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On The Cart With Compton: Jerry Wells’ Wife, Betty

May 3, 2011 marked the third anniversary of the death of arguably one of the greatest horsemen our industry has ever known, the great Jerry Wells. wanted to take the opportunity to look back at a story we ran two years ago where Troy Compton sat down with Jerry’s widow, Betty Wells, in one of our all-time favorite stories we have ever had the honor of running.

Jerry Wells has always been a hero to me and I’m humbled by the opportunity to sit down and discuss such a legendary figure with the person who was the closest with him, his wonderful wife of 43 years, Betty. The ever so gracious hostess, Betty welcomed me into her home with open arms and I can honestly say that this day was one of the most memorable in all my years on God’s earth.

Though an icon to me and the thousands of others like me who had the honor of knowing Jerry
Wells as a horseman, I fondly remember the first time he endeared himself to me as a great human being. I was a shy 18 year old kid at the time, working for Dave Page. We were at a horse show in San
Antonio, which might as well have been a million miles from home. I was sitting by myself in the stands and Jerry walked by and saw me and said, “Troy, do you like coconut cream pie?” It amazed me that Jerry Wells even knew who I was. So, of course I did the only thing an 18 year old kid could do when faced with that question in the presence of greatness. I promptly responded with a quivering, “Yes, sir, I do like coconut cream pie.” He told me that the concession stand had the best
coconut cream pie and he went and bought us each a piece.

We sat in the stands and ate that pie. Jerry Wells…with me, sitting in the stands at a horse show eating coconut cream pie. Life couldn’t possible get any better. Jerry was the most respectful man toward me and I have always used that as a barometer of how to treat other people. As I’ve
accomplished things in my life, which pale in comparison to his, I always remember fondly what Jerry did for me that day.

BW: I’m still going and I’m still trying to do a lot of things but it is very difficult. I don’t mind telling you. Very difficult. So with God’s help, I’ll make it.

TC: Personally, what has been your proudest moment?

BW: I have a lot of those, especially with Jerry because he did a lot of things that nobody else did. But it was probably him winning the first Exhibitor Award at the 1995 World Show because he was determined he was going to do that! He had to rope, and had to practice and he was older, like in his fifties.

TC: It’s hard to comprehend being so excelled in so many areas – halter, running horses, rope horses. You would never expect a guy to be competitive in the halter horses and then go win the World in roping and be so accomplished in the racing. Did Jerry just have a natural…

BW: He was just born for horses, I think. I really do. He loved to ride and mess with those race horses. Boston Mac, Kid Meyers, he was gung ho. When they came out with the Supreme Champion title in the late sixties, Jerry said “I’m going to be the first one to do that!” and he did with Kid Meyers. He moved the earth to do that.

TC: Was he always like that?

BW: Yes.

TC: How old were you when you met?

BW: I was 16 and he was 21. We never went to school together. I went to school with his brothers.

TC: How did you meet?

BW: He lived down the street from me. I was a twirler in the band and he came by and stopped because he says he wanted me to introduce him to one of my friends so that’s how we met.

TC: Was he shy?

BW: Oh yeah! He never had a whole lot to say. And he was very calm. He had the best manners of any man I ever met.

TC: Was it love at first site?

BW: Yeah! But I didn’t let him know that! (Laughs)

TC: Were you guys scared starting off that you wouldn’t make a living in the horses?

BW: Oh yeah! Always! But I never doubted Jerry a minute. I knew he could do it.

TC: It has been said that Jerry was the most influential person in the Quarter Horse industry with regard to how the horses look today. What was Jerry’s ideal horse?

BW: His ideal horse was the one Orin Mixer painted for AQHA. That was it. He was out there (in Amarillo) when they selected that. That was his ideal horse. Up until the very end he was still trying to get an outcross with that race blood. He came so close.[NPI]/Media/4/jpg/2009/3/TeNTe.jpg[/NPI]TC: Te N Te, Boston Mac. If it hadn’t been for Jerry we’d still be showing the bulldog horses. He tried to build a better horse. Nobody will ever have the knowledge like Jerry had. What was Jerry’s favorite horse?

BW: I don’t know, probably Te N Te and Merganser. He loved those horses. They were so good minded.

TC: What was it like when Merganser won the All-American Futurity?

BW: It was unbelievable. It was so close. But Jerry was sure he won. You see pictures from that day and it was incredible. We loved Merganser.

TC: What was it like to be with someone day in and day out who had such high standards?

BW: He wanted you to have them too and his two kids, Marty and Nancy, to have them as well. It had to be his way. Even something as simple as tying a horse up. He wanted it tied a certain way and if you didn’t tie it like that, you had to untie it and tie it the way he wanted.

TC: He had incredible attention to detail.

BW: Everything had to be like that. And now my daughter does my grand daughter like that! You don’t think they comprehend but I see it now and my grand daughter will say “Why do I have to do it that way?” and I’ll say “Because your Grandpa said so.”

TC: The first wave of really great horsemen were really humble. You can look around here (Betty’s home) – it’s too much to even fathom what this guy accomplished. But the biggest thing is y’all stayed married. There’s such a high divorce rate in this industry. Was staying together one of your biggest accomplishments?

