartment. Never one to skip a hunt, Ketzler rode with the hounds over there and has the black thorn shredded boots to prove it.
The failure of the Irish factory is one of the few missteps Ketzler made during his 20 year-reign as Dehner president. The more than 120-year-old company, which bears the name of his maternal grandfather, C.C. Dehner, has always been a family-run concern. Ketzler’s father, Harold, headed the firm until Ketzler, who started working there at age 12, took over in 1971.
Ketzler streamlined the operation dramatically increasing the output, sales and profits, and consolidating its hold in the English riding, law enforcement and military markets. Dehner’s reach has even extended to NASA, making astronaut boots from Mercury to Apollo to the Shuttle.
Among its prominent customers over the years has been former President Ronald Reagan, a longtime rider who began wearing the Dehner brand in 1946 while still a contract motion picture actor. Dehner boots have been worn by generations of West Point graduates, including Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton. The always image-conscious Patton collaborated with Ketzler’s grandfather in designing a striking strap model that came to be called “the Patton boot.” It was worn by the general’s tank troops, and later by U.S. Air Force personnel, including U-2, Thunderbird and test pilots, who came to know it as “the SAC boot.”
While stepping down from the firm’s day to day operations seven years ago, Ketzler retains chairman of the board status and holds veto power. He keeps an office in the plant, nestled in a quiet residential neighborhood at 3614 Martha Street. Customers trailing horses cross-country often let their animals graze on the Dehner lawn while getting a fitting or a tour of the plant. A peek inside Ketzler’s office reveals his old McClellan cavalry saddle on display, walls laden with photos of him riding, inscribed photos from Reagan and Patton and a plaque thanking Ketzler for his efforts in supporting the Omaha Police Department’s mounted patrol.
Ketzler shows up to work every day because, he says, “I still want to know what’s going on. I still want to get in the swing of it. But by and large I bite my lip a lot and let ‘em run it.”
Jeff Ketzler says his father applied the same organizational skills and disciplined approach learned in the military to running the business, and the ramrod style paid off. “When Dad took over I think our production was about 2,500 pair a year, and by the time he retired it was about 12,000 pair a year. He took a very, very small company and turned into the largest handmade custom boot manufacturer in the world. Everything was very, very organized. Everybody knew what they had to do…and it was always kind of his way or the highway. My dad is definitely a hard act to follow.”
According to Jeff, his father employed a strict hand at home too. “He’s always been a military-type guy. This is his life, and this is the way he’s chosen to live it. He reveres those people and, I mean, he was one of ‘em.”
Living a Jack Armstrong adventure as a boy, Donovan Ketzler became exposed to the cavalry way of life accompanying his grandfather on sales trips to army outposts, where the troops adopted the eager lad. Not long after the firm’s 1930 move from Kansas (where it originated) to Omaha, Ketzler and his late sister Janne learned to ride at Fort Omaha and the 113th Cavalry Stables in Council Bluffs.
“Although my family were not military people, I was practically raised in the military,” he says. “I was thrown in with a group of 7th Service Command officers’ children in a riding class. I became very proficient at it. I pretty much had carte blanche with the use of their horses.”
So proficient that by his mid-teens he was riding with the National Guard cavalry troops in Council Bluffs. “I got in with the officers, and they allowed me to come along on an officers’ ride every Sunday morning. We’d ride off into the bluffs and just do some hellish things. I thoroughly enjoyed it.” By the outbreak of the war the unit was federalized and Ketzler, still a kid, was told to “get lost.”
At 18 he was determined to serve in the cavalry, but after enlisting in 1943 found himself assigned instead to the infantry. That is until he informed the brass he was already cavalry-trained, whereupon he promptly got his wish at Fort Riley. He soon became a cavalry instructor. Although cavalry units in the field had been dismounted, drilling with horses continued, he says, “because it was said a horse-trained soldier was more responsible than straight-legged infantry. With a horse, you have to take care of it and you accept a certain responsibility.”
Later he went overseas, training “rag-tag” Chinese resistance forces in infantry weaponry (mortars and anti-tank devices) as a replacement to the 124th Cavalry. While serving with the Chinese Combat Command he largely remained behind the front-lines, but occasionally got caught “in counter barrages.” He explains, “When I was in Burma the planes would fly over and parachute everything in — all the supplies — because they had no place to land. And of course the Japanese would see these parachutes coming in. Well, we’d wait about 10 minutes before going out there with our mules to pick up the supplies, and the Japanese would throw mortars in on us. I lost a mule to shrapnel.”
His Far East duty spurred an appreciation for the region and its people, who endured appallingly poor living conditions and cruelties enforced by warlords. He says it was a nation ripe for revolution.
Back home Ketzler briefly attended theUniversityof Nebraska-Lincoln before rejoining the family business, marrying Bette and starting his family. He remained in the army reserves until retiring, as a major, in 1967. He’s sure he would have stayed in the military if not for the family business.
In his post-war life he ached to see China again but the political situation made it impossible. He finally got his chance in the ‘70s when the country was opened to foreign visitors. He and Bette have traveled there several times since, trekking across the Silk Road, floating down the Yangtze River and visiting the back country where Ketzler served in the war.
Other favorite destinations have included his ancestral homeland of Germany and a bird watching haven in a remote Mexican coastal village.
His travels often intersect with his interest in frontier soldiering, an interest he cultivates by reading, collecting vintage weapons, visiting such historic sites as the Battle of the Little Big Horn and wearing reproductions of cavalry uniforms (complete with his own leathermade goods) on River City Roundup rides from Ogallala to Omaha. While he does not romanticize the “hard, hard life” endured by the troopers, he does feel a strong kinship with them. “Yeah, I really do. Very much so. They were cavalry too.”
The intrepid spirit of the cavalry is what keeps him active today. “We’re survivors. You gotta have a reason for gettin’ out of bed,” he says. Just as the horse cavalry’s days were numbered, Dehner will likely close whenever Ketzler’s son Jeff retires. “This is the last of the line,” Ketzler confirms. Does that sadden him? “No, we had a helluva run…a good time.” And like an old soldier, he’ll just fade away, riding to the setting sun.
- Hold your horses: Western or English riding for the absolute beginner? (news.nationalpost.com)
- Travel challenge: A horse-riding holiday in the US (independent.co.uk)
- Horseriding Club (discho44.wordpress.com)
- Giddyap! (boston.com)
- Rough Riders Saddle Club (skeeter747.wordpress.com)
I first met Hadley Heavin 20 years ago. He was one of the first profile subjects I wrote about as a freelance journalist. I loved telling his story then, and I always knew I would return to it. I did a few years ago. Upon catching up with him, I found him and his story just as intriguing as I had before. It’s not often you find someone who combines the passions he does, namely competing in rodeo and performing classical guitar. He is a singular man whose twin magnificent obsessions make him one of my favorite and most unforgettable characters.
Hadley Heavin’s Idiosyncratic Journey as a Real Rootin-Tootin, Classical Guitar Playing Cowboy
©by Leo Adam Biga
Traditional Spanish classical guitar follows certain lines. It flows most directly from the source of this passionate art form, Francisco Tarrega, the father of Spanish classical guitar at the turn of the last century. Tarrega passed on his legacy to his musical progeny, a few prized pupils, who in turn taught it to select disciples, and so on down the line.
Improbably, this line of maestros, the great interpreters of Spanish classical guitar, includes a longtime area resident and an American to boot, Hadley Heavin. He grew up a cowboy, jock and blues-rock lead guitar player in Baxter Springs, Kansas. He learned guitar at 5, began riding horses soon after, adding rodeo, football, basketball, track and baseball. The Vietnam combat vet has been a University of Nebraska at Omaha music instructor since 1982.