BW: We had problems too! We had times where it was hard. Real hard. If you’re the wife of a trainer, you’ve got to have a certain mind set. You need unwavering faith. When you love that person you can make it through anything.

TC: Great words.

BW: It was tough. Don’t think we didn’t have times where we’d go “Oh no, are we gonna’ be able do this?” It was hard. Jerry was a go-getter every hour of every day.

TC: How could Jerry be so successful and still be a devoted husband and father like he was?

BW: I think it’s because he grew up without a father. His mother raised four boys. In all the things he ever did including showing horses and playing sports, his mother and father never saw him do either. Ever.

TC: What’s the one thing Jerry was the most proud of?

BW: His kids. Whenever Jerry was interviewed, that is what he would say.

TC: What were some of the stresses with the success?

BW: We had tight situations financially. We would wonder “How are we gonna make it?” You just have to believe. Jerry never showed his emotions too much. He always held them in. If he was real upset he didn’t want you knowing it at all. I could tell when he was but he didn’t want you to know it. He’d never let you worry about anything. He would be the one to worry about it. We had a lot of things in life, just like everybody, where it wasn’t all fun and roses. But none of it mattered after his health problems. That other stuff was minute. That’s what I try to tell my kids. I say as long as you have your health, your kids, your husband, everything else is minute. But it’s hard to convey that to people who haven’t been in that situation.

TC: It’s tough to make a living in this business. Was it just as tough for y’all?

BW: Oh let me tell you it was tough. We had tough times. That’s why he sold those ranches. Every time he sold one he was going to get smaller but that never happened. When we went back to Wayne (Oklahoma) it was supposed to be itty bitty and I walked out one day and said, “This doesn’t look anything like the plans!” (Laughs) He just couldn’t help it.

TC: So you never got to the point where you could say, “We’re through the hard times”?

BW: Naaah, it was horrible. When he got sick, if we hadn’t sold the ranch in Wayne, I don’t know what we would have done. I really don’t because he had been suspended and then the cancer and it was horrible. You still gotta pay the bills. In the end he wasn’t making any money. He didn’t have any horses.

TC: How’d you get by?

BW: We were getting by with what we made on our ranch when we sold it. I told myself, “I don’t care how much we go into debt, if this will keep him going, I don’t care what it costs.” But the horses were the only thing that kept him going, Troy. The only thing.

TC: Did he make any horse moves without you knowing about it?

BW: Oh my goodness! I can’t tell you how many. He never asked my advice. If he wanted to spend $100,000 for a horse he’d write a check and go down and pay for it right there. Most of the time it worked.

TC: Was he ever scared to write a check?

BW: Oh no. No. He would put up our ranch as collateral when he bought those really expensive horses.

TC: He did?

BW: Yeah.

TC: Whew, that would make me nervous!

BW: Yeah. He would always tell me “Don’t worry!” He would just write a check. He always kept one check in his wallet. I was looking in his wallet the other day for his Medicare card and it still had a check in it! He never wrote them down. He would wait until the check would come through and the bank would call and ask me “Betty, what are you going to do about this?” (Laughs)

TC: I know he had more horse deals work out than most people will ever dream of. Were there a lot that didn’t work out?

BW: He had lots of deals I’ll never know about. (Laughs) He trusted a lot of people. He’d give them money. They owed gobs of money on training and he’d let them come get their horse and they never paid him.

TC: Really?

BW: Oh yeah, never. And some of those bills were big! We could have nothing and he wouldn’t make those people pay their bills. If somebody owed him something, he never made them pay. That was just the type of person he was.

TC: What was his worst horse deal?

BW: (Laughs) There were a lot of those. He would mortgage everything he owned to buy a horse. He didn’t care how much it cost. He didn’t! He wasn’t afraid to stick his neck out there. He had so much confidence in himself and even when he didn’t, he would never let you know that.

TC: I never met a more confident man in my life, but yet he never had an ego.

BW: No, he didn’t. Never.

TC: You never had to put a check on his ego?

BW: No. Never. He was exactly like you saw all the time. That was what was so hard about him getting sick. Who would have ever thought? Not me. And he would say the same thing. I can see him sitting in that chair asking me “Can you believe that I have cancer?” I would tell him “No”. He just couldn’t believe it was happening to him and he never accepted it. He couldn’t believe it.

TC: When Jerry became sick, did it scare him?

BW: Oh YES! Oh my. That’s the first time I’ve seen him scared. That’s the first time he’d ever been scared that I’ve known of. He fought that eight years and he was determined that he was going to get back to the horses, which he did! He even got back to roping. After he had liver surgery in ‘04 he didn’t rope after that but he could have. But he was still in there doing those push ups and those sit ups after he had his liver out. He did that every day until 2007.

TC: I remember Jerry jogging. He was a fitness nut. Was he always like that?

BW: He jogged and he felt like roping calves kept him in shape. That’s what is so amazing. That’s why the doctors told him that he made it as long as he did. He never smoked, never drank and took great care of himself.