Beginning in the late ‘70s, Heavin became the primary student of the late Segundo Pastor. Decades-before, Pastor was the favorite student of Daniel Fortea, once the anointed disciple of Tarrega himself. So it is this direct Spanish line goes from Tarrega to Fortea to Pastor to Heavin.
“… there’s a real lineage that goes to the source of classical guitar in Spain that’s been handed down to me, almost by rote. Not even Spaniards have that,” Heavin said. “That’s why Spanish music is it for me. And when I play Spanish music I play it very much probably how Tarrega played it, because it was passed down that way. I’m probably just one of a handful of people in the world that got that experience.
“It isn’t so much about reading the notes and learning the music as it how the music is played.”
As if not’s unusual enough an American should be part of that rare Spanish line, then consider that at age 59 Heavin still competes in rodeos and horse shows around his busy teaching-performing schedule. The fact he’s both a concert-level artist and competitive roper never fails to surprise.
“It’s so odd to people that I do these two things,” he said.
He and his daughter Kaitlin share a small, white, wood-frame house on a 25-acre spread he rents in Valley, Neb.. He’s at home there with his dogs, horses and steers. There are barns for storing hay and boarding horses as well as pens, a round and an arena, complete with box and chute, for working stock and practicing roping. He has a horse trailer and a truck parked there. His precious guitars, a Brune for classical and a Cordoba for Flamenco, always near.
Much like his boyhood home, when impromptu family concerts broke out, the sound of Heavin playing and Kaitlin singing often blend with the music of cicadas, crickets, meadow larks, steers and horses.
In a kind of dual life he alternately spends weekends playing paying guitar gigs or riding-roping for prize money. One weekend might find him performing solo or with his new Latin-influenced band, Tablao, at trendy Omaha spots like Espana and the Corkscrew. Kaitlin is Tablao’s lead vocalist. Another weekend might find him competing in American Quarter Horse Association or Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association team-roping events in such Nebraska backyards as Wilber and Burwell.
At home in his frayed tank-top undershirt, dusty jeans and worn boots, he’s the Marlboro Man. For a big guy he sits light in the saddle. The way he expertly handles a horse makes clear he’s no weekend warrior playing cowboy. He’s the Real McCoy. With a pull of the reins, a bump of his spurs or the command of his voice, his old bay, Champ, obeys instantly as he puts the animal through its paces, starting at a walk, building to a trot, then going at a full gallop. Rough stock is in his blood.
Cut to Heavin, the artist, this time in a freshly-pressed flowered shirt, clean jeans and polished boots, making love with his guitar at the Espana tapas bar in Benson. As he sits on stage, cradling and stroking the instrument like a woman in his thickly-muscled arms, he is every inch the maestro. His posture erect, his fingering precise, his feel for the music complete, he makes the expressive sounds his own. From soft, gentle trills to full crescendo runs, it is a seduction. Given his roots in the music, when Heavin plays, one hears echoes of past maestros Tarrega, Fortea and Pastor, a privileged connection he’s ever conscious of.
His sound is so much like Pastor’s, he said, a good friend from Spain named Pedro once got upset that a gringo like him should be able to master it.
Pastor entered Heavin’s life at a key juncture. The then-angry young American was not long removed from a war that “scarred” him. Then, his father, “an incredible guitarist,” died at 47. “And there was no music anymore…” he said.
At the time Heavin worked a job unloading trucks in Springfield, Mo.. On a whim one night he went to see a classical guitarist perform, and Heavin’s life changed.
“I was enthralled and it just came over me like that,” he said, snapping his fingers. “Right then and there I knew what I was going to do with my life. The feeling that came over me fulfilled me more than anything else ever had up to that time.”
“Well, for a lot of reasons. A part of it was the war had scarred me and right after that my father passed away, and I needed something,” he said. “Classical guitar was the thread that gave me something to hang onto just to get through life and the pain I had lived with. The guitar was my salvation.”
He began by teaching himself via recordings and books. When he exhausted those he found an instructor, who soon did all he could for such a prodigy.
“I worked really hard,” Heavin said. “As soon as my hands could take it I was practicing six to eight hours a day and working a full-time job.”
He then brashly convinced the music dean at then-Southwest Missouri State University (now Missouri State) to start a degree guitar program with him as its first student.
“I had such a passion for it that I was going to find a way…whatever it took.”
Then, a meeting changed his life. Pastor was touring the U.S. and saw Heavin play a late ‘70s concert on campus. Pastor asked to meet Heavin.
Mind you, Heavin was just a beginner in classical guitar, yet the maestro plucked him from obscurity to make Heavin his sole student and the privileged inheritor of a rich music lineage he now passes onto his own students.
Heavin and Pastor enjoyed a decades-long friendship that saw the American study under the maestro in the U.S. and Spain. Heavin arranged for Pastor to perform UNO and Creighton concerts. They toured together. Heavin once performed with him at Carnegie Hall. Their friendship deepened.
“He was like a father and a mentor to me. He not only gave me a career, he gave me back myself,” Heavin said.
It’s not unlike how Heavin became a vessel for his father’s and his family’s legacies.
In his small hometown fast on the Oklahoma-Missouri border, Heavin was weaned on Ozarks culture. Music, horses and sports were family inheritances. From early childhood he excelled at them all.
His father, Ernest played with such bands as Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. Several uncles played, too. Heavin played trumpet and drums in bands his father led, traveling to gigs at VFW post and American Legion hall dances, performing swing, jazz, ragtime and country. The family home was alive with music, too.
“Making music,” Heavin said, “was just something we did. I grew up with music and I was a little freak because I could play really well. I grew up in an environment thinking everybody was like this. I couldn’t believe it when a kid couldn’t sing or carry a tune or do something with music.”
The life he leads today balancing music with rodeo is not so different than the one he knew as a youth. Heavin’s father paid him for the band gigs he played as a boy. Child or not, young Hadley was expected to carry his own weight.
“I remember about midnight I’d start falling asleep,” he said. “My dad would start to feel the time dragging and see me nodding. Then he’d flick me on the head with his fingertip and wake me up, and I’d speed up again.”
The paying dates made Heavin rich compared to his friends. “I’d be sitting with $20 in my pocket where everybody else would have a quarter.”
The grind of playing “got to be a chore.” He flirted with blues-rock groups for a time, but got “burned out” on music.
Classical was not even a possibility. Early ‘60s rural Kansas had few outlets for it. Heavin still recalls the first time he heard it. A Rachmaninoff concerto playing over a music store loudspeaker enraptured him on the spot. That was about the extent of his exposure until years later.
Sports and horses became his new means of expression. Athletics, like music, were another Heavin family forte. An uncle, Charles “Frog” Heavin, played minor league ball with Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle. Heavin’s own mother was a catcher in the women’s pro circuit immortalized in A League of Their Own.
He was introduced to horses courtesy his grandfather — a horse shoer and blacksmith — and youth rodeos. His first brush with rodeo came at age 12, an experience as dramatic for him as when he first heard classical guitar.
“I was at the fairgrounds and these guys were bucking out stock. Just practicing. I was sitting on the fence watching and I asked if I could ride one. They said sure. The first animal I rode was a bare back bronc, Mae Etta. I sat on her and I was kind of nervous and they told me what to do and that horse came out and started bucking and I rode her about three jumps and got bucked off.
“I just jumped up and said, ‘I gotta try that again.’ And I tried it again. I couldn’t wait…It was like the biggest rush I ever had in my life. Then I rode a bull. I loved that, too. That’s where it started.”
He progressed from Little Britches events to amateur competitions on up, earning his spurs along the way riding bulls and bare back broncs.
His folks “didn’t understand it,” he said. But he stuck with it. He’d found something of his own. “The thing I remember as a teenager is…I wasn’t really sure who I was, and rodeo really gave me a defining sort of picture of…what I needed for my own life. And that’s why I still do it on some level.”
As a teen he moved with his family to Lawrence. Kansas, where he lost himself in sports. He possessed enough talent that he owned state sprint records and got a look from Kansas University as a football halfback.