TC: Do you think the horses kept him kicking a little longer?

B W: I know so! We went down to that ranch every afternoon until two weeks before he died. Every afternoon we were down there. We’d go over to Royal Vista and we’d wait until they had fed and everyone was out of there because he had to use his walker and he didn’t want anyone to see him like that. He’d make sure there wasn’t anybody around when we got there and he’d take that walker down there and sit down in front of that stall and he would sit there for 30 minutes just looking at those horses. If he’d want to sit there an hour, he did. (Tearing up) Before that he’d sit over at Oklahoma Stud on that bench and sit there for hours all afternoon. Just be around the horses. He couldn’t do anything with them, but as long as he was around them, that’s all he cared about.

TC: Would he still coach you?

BW: Oh yeah! He’d say, “You don’t have enough shavings in those stalls. You gotta have more shavings.”

TC: He never lost his eye.

BW: Oh no.

TC: How tough was the suspension on Jerry?

BW: The first year he made it fine because he was still buying horses and helping people. But that second year, I’m going tell you something, it was the downfall of him. It was the most stressful time in our lives. It was horrible. It wasn’t but a short time after that… He was under such stress and that second year was almost unbearable for him.

TC: Did Jerry fight cancer with the same confidence that he had in every other part of his life?

BW: Oh yeah, he was going to beat it. And I felt like he would, too. They said that after they removed half of his liver that it would regenerate, but it didn’t. The last year and a half his kidney cancer moved to his liver and that’s what really got him. His liver just could not function any more. They put that drain in and that’s where he really went down hill. He’d say “I can’t do the horses.” The doctor would tell him he could but he had to be careful. And I’d ask the doctor “Careful? Do you know what he does?” They’d tell him not to lift hay. If you talk to Milt (Alderman) he’d tell you that he found Jerry in the hay barn several times out there messing with the hay. Jerry would tell him “Don’t tell Betty I’m out here lifting hay!” He just had to do it.

TC: You got to.

BW: He just had to. Until all that, he was really doing good.

TC: I saw him at the post office here in Purcell and I asked him how he was feeling and he said “I’m still pulling on ‘em and kicking ‘em in the belly!”

BW: And he was, until he had that drain put in. It was just too much.

TC: Was there a sense of relief when he got reinstated?

BW: Oh yeah. But leading up to that was horrible. He couldn’t do what he wanted to and he was so frustrated. He didn’t go to the World Show the first year, we just watched it on the computer. The second year he didn’t even watch it. He was not the spectator type.

TC: Did you feel you were losing him at that point?

BW: His spirit was not there any more. The second year, it was gone. With that and the cancer it was more than he could handle.

TC: When they reinstated him, how happy was he?

BW: You put yourself in that place. He was worried about how people would accept him again.

TC: It’s hard to imagine because he was the greatest.

BW: He was very worried because there were several people who were his friends that no longer were. He was really worried about that. He asked forgiveness and that’s all he could do. But it was very difficult on him. I think it was a detriment to his health if you want my opinion.

TC: Jerry always had a demeanor about him, like this tribute to the western heritage. I mean, he always dressed in a long sleeve shirt, boots and a hat. I know I never saw him with his shirt tail out. It seemed like it was always this sort of “respect to the cowboy way” type of thing. Did he maintain that to the end?

BW: When we first went down to M.D. Anderson, he wore his hat, his boots and his cowboy belt. But then it got to the point where he had so many tests that it got to where it was too much to take off so then he didn’t wear them any more. The people at the hospital didn’t know who he was. I sent his doctor at M.D Anderson the most recent Journal article about him. He called me yesterday and thanked me. He told me, “We read all those stories in there. We can’t believe Jerry did all of that.” They were like family to us but they didn’t realize who they had in there.

TC: Did Jerry ever show any moments of weakness? Even toward the end when things started to get really bad with his health and everything?

BW: I had never seen Jerry cry. Ever. He won the World in the Paints and he came out of the class and handed the people their horse and when they were gone he started bawling. And I remember looking at him thinking “Who are you?” I had never seen him cry. He said “That’s the last time I’ll ever show in that arena. You mark my words.” And I said “No, it’s not.” Then he just straightened up and walked off. I had never seen him do that before. Ever.

TC: When you look around here (Betty’s home), does it amaze you?

BW: Oh yeah! I’ve been looking at all this stuff and I’ve forgotten about so much of it. It is amazing. I haven’t slowed down enough to really realize it. It has really been sinking in. My goodness! I can’t believe what all he accomplished.

TC: Nobody will ever accomplish what he did. Betty, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. Do you enjoy talking about Jerry like you did with me today?

BW: I really do. When people come around, they don’t want to talk. That’s the worst thing anybody could do. But I don’t have many people who come up here very often. People used to call me a lot but they don’t have time to do that any more and I understand. It’s hard. But seeing you Troy, seeing the horse people, makes me feel good. It’s comforting. It means a lot.

Click here to view the slide show from Troy’s visit with Ms. Betty

To read more about Jerry Wells and see the outstanding job Betty has done of commemorating the legendary horseman, visit the Jerry Wells Quarter Horses website at