“I played every sport in high school but rodeo was my favorite. Once I got into roping and horses, I’ve just never gone back,” he said.
He enrolled at KU in 1967 with the military draft on his mind. He walked-on for football and made the freshman team.
The huge campus and sea of strange faces were “a major culture shock.” He took his chances with the draft and in ‘68 had the back luck to be an Army conscript in an increasingly unpopular war.
Heavin was in-country 1969-70 as a forward observer and artillery fire officer with the 1st Field Force. He was shuttled from one LZ to another — wherever it was hot.
“I was what they called a ‘bastard.’ I would work with all different units. They would just send me wherever they needed me. I was on hill tops, some I can remember like LZ Lily. I was at Dactau and Ben Het during the siege. We were surrounded for like 30 days. I was in so many places I can’t remember them all. I was in the jungle the whole time…mostly in the north, in Two Corps, close to the border of Laos and Cambodia. I saw base camp twice,” he said.
Wounded by an AK47 round in a fire fight, he came home to recover. Stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas, he impulsively entered the bare back at a local rodeo.
“I drew a pretty rank horse, plus I hadn’t ridden in years and I was still sore from my war injuries.” he said. “The horse came out and was bucking and bucked towards the fence and my spur hung in the fence and hung me upside down, facing the opposite way. He was kicking me in the back as he was bucking away from me. I got hurt. I could hardly walk that night. When I got back to the base they were mad at me because I couldn’t pull my duty. Here I was a decorated combat vet, and they were going to court-martial me.”
Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and the incident forgotten.
Back home he struggled with memories of the war and his father’s death. He floundered, looking to get his head right. He’d seen cruelty in the jungle. Fraggings. Buddies killed. Rapes, mutilations and killings of innocent Vietmanese women and children. “Emotionally, I was a mess from the war,” he said. “I had some years there where I had a hard time because I felt I was part of something that was wrong.”
He felt angry over what he viewed as U.S. betrayal of the South Vietmanese people. He wanted to forget it all, but couldn’t. He’d prefer to put it behind him today.
“When people find out I was in Vietnam they start asking a lot of questions and I find myself not wanting to deal with that issue at this point in my life,” he said.
He harbors hard feelings about U.S. military adventurism. “I’m not as patriotic as most people,” he said, “and that’s the one thing that gets me in trouble with my cowboy friends.”
He was in such a funk after the war he quit music, roping and riding for a time. He rediscovered music first or as he prefers to think of it, music found him.
It all began with Heavin’s classical guitar epiphany. But the real journey commenced when Pastor heard Heavin play in college and the great man befriended the green American. The Spaniard was unlike anyone he’d met before.
“I was introduced to this little old man who couldn’t speak English. He was very kind but very formal, very upper-crust European society. There was a definite respect one had to acquire. I spent an entire afternoon playing for him. He was helping me, showing me some things, and then he’d play. I think he saw in me that I was wide-eyed and open and very grateful that he would spend this time with me.”
More than Heavin could dream came next.
“He played a concert that night and it was awesome. He dedicated a song to me,” Heavin said. “Before he left he said, ‘When I get to Spain I’m going to send you some music.’ About two weeks later I got a big stack of music I started working on. He came back the following year and this time he worked with me for 10 days in Springfield. All this music I’d worked on I played for him. I studied some more. And at the end of the 10 days he said, ‘If you come to Spain, I’ll teach you for nothing. You’ll be my only student,’ and I was.”
At the time though, Heavin said, “I didn’t know what this meant or how it was going to work out.” A university official aided Heavin’s overseas studies by finding grant monies for him. But Heavin still had no inkling his apprenticeship would turn out to be, “with the exception of my daughter’s birth,” he said, “one of the most wonderful experiences of my life.” Off to Madrid he went.
“When I arrived there was an apartment for me. The maestro’s wife was like my mom. His son was like my brother. And I realized shortly after I got there that I was his only student,” he said. “He rarely took them. There were Spanish boys waiting in line to study with him.”
Heavin immersed himself in all things Spanish. “I lived in the culture. I wasn’t with Americans at all. My friends were all Spanish. I taught them English, they taught me Spanish.” Ironically, the one thing this former bull rider didn’t care for was bullfighting, yet he lived a block from the Plaza de Toros, the bullfighting arena, and next door to the hospital for bullfighters. He’d watch the injured fighters come out “all bandaged up,” but felt even worse for the bulls.
Mostly his life revolved around the music.
“During the 10 months I was there I had a lesson from Segundo almost every day,” he said. “He put all of himself into that one student. That’s why he didn’t take on many. It was really like a fairy-tale…”
To this day Heavin’s unsure what Pastor saw in him to make such a commitment. “Maybe it was my sound,” he speculates. He feels it must have also had something to do with “the fact I loved Spain and I loved to play guitar and I loved that music.” Even when Heavin struggled to get the music right, “he never gave up on me.”
“The thing that’s odd about it is that I had only been playing about a year when the maestro invited me to Spain,” he said. “It was confusing because there were Spanish boys who could play better than I.”
It nagged at Heavin the whole time he was there.
“I kept asking him, ‘Why did you pick me?’ And he would never answer it. The last night I was there he knocked on my door and we went to the university in Madrid. It was one of those romantic Spanish evenings. We were walking down a wet, cobblestone street and he put his arm up on my shoulder and he squeezed it and said, ‘You keep asking me this question. True, the Spanish boys are good guitarists, but you’ll be a great guitarist.’ You see, I was too naive to know if I was any good or not. But he knew. It gave me everything I needed to go forward.”
Not only did Pastor give him a career, Heavin said, “he gave me back myself.”
Pastor’s high praise for his student — “A brilliant guitarist…he likes to make poetry out of music” — has been seconded by others.
After graduating from Southwest Missouri State Heavin received a fellowship from the University of Denver and after getting his master’s there he joined the UNO music department. Wherever Heavin lived, he continued to visit Pastor in Spain and to spend time with him in the states.
In 1993 Pastor fell ill. Heavin flew to Madrid to be with him. When he got there he found the maestro confined to a wheelchair — weak and having not spoken for weeks. Heavin said when Pastor’s wife announced, “‘Look, maestro, Hadley’s here,’ his face just lit up. It was great. That night I slept on the other side of the wall from him. The next night I walked in his room, and as I was standing over him, looking at him, he awoke with a start. He rolled over on his back, pulled my face down to his chest and patted my head. He started talking. He said, ‘You know I love you. I hope some day you’re blessed like I have been with a woman. When my mind clears I’m going to write a great piece for you.” Those sentiments were the last words the maestro uttered. He died within a couple weeks.
Pastor’s gone now but Heavin keeps alive the tradition. He said the students who excel under him today are the ones who appreciate the gift Pastor gave him that he now passes onto them.
“It’s not just me they’re getting it from, they’re getting it from all of us in the line. The students that figure that out and treasure that are the ones that go off to other schools and blow everybody away,” he said.
One such student is 2002 UNO grad Mike Cioffero, an award-winning player and now a teacher at the prestigious New York City Guitar School.
“To have that direct connection is so important and wonderful,” Cioffero said. “Hadley definitely establishes that.”
Heavin’s “day job” is at UNO. He works one-on-one with students and ensembles and serves as a graduate lecturer. Some students have gone on to a good bit of success, like Cioffero. Teaching is something he loves. He’s not so fond of navigating academia’s politics and personalities. “I’ve stayed,” he said, “because of my students.”
In his 30s Heavin resumed roping and riding. “I started missing the horses, the competition and my cowboy friends,” he said. Without them, he was incomplete. As “the Good Lord saw fit to give me an extra shot of adrenalin,” he said, he needs both extremes in his life.
“Playing the guitar is a very disciplined, very quiet, very by-yourself, very sedentary thing. Mentally it isn’t, but physically it is. I couldn’t just sit on my ass and play guitar all the time — it’s too boring. When I was back from the war and just playing guitar, I was a little crazy, a little anti-social. For me, rodeo satisfied something in me that made it possible for me to play guitar. I think it helps me play a lot better.”
At first glance it appears as if he leads dual lives. Yet so intertwined are these pursuits with who he is, he can’t separate them. Each is an expression of himself.
“For me that’s my balance,” he said. “One balances out the other.”
Then there’s his hell-bent for leather nature. “I’ve learned to try anything,” he said, “but it wasn’t like I chose those things, it was like those things chose me. I was meant to do those things.”
He doesn’t just dally in one endeavor or the other. He’s trained by masters in each and performs at “a high level” whether in the concert hall or the horse arena.
His maestro, Pastor, toured the world as “Spain’s representative on guitar.” He had his own television show in his homeland. He was the subject of books. One book, printed only in Spanish, devotes a chapter to the Pastor-Heavin relationship.
Similarly, Heavin was schooled by roping-riding gurus D.K. Hewitt, Kent Martin and Jim Brinkman, “some of the best in these parts or anywhere,” according to Heavin.
Knowing the proper way of doing things is no small matter for a man whose art depends on his hands and yet who puts them at risk in a sport where injuries are common. Whereas, he said, “a lot of my friends are missing a thumb or fingers,” he’s never seriously hurt his digits. “I’ve skimmed up my little finger a few times heeling. Those coils are the dangerous things. It just cauterizes it when it burns through.” Every time he ropes he puts his music career in jeopardy.
“Lots of people tried to talk me out of roping,” he said. Pastor was not among them. He actually fancied his cowboy ways. “ He thought it was cool,” Heavin said.
Despite the hazards, Heavin’s confident in his training.
“If I was going to lose a finger it probably would have been the first year I was roping,” he said. “But for me the secret is being a good enough horseman. Like one time I was heading and the rope was wrapped around my wrist and I felt it coming tight against the horns. It would have broken my wrist pretty badly but I just kicked the horse up so I could get it (rope) undone, which saved me. Most guys when they get pain they stop their horse. Your horsemanship is the key… I’ve learned to do it correctly. There’s an art to it.”
He’s so adept he once qualified for the AQHA world horse show finals in Oklahoma City.
Plus, he’s never found anything like the thrill of running down a steer on horseback, swinging his rope high overhead, throwing it with a quick snap of his wrist and hitting his mark with a perfect figure-eight loop.
“The fact is I’ve tried everything. I mean, I’ve tried racquetball, golf, every sport, just so I wouldn’t take a chance on losing a finger, but nothing works for me,” he said. “When I’m running full-speed on a horse it’s exciting as hell. No matter how long you do it it’s always a rush.”
There’s a shared ebb-and-flow, give-and-take to his pursuits. “Music is like that, riding is like that, roping is like that,” he said. “It’s knowing when to be aggressive and when to back off.” In music, it’s as much knowing when the silence needs to be there between the notes as it is filling the silence. In the saddle, it’s letting a horse circle around or move forward or backward before getting him settled in the box for a run. For team roping, it’s the timing of the heeler working in tandem with the header to rope the bull.
“It’s figuring out when to do what,” he said.
There’s no where Heavin would rather be than home. At the end of a long day riding, roping, baling hay, caring for animals, he relaxes with his guitar. The instrument and the music he makes on it provide the counterbalance he craves.
“I pick up my guitar at night, when it’s quiet, and it calms me right down.”
- Spanish Fandango, classical/blues nexus (hermenaut.org)
- Could Chicago Guitar Festival in October 2010 Boost Local Scene? (thecontrapuntist.com)
- Guitar music that justifies the guitar. (ask.metafilter.com)
- Classical Guitar – Summer Listening List (kenekaplan.wordpress.com)
- Tarrega’s Gran Vals – The Nokia tune (merlinsnewrags.wordpress.com)